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Syria Deeply Asks: Has Syria’s Conflict Sparked a Regional Sunni-Shiite War?

Sectarian tension is on the rise in Syria and its neighboring countries, fueled by a civil war that has hardened religious lines – most prominently, a violent Sunni-Shiite divide. .

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

In a reflection of that dynamic, Syria’s war has sparked sporadic violence in Lebanon: on June 18, militant groups from both sides clashed in the Lebanese port city of Sidon, leaving two dead. Neighborhood clashes between Alawites and Sunnis in Tripoli, the northern city where thousands of Syrians have sought refuge, have become increasingly violent. And last week, Sunni Syrian rebels claimed responsibility for a bombing in the Beirut suburb of Dahieh — a Hezbollah stronghold. 

That led us to ask: has Syria’s conflict sparked a regional Sunni-Shiite war?

Riad Kahwaji, Chief Executive of the Dubai-based think tank INEGMA

It is not like a war that broke out from simmering tension between two sides and just one morning blew up.

It is a result, an intentional act, by political forces that are seeing their time running out and about to be deposed, and have decided to incite the sectarian side as a way to save themselves. I’m talking about the regime in Syria and also about the practice adopted by the Iranian regime to expand its influence in the Arab world.

On the one side, Iran has been, for years, prompting the slogan of ‘safeguarding Shi’a tribes’ and helping Shi’a minorities, and with the regime in Syria (which is an ally of Iran) under threat, the regime went to sectarian means to galvanize the Alawites behind them, and then [to] have Iran and forces from Lebanon in the scene. All of these together have led to the current sectarian tension and wars we have in Syria, and even in Iraq and over into Lebanon. You add to this what we see in Bahrain, what we see in Yemen, and in both those cases we see the footprints of Iran.

So in short, yes, there is today this sectarian Sunni-Shia rise in tension, with the threat of an all-out war. But it is not as a result of natural growth — it’s more intentional incitement by the regimes in Syrian and Iran that is now beginning to threaten the whole region. And it’s been made possible with the international community and Arab world not intervening with the needed intensity and in a timely manner.

They should have intervened immediately; we should have seen a repeat of the Libya scenario. Syria is an open ground inviting all factions, from Pakistan, Saudi, North Africa, all of them are flooding into Syria. Nobody can stop them. They’re coming in with huge access to caches from the Syrian Army depots. And you have a Syrian population impoverished and feeling abandoned by the international community, and more frustrated, and thus more radicalized. Hence you have an area that’s becoming more friendly to islamist forces, as a result of abandonment. The international community will find itself with a new Somalia or Afghanistan in Syria, which borders Israel.

If we have more foreign intervention in an organized, positive manner, we will see a reduction in sectarian tension in Syria. But if the West and the Arab world continue to beat around the bush and delay, no, we’re going to see a huge surge of Islamist forces. We’re going to see a huge surge in Syrians joining Islamists, and the war becoming fully Sunni-Shia. It would be a huge blow inside Iran, and with Lebanon coming under a tremendous strain of a Sunni-Shia war beckoning there as well. We are at a turning point right now — either the international community comes in, in a timely forceful way, to put and end to this situation — or the worst is going to happen.

And at the end of the day, it’s going to be a game of numbers, in terms of how many fighters and weapons you’re going to have. Once Sunnis get their hands on better weapons, you’re going to start seeing major massacres in the Alawite areas. But right now, in the meantime, we’re seeing daily massacres in the Sunni areas, which will only worsen the situation and lead more Sunnis to radicalize. You will see the theater of the Syrian war expand to include Iraq and possibly Lebanon.

Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, says there is an “obvious” Sunni-Shi’a tension pervading the region:

Obviously there is Sunni-Shia conflict. It’s partly the domestic politics of these countries, in which different groups vie for power. In Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, there is a domestic scramble for power that is normal after dictatorships disappear, and Sunnis, Shia and Alawites are main players in that.

Then there is a geo-strategic aspect. The Saudi-Iranian rivalry, which is big, is the backdrop that fields a lot of this conflict. Turkey is also somewhat lined up along with the Sunnis, so [this all] has a big regional aspect. Internationally you might even add that the Sunni powers are friends with the U.S. and Western countries, while Russia is closer to Iran and Shia groups.

A big part of [the Syrian conflict] has become a sectarian war, but it would be a simplification to say it’s exclusively that. Part of the conflict is still people who were just protesting and were not interested in sectarian war, and then there are groups like the Kurds. It’s evolved mainly because the regime in the last few months has gone on the offensive, they’ve consolidated and made gains. Hezbollah came out openly fighting in Syria [allied with the regime], which gave it a clearer sectarian dimension and added to the sectarian fuel.

The regime is the stronger player — it has the army, the air force, artillery and is supported by Hezbollah, which is major player. So you’d have to say they have a stronger position and the rebels are weaker. Having said that, that doesn’t mean the regime is going to win or win back territory it’s lost, but it does mean they have an upper hand. It’s looking more like it will be a long drawn-out stalemate. The Alawites have calls for concern, there’s ferocious hostility among them in the opposition.

It has spilled over already to Northern Iraq and to Lebanon, where things are worse in the last six months. Lebanon is at risk of further incidents and instability, but I think overall it will not move into any major conflict.

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