Damaged buildings are seen during battles between the rebels and the Syrian government forces in Aleppo, Syria, last week.
The expression “Arab Spring” was initially used to describe what appeared to be popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria.
It was derived from what was called the Prague Spring — the Czechoslovakian democracy movement that emerged in the spring of 1968 and was crushed by Russian tanks in August of that same year.
But “we should bury that term,” according to Robert Malley, who was once a senior Mideast adviser to President Bill Clinton and is now a top analyst for the International Crisis Group. Malley believes those upheavals, whatever their initial inspirations, have now morphed into a regional sectarian struggle between Sunni and Shiite Muslims that threatens to envelop the entire Middle East — a conflict that also has the potential to drag in the United States, Russia and the European Union.
These days the focus for this Islamic feud is Syria. The civil war there did not begin as a sectarian struggle although the Assad regime and most of its supporters are Alawites — an off-shoot of Shiism — and most of the rebels are Sunnis. As Malley put it in an interview this past week on NPR’s “Fresh Air”: “This has become not just a war in Syria. It has become a regional sectarian war. … Syria is the battleground. … This conflict between Sunnis and Shiites which has not manifested itself violently that much in recent history, is now manifesting itself with a vengeance.”
The Sunni- Shia dispute dates from the seventh century. The issue then was over the line of succession to the prophet Mohammed. The Sunnis are the largest of the two sects and historically the dominant one. Like the power struggle in Christianity between Roman Catholics and Protestants, Islam’s sectarian wars have been waged in countless bloody battles.
Yet in the years since World War I, after which the Ottoman Empire was dismembered, most of the countries of the Middle East have been ruled by secular dictators who stayed in power, at least in part, by keeping the lid on sectarian extremism. This period of relative Sunni-Shia peace, was shaken in 1979 when the secular shah of Iran was overthrown by Shiite clerics and the Islamic Republic of Iran was proclaimed.
Then in Iraq in 2003, the American invasion not only ended the regime of Saddam Hussein — it also produced a power shift from Sunnis to Shiites, setting off thousands of brutal sectarian killings. These abated somewhat as Iraq struggled to create a democracy. But the bombings and assassinations have recently spiked again, partly because of the fighting between Sunnis and Shias in Syria.
Finally, in 2011, the demise of the dictators in Tunis, Cairo and Tripoli has led to the rise of Muslim fundamentalists in both sects who are less interested in establishing democratic institutions, than in settling historic political/religious scores.
As Americans continue to ask themselves about what their country’s role should be in Syria, it is very important that they recognize the growing complexity of the situation there and the potential risks of getting involved — or not getting involved. This is one element of Mr. Malley’s advice:
“We really need to change our grid, our political compass. This is not a war that is being fought by nation states. Borders are being erased. Borders are becoming liquid in a way. [The Lebanese Shiite militant group] Hezbollah is fighting in Syria. Some Sunni rebels are firing back into Lebanon against Hezbollah targets. Iraqi Shiites are fighting on behalf of the regime, just as Iraqi Sunnis are trying to help their co-religionists in Syria. So I think you have to think of Lebanon, Syria and Iraq as one giant integrated area of conflict in which national boundaries count much less than sectarian confessional boundaries.”
Yet in a sense, the potential size of the conflict is even greater than that. As well as Lebanon and Iraq, such countries as Jordan, Turkey and Israel share borders with Syria and have vital interests in whatever eventually happens there. And as the most powerful Shiite country and the number one ally of Syria and Hezbollah, Iran clearly has strategic interests at stake.
On the other side, so too does the key Sunni player, Saudi Arabia, who with its Gulf Arab allies are arming most of the Syrian rebels. In Mr. Malley’s words, “This has become not just a war within Syria. Perhaps the best way to put it is to say that what was a war in Syria with a regional spillover, has now become a regional war with a Syrian focus.”
This raises the question: What are the interests of the United States in Syria?
Based on public statements, these are some of America’s objectives — although it is not clear exactly what the priorities are:
The U.S. wants to see an end to the humanitarian disaster which has now taken more than 80,000 lives.
It wants to see Syrian President Bashar Assad out of office, but doesn’t want al-Qaida-backed rebels as part of his replacement.
It wants to prevent an expanded conflict which could be damaging to allies such as Turkey, Jordan and Israel.
It wants to preclude Iran from becoming the dominant factor in the region.
It does not want a confrontation with Russia and in fact needs Russian cooperation to avoid a wider war.
Not all of these goals are achievable because some of them are mutually exclusive. For instance, avoiding a confrontation with Russia and getting its cooperation to find a diplomatic solution probably can’t be achieved if America insists, as the rebels do, that any deal must involve President Assad’s capitulation.
I give the last words to Robert Malley, a world-class conflict resolution specialist, who raises the most important questions for American policy makers:
“Do we have a stake — or should we have stake — in the broader Sunni-Shiite confrontation? Should we take sides in this religious war, which it has become?”
His answer (and mine) is a resounding no.
Barrie Dunsmore is a former foreign correspondent for ABC News.MORE IN Perspective
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