The Muslim Middle East is increasingly divided along sectarian and ideological lines. In addition to the violent conflicts that make the nightly news, two "cold wars" are simmering in the region: one between Sunni and Shiite-dominated regimes, and another that pits Sunni states against each other. The two cold wars also impact the region's sole non-Muslim-majority state, Israel, and will influence how the ISIS threat might be addressed.
Saudi Arabia, the center of Sunni Islam, and Iran, a Shiite theocracy, are the opposing lead powers in the "Sunni-Shia Cold War." It's a sectarian cold war that has turned hot in places - most notably Syria. But Sunni-Shiite tensions reach beyond Syria, into Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, and even Saudi Arabia with its repressed Shiite minority. Sunni fears of a "Shiite Crescent" stretching across the region have led the Saudis to take a strong stand against Iran, trying to check its power. Ordinary Sunnis and Shiites don't necessarily buy into this rigid us-versus-them dichotomy, but the regimes' leaders and hard core supporters do.
The Sunni Muslim states are divided into opposing camps in a second, "Sunni Cold War." Here, the divide looks a bit different, with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan on one side opposing radical Sunni Islamist movements, and Qatar and Turkey on the other side offering support to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, Islamist fighters in Syria and Libya, and Hamas in Gaza.
Turkey's position on the Islamist side of the Sunni Cold War fits with the agenda of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The increasingly authoritarian Erdogan is pursuing twin goals of restoring Turkey's Great Power status from its Ottoman Empire days and transforming the nation into a leader of the Sunni world's Islamist camp.
That Saudi Arabia is on the "anti-Islamist" side is ironic, since the Saudis have used their vast oil revenue to fund the spread of their puritanical, Wahhabi strain of Sunni Islam throughout the Muslim world since the 1970s - teachings that have provided a theological foundation for many violent jihadist and terrorist groups. But this "petro-Islam" has become Saudi Arabia's Frankenstein's monster, as many jihadists advocate the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy.
One factor that could bridge both the Sunni-Shia and intra-Sunni divides is the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Its brutality, its rejection of sovereign borders, and its threat to all regimes in the region may turn it into a common enemy. Iran supports Shiites resisting ISIS in Iraq. The UAE and Qatar, which support opposite sides in Libya's civil war, are participating in U.S.-led military action against ISIS. Turkey, a NATO member, has yet to join President Obama's ant-ISIS coalition, but with tens of thousands of Kurdish refugees fleeing ISIS into Turkey, pressure is mounting to do so.
The Middle East's two cold wars directly impact Israel. The Sunni-Shia divide reminds us that Israel isn't the only country that views Iran as a threat. Saudi Arabia does too. The second, intra-Sunni cold war also affects Israel. There was little-to-no sympathy for the Sunni Islamist group Hamas coming out of the major Arab capitals during the recent Gaza war. The most vocal Sunni critic of Israel wasn't even an Arab state. It was Turkey.
Threats can be turned into opportunities. The divisions in the Muslim Middle East present Israel with opportunities to forge informal alliances with Arab states to contain common threats: Iran, and Sunni jihadists. But no Arab regime will openly side with Israel so long as the Palestinian issue remains a festering sore. The Middle East's two "cold wars" provide yet another incentive to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.