The catastrophic war in Syria grinds on towards its sixth year.
In Iraq, conflict refuses to subside, while in parts of both countries a proliferation of various armed groups, including ISIS, continue to inflict suffering on civilians. Meanwhile tensions between the regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, spiral upwards. At the root of all this, we are told, is a centuries-old enmity between Sunni and Shia Muslims – evidenced by the recent execution of a Shia cleric in Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia.
ISIS is often presented in the media as a manifestation of Sunni anger, notably following Shia domination of Iraq’s government since the US-led invasion. Some analysis has compared the conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Iraq with the 30 Years War between Protestants and Catholics and others have argued that the Arab Spring unleashed deep-rooted sectarian hatred that had been long suppressed by autocratic rulers.
Given this binary analysis and historical parallel, it is difficult for policy-makers to envision the region moving beyond ‘sectarian’ strife for at least a further three decades. Moreover, it leads to a very uncomfortable set of policy options that argue that supporting autocrats is the only way to bring about stability.
There is little doubt that sectarianism is a real issue in the region and has led to deep divisions and social cleavages in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere. Moreover, political groups and parties have exploited the sectarian issue to build support and advance their own narrow agendas.
However, a new report by global organisation Mercy Corps, which has worked in Iraq since 2003, finds that today’s sectarianism is more likely a symptom of factors, such as poor governance and injustice, rather than a root cause of conflict.
The research for ‘Investing in Iraq’s Peace’ carried out over a three year period included repeat annual surveys of 5,000 nationally representative respondents, and tracked opinions on a range of issues. These included perceptions of government legitimacy, opinions of service delivery, perceptions of political effectiveness, views on civil society, and citizens’ key concerns about their country. Tellingly, attitudes towards armed opposition groups, including ISIS, were also monitored.
If the popular and predominant narrative in Western media is to be believed, one would have expected the results from the surveys to show fairly constant support for the different groups – driven by sectarian identity. However, this was not the case.
While sectarianism is significant, it does not seem to be the primary driver of support for armed groups such as militias, and those designated as ‘terrorist’ organisations. Rather, it is the more prosaic issue of whether government was perceived as responsive and fair that determines that support.
The research shows a consistent fall in public satisfaction with central government, including a general perception that the government discriminated against their sectarian group – a feeling particularly strong among Sunnis. This is identified as a key factor enabling ISIS to expand its influence in parts of Iraq.
One of the most striking new findings comes from a ‘natural experiment’ that occurred during the survey period. In August 2014, the second annual survey period straddled the point at which Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki resigned, with approximately half that year’s respondents interviewed before the resignation and the other half after his resignation.
By comparing those answering before with those responding afterwards (a timeframe of around 2-4 weeks), the research found support for armed opposition groups among Sunnis declined from 49 to 26 percent. At the same time, there was an increased perception that services including water, jobs and security would improve.
There was no change in the government’s sectarian make-up (Maliki’s successor, Haider al Abadi, is also a Shia) but the perception that government would become more responsive seemed to be enough to reduce Sunni support for violence. This is interpreted as the result of a perception among Sunnis of Abadi as a more conciliatory leader, for example on issues such as protests and the arrest of political leaders.
Consequently the research indicates that when people’s perception of the government’s responsiveness and its approach to injustice improved, their support for armed groups appeared to go down, even when the sectarian make-up of the government remained the same. The report also provides evidence based on primary research that interventions, specifically the building of civil society at the local level to support governance, address injustice and focus on youth can help mitigate conflict and work towards reducing tensions. In fact, the research shows that civil society is seen as valuable by Iraqis – those saying it made a difference to their lives increased from 39 percent in 2013 to 50 percent in 2015.
These findings are from Iraq, but they may offer hope more broadly. Instead of an unbridgeable sectarian divide, conflict may be reduced if governance is improved. Investment in civil society can reduce tensions and provide an outlet for frustrations that might otherwise turn violent – particularly among young people.
Despite the seemingly endless headlines of conflict and sectarian division, we, and importantly, donor governments, should not lose hope that practical solutions exist to reducing conflict in the Middle East.
By Simon O’Connell, Mercy Corps Europe Executive Director and Dr Neil Quilliam, Head of Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Chatham House