What’s the real fight in the Middle East today? Is it just sectarian (Sunnis versus Shiites) and national (Israelis versus Palestinians and Arabs versus Persians)? Or is it something deeper? I was discussing this core question with Nader Mousavizadeh, a former senior United Nations official and the co-founder of Macro Advisory Partners, a geopolitical advisory firm, and he offered another framework: “The real struggle in the region,” he said, “is between arsonists and firefighters.”
There is a lot of truth in that. The sectarian and nationalist fires you see burning around the Middle East are not as natural and inevitable as you may think.
“These are deliberate acts of arson,” argues Mousavizadeh, “set by different leaders to advance their narrow and shortsighted political, economic and security objectives.” In the West, he warns, “a mix of fatigue and fatalism is in danger of creating a narrative of irreversible Sunni-Shia conflict. This is historically false and releases the region’s leaders from their responsibility to wield power in a legitimate and accountable way.”
To be sure, he added, the sectarian divides are real, but it is “not inevitable” that the region erupt in sectarian conflagration. It takes arsonists to really get these sectarian fires blazing, and, “unless they set them and fan them and give them fuel,” they will more often than not die out.
How so? Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, is an arsonist. When confronted with a nonviolent, grass-roots protest against his tyrannical rule, he opened fire on the demonstrators, hoping that would provoke Syria’s Sunni majority to respond with violence against his Alawite/Shiite minority regime. It worked, and now Assad presents himself as the defender of a secular Syria against Sunni fanatics.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is an arsonist. The minute America left Iraq, he deliberately arrested Sunni leaders, deprived them of budgets and stopped paying the Sunni tribesmen who rose up against al-Qaida. When this eventually triggered a Sunni response, Maliki ran in the last election as the defender of the Shiite majority against Sunni “terrorists.” It worked.
Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt launched a violent crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood, killing, wounding and arresting many hundreds, and then he ran for president as the defender of Egypt against Muslim Brotherhood “terrorists.”
The Palestinian extremists who recently kidnapped three Israeli youths were arsonists, aiming to blow up any hope of restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and to embarrass Palestinian moderates. But they had help. Radical Jewish settler supporters in the Israeli Cabinet, like Naftali Bennett and housing minister Uri Ariel, are arsonists. Ariel deliberately announced plans to build 700 new housing units for Jews in Arab East Jerusalem — timed to torpedo Secretary of State John Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy. And they did.
There are firefighters in all these places — people like Tzipi Livni and Shimon Peres in Israel, former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Mohammad Javad Zarif in Iran and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani in Iraq — but they are now overwhelmed by the passions set loose by the arsonists.
It is hard for people who have not lived in the Arab world to appreciate that Shiites and Sunnis in places like Iraq, Lebanon or Bahrain often intermarry. Those that do are jokingly called “Sushi.” Sectarian massacres are not the norm. A poll just released by Zogby Research Services, conducted in seven Arab countries, found that “strong majorities in every country favor U.S. policies that support a negotiated solution to the conflict (in Syria), coupled with more support for Syrian refugees. Majorities in all countries oppose any form of U.S. military engagement” or arming of opposition groups.
I recently gave the commencement address at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, in Kurdistan. Its student body is 70 percent Kurdish, and the rest are mostly Shiites and Sunnis from across Iraq. With the right leadership, people in the region can and do get along. It is why for all the talk of breaking Iraq into three parts, it is has never been the preferred choice of most Iraqis.
As one of my Kurdish hosts remarked to me, “The Shiites of Basra still long for the famous yogurt of Irbil,” Kurdistan’s largest city. “When Ramadan comes, the Kurds will feel deprived if they cannot break the daily fast with the famous dates of Basra.” And Kurds have come to enjoy “shisha,” smoking water pipes, which are a tradition they got from the Arabs. There are more ties that bind than don’t. You actually have to work at burning them up.
To be sure, harmony between different sects requires order, but it does not have to be iron-fisted. Iraqis just last April held fair elections on their own. They can do it. These societies need to go from being governed by iron fists “to iron institutions that are legitimate, inclusive and accountable, and strong enough to hold the frame of society together,” argued Mousavizadeh.
That requires the right leadership. “So when the region’s leaders come to Washington to plead for engagement and intervention, ask for money or ask for arms,” he added, “Let them first answer the question: Are you an arsonist or are you a firefighter?”