The session was part of the ICT's 16th World Summit on Counter-Terrorism: "Unpuzzling Terrorism". Sectarianism, Shia versus Sunni agendas and intra-Shia friction, has played a key role in determining alignments during conflicts in the Middle East in the past and continues to do so today. The influence of such factors is evident when looking at factions and State supporters within both the Syria and Iraq conflicts. When analyzing the role of any player within the Syrian conflict, sectarianism is at the forefront. Although Iran continues to support Syrian forces, it is beginning to feel domestic pressure to focus on issues within Iran itself. Sectarianism, not geopolitics, will fuel the ongoing conflicts, which will only make reconciliation more difficult when hostilities finally conclude.
Chair: Dr. Ely Karmon, Senior Research Scholar, ICT, IDC Herzliya, Israel
Dr. Dima Adamsky, Research Fellow, ICT; Assistant Professor & Head, BA Honors Track in Strategy and Decision Making, Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy & Strategy, IDC Herzliya, Israel
Prof. Ofra Bengio, Senior Research Fellow & Head of Kurdish Studies Program, Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Tel-Aviv University, Israel
Dr. Nir Boms, Research Fellow, ICT, IDC Herzliya & Research Fellow, Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Tel-Aviv University, Israel
Dr. Dalia Dassa Kaye, Director, Center for Middle East Public Policy, RAND Corporation, United States of America
Dr. Matthew Levitt, Fromer-Wexler Fellow & Director, Stein Program on Counter-Terrorism and Intelligence, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy & Member of the Professional Advisory Board, ICT, IDC Herzliya, United States of America
His Excellency Ambassador Dimitar Mihaylov, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Bulgaria to the State of Israel
Dr. Matthew Levitt spoke on the impact of the war in Syria and Iraq on Hezbollah. He introduced his presentation by pointing to the problems of returning foreign fighters and the humanitarian impact of an uneducated generation that will continue bringing instability to the Middle East. He emphasized that these consequences are often seen as a mainly Western problem, although it also affects the countries in the region. Dr. Levitt sees the sectarian nature of the conflict as another problem that will remain even if ISIS will be defeated eventually. Hezbollah, as the leading Shia force in the region, has become a strong regional power. Not only did its relationship to Iran strengthen, it also changed its agenda of being a purely anti-Israeli organization. Many of its actions today do not have any connection to Israel, but are rather caused by Hezbollah’s goal of keeping Syria as a transit country to Iran. Hezbollah’s primary interest in the Gulf, rather than in Israel, becomes also clear when looking at the numbers and significance of the fighters deployed in the conflict area. Dr. Levitt concludes his presentation by stating that Hezbollah’s greatest enemy today are Sunni rebels, which shows once again the sectarian nature of the conflict that will remain even after the end of the conflict.
Dr. Kaye’s presentation focused on Iran. Despite the conventional narrative of a rising Iranian power, Dr. Kaye argues that Iran faces a lot of challenges today. First of all, Iran is and remains a weak power due especially to economic pressures. Frustrated by the high rate of unemployment and the bad economic conditions, the Iranian society started to express this frustration by protesting against the Iranian government. They criticize the focus on Syria, while domestic problems are being ignored. Dr. Kaye argues that Iran is not only lacking popular support at home, but also loosing its legitimacy in the region due to its continuing support for the Assad regime. Hence, Iran has experienced a lot of resistance regarding its influence in the region. Supportive Sunni groups such as Hamas moved away from Iran. This once again shows the sectarian nature of the conflict in Syria and will pose serious challenges to the Shia regime in the future. Dr. Kaye claims that in Iraq, Iran will have to deal with an intra-Shia conflict. However, due to the fact that the United States shares the goal of expelling ISIS from Iraq, a good outcome for the Iranian regime is more likely in Iraq than in Syria.
Dr. Boms provided an overview of Israel’s position and attitude towards the conflict in Syria. While Israel’s leaders did not expect the conflict to last very long and to spill over, they had a clear non-intervention policy at the beginning. It took years until Israel felt like the potential threat posed by the conflict in its neighboring state was too high to be ignored. In May 2016 the IDF established a special liaison to deal with Syrian conflict, fearing a spill over along the Golan border, which is considered to be Israel’s safest border.
His Excellency Ambassador Dr. Mihaylov focused on the conflict inside the Shia fraction in Syria, especially with the Alawites. He noted that instead of supporting Iran and Hezbollah, this group feels more related to Russia in ideological terms. Fearing that Iran or Hezbollah would want to convert them into their understanding of Shia Islam, they constitute another group that will continue opposing these forces in the conflict.
Prof. Bengio gave an overview of the Kurds in the region as well as their involvement in the conflict, which allowed the workshop to cover all players involved in the conflict. Prof. Bengio claimed that the Kurds serve as proxies in three different settings. First, they served as a proxy for a non-state Ottoman player, fighting against Armenians and Russians. Secondly, they served as a proxy for neighboring countries; in the conflict between Iran and Iraq they served as a proxy for Iran. The Kurds have also served as a proxy for Syria in both Turkey and Iraq. Lastly, the Kurds serve as a proxy for an international power, as can be seen in the fight against ISIS. Prof. Bengio argues that the Kurds finally reached international recognition through their involvement in the conflict. This recognition, she claimed, will allow the Kurds to essentially establish an independent state in Iraq. Prof. Bengio stated that a Kurdish state in Syria is less likely, as Russia is actively working against the formation of such a state.
The drivers of Russia’s intervention and its interests in the region were presented by Dr. Adamsky. He noted that the Russian intervention in Syria is driven by five main factors. First, is the issue of jihadists travelling from Russia to Syria and back. Second, Adamsky argues, the intervention serves as an attempt to save their ally in Syria. Third, Russian interference in Syria is an effort to divert international attention away from Ukraine. Fourth, such intervention enhances Russia’s role in the region. Lastly, it enables acquiring an international status as an indispensable actor. In the second part of his presentation Dr. Adamsky presented both the success and negative trends, as seen through Moscow’s eyes, in Syria.
Dr. Karmon gave a short overview of Turkey’s involvement in the conflict and pointed to its the future problems: What to do with the Kurds in Syria and inside Turkey? Where will the new relationship with Russia go and what will happen with its relations with the United States? Dr. Karmon further assumes that in the nearer future Turkey will have to deal with ISIS who will also start threatening the Turkish government.
Two interesting points were raised during the discussion. The first one refers again to Iran. Instead of destroying Iran, Dr. Kaye assumes that the U.S. will try to keep it and to find ways to work with the Iranians since a vacuum in the region would be the worst scenario for the West.
Dr. Levitt closed the session by emphasizing once again that people today are not joining the conflict in Syria because of geopolitical reasons, as is often argued, but due to sectarianism, which is worse as all participants concluded unanimously.