Sectarian Tension in Lebanon and Iraq

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Middle East In Focus

The conflict in Syrian continues to largely take the form of a sectarian struggle, with the Sunni majority pitted against Assad’s Alawite regime and other religious minorities that have cast their lot with the government.  Across the border this contest is galvanizing sectarian competition in Lebanon, with Sunnis contemplating the possibility of playing a larger role in their country. With the Shiite-backed Hezbollah siding with Assad, many of the Sunni faithful in Lebanon have openly supported the Syrian rebels. Moreover, many expect that in a post-Assad Syria dominated by Sunnis, coreligionists in Lebanon will take heart and demand a greater role and more power.

For Al Hayat’s Abdullah Iskandar, the newly amplified voice of the Sunnis in Lebanon represents a break from precedent and indicates the possibility of a more acute and militarized Sunni identity: “The crisis between the Future Movement, the largest political formation for Sunnis in Lebanon, and the country’s Higher Islamic Council may well represent much more than a mere dispute…there are indications that such a dispute finds its roots in the role played by Sunnis in Lebanon and the role they might have the ambition to play….The outcome of this today is that the Sunnis find themselves between the Future Movement, which is suffering from a challenge to its exclusive leadership for numerous reasons, and the calls of fundamentalists, whose influence is growing and who are raising slogans that are both political and violent. This represents a rupture with the settlement-seeking heritage of the Sunnis and a turn towards confessional mobilization.”

But potential gains for the Sunnis might not come without adverse consequences. As The Daily Star’s Michael Young points out: “From a Lebanese perspective, the greatest danger will come once the battle in Syria is over. Lebanese Sunnis will feel triumphant, and legitimately so, after decades when they were regarded as a threat by the Assad regime. Their sense of renewed empowerment, in parallel with that of their brethren in Syria, could make them overconfident. This in turn could bring them into confrontation with an increasingly fearful but still militarily potent Lebanese Shiite community, led by Hezbollah. Managing this phase properly will require mechanisms of compromise and dialogue to avert the worst.”

Meanwhile, there are ongoing disagreements about the fate of Hezbollah’s right to maintain control over its own weapons. According to an Asharq Alawsat report by Nazeer Rida, national dialogue efforts have yet to produce any tangible results: “The March 14 Alliance has renewed its refusal to participate in the national dialogue called for by Lebanese President Michel Suleiman…describing this as ‘the dialogue of the deaf’ and dismissing it as a ‘waste of time.’…Lebanese Forces party Secretary-General Dr. Samir Geagea has publicly announced his opposition to the proposed national dialogue, asserting that engaging in national dialogue with Hezbollah to resolve the issue of its arsenal would be futile….Hezbollah is insisting that its weapons should remain under its own authority, in coordination with the Lebanese army, whilst the March 14 Alliance is demanding that all arms should be under the jurisdiction of the state.”

But Lebanon is not the only country debating whether the national government should have complete control over its armed forces. In Iraq, where sectarian violence claimed thousands of lives in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion in 2003, there have been serious disagreements about the future of the Kurdish armed militias (peshmerga) as well as the larger question of the Kurdish regional government’s relationship with the central government in Baghdad.

And as the Turkish daily Sabah recently noted, referencing a recent deadly clash between central government forces and the peshmerga, “The tension between the central Iraqi government and the Kurdish administration has turned into outright conflict. While the central government has been deploying soldiers to the surroundings of cities highly inhabited by the Kurdish population, the news of clashes have come in from Tikrit. Troops from Dicle have been deployed by the Maliki administration in Tikrit and are engaging in conflict with the Peshmerga stationed in the region by KRG President Massoud Barzani. Twelve Iraqi soldiers and one civilian were killed in the conflict. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani arrived in Erbil yesterday in order to better evaluate the situation.”

The daily Azzaman also reported this week that the Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani rejected any attempts on the part of Maliki’s government in Baghdad to exert authority over ‘disputed areas’: “Barzani said Prime Minister Noori al-Maliki was wrong to think that the Kurds would allow government troops in areas currently under the control of his own armed militias….Barzani even went further in his persistence on previous stands, saying that he would not only resist the presence only the national army in areas under his control but would also want to see some of latest army formations disbanded. The remarks are the harshest by Barzani on what is ostensibly an ally in the government as the Kurds and Arab Shiites under Maliki’s government have traditionally being working together in the parliament.’”

As Fatih Abdulsalam suggests, disputes between the Kurds and Baghdad are never too far removed from issues of oil and wealth distribution, and the question of Kirkuk is at the centre of those considerations. Specifically on the issue of Kirkuk, Abdulsalam recommends an internal solution, although he doesn’t believe that is likely to happen: “Kirkuk does not look to be an Iraqi issue. There are regional and probably international hands in the current crisis between Baghdad and Arbil, the seat of the Kurdish regional government. The solution to the issue of Kirkuk should be internal. Therefore, it is important for the sides to talk and arrive at a solution without regional or international interference, a target many now see as a far-fetched dream.”

The Kurds are not the only ones causing a headache for Prime Minister Maliki. In a recent article on Asharq Alawsat, Hamza Mustafa writes that “Sadrist trend leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, has re-launched his verbal attacks on Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, against the backdrop of al-Maliki’s deteriorating relationship with the Kurdistan Alliance….Al-Sadr accused the Iraqi prime minister of ‘utilizing military and security pressures to remain in power and in the post of prime minister’….For his part, Kurdistan Alliance MP Hassan Jihad informed Asharq Al-Awsat that ‘the latest crisis has confirmed that the Kurds are not alone, and that the first party to stand with them — against what al-Maliki wanted and hoped — is the National Alliance, which he [al-Maliki] himself is a member of. This is something that confirms the correctness of our view and vision.’”

Yet, despite the vitriol and animosity between the various factions that — at least on paper—  are supposed to be part of the governing majority, Haider Najem suggests that Maliki and some of his supporters believe that both the Kurds and the Sadrists will ultimately side with Maliki in his struggle against Allawi: “Hints by Maliki and his supporters in Parliament that they will seek a majority government have become more frequent, even as news reports say that the president of the Kurdistan region, Massoud Barzani, has been leading a movement alongside Allawi and others to thwart Maliki’s efforts to create such a government….Supporters of a majority government have been throwing their weight around since they have caught wind that members of Allawi’s parliamentary coalition would not hesitate to join a majority government should one be formed, in order to avoid losing the positions they held during the past two years.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at

  • 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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