Rifts among the Radicals

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Mark N. Katz

Senior Fellow

If serious disputes arose between Islamic revolutionary actors, America and others might be able to exploit them. But will such serious disputes arise? Some in the United States and elsewhere — especially those who engage in “worst case” analysis believe that this possibility is simply too good to be true and that it would be naïve to expect it. But serious rifts between Islamic radicals are not just something that might possibly occur in the future. They have occurred in the past, are occurring now, and are likely to continue occurring.

The most serious ongoing disputes between Islamic radical actors are those between Sunnis and Shias. Radical Sunnis in particular are virulently opposed to Shiism, which they view as a form of apostasy. Radical Sunni and radical Shia movements in Iraq did not do anything to halt the sectarian conflict there; indeed, they did much to egg it on. While less publicized, radical Sunni groups have made several violent attacks against the Shia-dominated government inside Iran over the past few years. In Lebanon, radical Sunni groups have felt threatened by the rising power and influence of the radical Shia movement Hezbollah. In addition, al-Qaeda has openly expressed its dislike of Hezbollah. In Yemen, the Shia rebels in the north of the country — the Houthis — are at odds with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and other Yemeni Sunnis. And in Pakistan, radical Sunnis have perpetrated numerous attacks on the minority Shia community there.

The Sunni-Shia rift, though, is not the only division within the Islamic radical community. The leadership of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (a Sunni movement) has been highly critical of al-Qaeda for being so violent. Al-Qaeda, for its part, has been critical of Hamas, which is an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Tensions also exist between Iraqi Shia politicians and religious leaders, on the one hand, and Iran, on the other.

That serious divisions exist between Islamic revolutionary actors should not be regarded as unusual or exceptional. Indeed, its occurrence is quite similar to the divisions that plagued both Arab nationalists and Marxist-Leninists in the past.

While it was the goal of the Arab nationalists to unite the Arab world into a large single country, one of the most serious obstacles was the fact that Arab nationalist leaders and regimes in different countries often fiercely opposed each other. Upon seizing power in Syria in 1958, the Baath party there promptly entered into a union with Nasser’s Egypt called the United Arab Republic. In 1961, though, the Baath Party pulled Syria out of the UAR amid much acrimony and recrimination. The Arab-nationalist Free Officers who seized power in Iraq in 1958 fell out with Nasser almost immediately. The Iraqi branch of the Baath party eventually seized power in Baghdad. But the Iraqi Baath regime and the Syrian Baath regime were constantly at odds with each other. Thus, although Arab-nationalist regimes arose in seven Arab countries (Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Algeria, North Yemen, Sudan and Libya), the internecine rivalry that arose among them — especially among the three most powerful (Egypt, Syria and Iraq) — was an important factor preventing them from achieving their common goal of uniting the Arab world.

Between the end of World War II and the collapse of communism, there were several serious rifts among Marxist-Leninist actors. The most famous of these was the Sino-Soviet split. But others also developed, including those between the USSR and Yugoslavia, between Yugoslavia and Albania, between the USSR and Albania, and between Vietnam and Khmer Rouge-ruled Cambodia. After the Sino-Soviet rift, communist parties in many countries split into pro-Moscow and pro-Beijing branches. In addition to being anti-Soviet, the communist regime in Albania became anti-Chinese in 1979. The Peruvian Marxist movement, Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), was also both anti-Soviet and anti-Chinese.

Furthermore, in both the Marxist-Leninist and Arab-nationalist cases, some regimes that shared the same or a similar anti-Western revolutionary ideology became so hostile toward each other that this contributed to a rapprochement between more than one revolutionary regime and the United States. In other words, revolutionary regimes came to see a fellow revolutionary regime as more of a threat than the previously reviled United States. Examples include (1) Yugoslavia under Tito, who turned to the West for support after falling out with Stalin in the late 1940s; (2) China under Mao, who developed cooperative relations with the United States in the early 1970s after the Sino-Soviet rift had intensified to the point of conflict along their common border in the late 1960s; and (3) Egypt under Sadat, who preferred cooperation with the United States and even Israel to continued solidarity with Arab-nationalist (and other Arab) regimes.

Could something like this happen with Islamic revolutionary actors? Could a rift between two of them grow so intense that one of them would turn to the once-hated United States or some other non-Muslim power for support against the other? Though not well known in the West, there has already been one instance of this scenario occurring relatively recently in Afghanistan. One of the most effective fighters resisting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s was the Tajik Islamic warrior Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was based in the Panjshir Valley. After Soviet forces withdrew in 1988-89 and the Marxist regime it left behind fell in 1992, Massoud became the defense minister in the newly declared Islamic State of Afghanistan. But after this regime (in which non-Pushtun northerners predominated) was ousted from the capital by the Taliban (dominated by Pushtuns) in 1996, Massoud returned to the Panjshir Valley to resist the Taliban from there. The fact that they had fought against each other in the 1980s proved to be no obstacle to Moscow’s providing arms, or to Massoud’s accepting them, from the mid-1990s until his assassination two days before 9/11.

There was also one occasion in which this might have happened. War almost broke out between Iran and the Taliban regime in 1998 after nine Iranian diplomats in Afghanistan were seized and executed either by the Taliban or groups linked to them. As tensions rose, Tehran reportedly deployed 250,000 soldiers along the Iranian border with Afghanistan. Fighting, however, did not occur on this occasion. But if war between them had erupted, and especially if it had been prolonged, either Tehran or the Taliban might have put aside hostility toward the West long enough to accept Western military assistance — especially if it were losing. But since this scenario did not arise, it is impossible to determine whether either Tehran or the Taliban would have taken this step.

Whether hostility between Islamic radicals led — or might have led — to a rapprochement between one or more such actors and a previously reviled status quo power in the past, of course, is far less important than an assessment of the possibility that something like this could occur now. At present, it must be said, no Islamic revolutionary government or opposition movement appears likely to ally with the United States or any other non-Muslim power against a rival Islamic revolutionary actor. Neither Iran, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, nor any other such actor appears willing to improve relations with Washington or amenable to any American overtures (should they be forthcoming).

But, as previous experience suggests, rapprochements between status quo powers and revolutionary actors cannot be ruled out. They have happened in the past, and could again. Previous experience also suggests, though, that rifts among revolutionary actors may have to exist for years before one of them is willing to ally with a status quo power against the other. The Sino-Soviet rift began in the 1950s, but it was not until the early 1970s that a Sino-American rapprochement began. Similarly, Egypt had poor relations with Arab-nationalist regimes in Iraq (starting in 1958) and Syria (starting in 1961) long before Cairo developed friendly relations first with the United States and then with Israel in the 1970s.

Further, the passage of time alone is usually not sufficient to bring about a rapprochement between a revolutionary regime and a status quo power. Something else may have to occur that encourages this development. A leadership change in a revolutionary regime can facilitate rapprochement. The Egyptian-American rapprochement, for example, occurred after Sadat had replaced Nasser. This, however, may not be necessary: previously anti-American revolutionary leaders such as Mao and Qadhafi were still in power when China and Libya began rapprochements with the United States.

Another circumstance can facilitate a rapprochement between a revolutionary regime and a status quo power: the former may come to see another revolutionary actor as more of a threat than the status quo power it previously identified as the principal enemy. The growing Soviet and Chinese perceptions of each other as a more serious threat than the United States helped motivate both Moscow and Beijing to pursue rapprochement with Washington in the early 1970s. What allowed such a perception to arise, of course, was the underlying perception, not just in Moscow and Beijing, but more generally (including in the United States) that American power was declining as a result of “imperial overstretch” (as Paul Kennedy phrased it).

This is the situation that exists now. There is, of course, no guarantee that divisions among Islamic revolutionary actors will emerge or become exacerbated as a result of the increased perception that American power is declining. But, given the uncompromising nature of Islamic revolutionary leaders (indeed, non-democratic ones generally), this could well happen. It hardly seems coincidental that, after the initiation of the American withdrawal from Iraq and President Obama’s announcement that the United States would begin withdrawing from Afghanistan in mid-2011, the virulently anti-American leader of AQAP, Anwar al-Awlaki, issued a warning to Sunni Arabs about the spread of Iranian influence into the Arabian Peninsula (which Max Fisher reported on in The Atlantic in November 2010). Indeed, Iran could not be seen as a threat by al-Awlaki unless he believed that American power in the region is on the decline.

The exacerbation of the al-Qaeda-Iran rift, or of others between Islamic revolutionary actors, will not necessarily lead to one or another of them turning to the United States for help against the other — especially in the near term. But if any Islamic revolutionary actor comes to fear that its very survival is threatened by a rival, it could well happen. If and when it does, this is an opportunity that the United States and its allies should be prepared to take advantage of.

Mark N. Katz is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Middle East Policy Council and a Professor of Government at George Mason University. Links to many of his publications can be found on his website: www.marknkatz.com

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  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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