Syria splits along sectarian lines, shaking Mideast

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 2, 2012 

NEAR QUSAYR, Syria — Resting in a safe house south of the shell-battered city of Homs, Syrian rebel Abu Abdo at first framed the conflict convulsing his country as a war between the Sunni Muslim majority and the authoritarian regime of President Bashar Assad.

Then the leather-jacketed member of the local Free Syrian Army added, "The majority of the Shiites and Alawites are with the government."

Abdo's comments underscored how sectarian divisions are hardening a year after the outbreak of the uprising against Assad, whose scorched-earth crackdown on what began as peaceful protests for democratic reform has ignited a Sunni-dominated insurgency that's drawing in Sunni jihadis from beyond Syria's borders.

More ominously, the sectarian hatred is bleeding into a region seething with political and religious tensions. Outraged by a death toll estimated at more than 7,500 mostly Sunni Syrians — and apparently frustrated by the lack of action taken by a 60-nation "Friends of Syria" conference in Tunisia last month — Sunni regimes, led by Saudi Arabia, have publicly called for providing arms to the insurgents, whose nominal leaders are based in Sunni-governed Turkey.

Lebanon and majority-Shiite Iran — one of Assad's main arms suppliers — are standing firmly by the Syrian leader, whose regime and security forces are run by his minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiism. Iraq, where the 2003 U.S.-led invasion replaced a minority Sunni dictatorship with majority Shiite rule, has withheld criticism of Assad and declined to back an Arab League peace plan calling for him to step down.

The alignments appear to be confirming the worst fears of politicians, experts and the region's people: Syria has become the latest battleground in the centuries-old feud between Islam's main branches, with the violence threatening to evolve into a proxy conflict between the branches' rival standard-bearers, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

It also could reignite sectarian mayhem in adjacent Lebanon, fuel the Shiite-Sunni tensions wracking Iraq and inflame instability elsewhere. That could include the tiny Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain, the headquarters of the U.S. 5th Fleet, where the Saudi-backed Sunni monarchy has been persecuting majority Shiites who are demanding democratic reform.

"It's the proverbial gathering storm," said a senior Middle Eastern diplomat in Washington, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the issue. "It's not about Syria. It's about the Shias and Sunnis."

"Sectarian tension currently runs high in Syria," Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, who's a Shiite, said in a Saudi newspaper interview published Thursday. "Syria is on our borders and if a sectarian civil war erupts there, it will be moved directly to Iraq and other countries such as Jordan and Lebanon."

A Sunni member of the Iraqi Parliament, Mudher al Janabi, said: "The Iraqi government cannot abandon Assad. ... The sectarian bond is too strong."

The United States has aligned with the Sunnis, and not only because of what the Obama administration decries as Assad's wanton slaughter of civilians. Assad's fall also would deal a strategic blow to Iran by eliminating its only Arab ally and closing the conduit through which Tehran transships missiles that Hezbollah, the Shiite militia movement that dominates Lebanon, aims at Israel.

Abdo, the rebel fighter, who used a nom de guerre, said the Homs region began growing more polarized soon after the anti-Assad protests erupted last March. Minority populations fled mixed villages in an echo of what occurred around Baghdad as Iraq's civil war escalated in 2005.

"It began two or three months after the start of the revolution," he recounted. "If the Sunnis are the minority in a place, they leave. If they are the majority, they stay."

On the battlefield, rebels trade sectarian barbs over the radio with the Syrian army, saying things such as, "(expletive) Hassan Nasrallah," the charismatic leader of Hezbollah.

The tensions are palpable along Lebanon's northern border with Syria. After crossing into Lebanon's Bekaa Valley earlier this week, the first question a group of Syrian refugees asked a Lebanese man they encountered was, "Are you Sunni?"

Predominantly Sunni northern Lebanon, where animosity over the Syrian army's 1976-2005 occupation lingers and Sunnis and Alawites clashed last month, is a bulwark of support for the Syrian rebels. Sympathizers harbor refugees and smuggle humanitarian aid and light weapons to the disparate groups of military deserters and civilians that make up the Free Syrian Army.

"The Hezbollah mindset, the Iranian mindset, the Alawite mindset is not just based on existence only. It's based on killing the other, exterminating the other," said Imad Khalid, a Sunni cleric in Wadi Khalid, near the Syrian border.

"If I was in charge, I'd not fight against Israel. For now my enemy is Hezbollah, my enemy is Iran and what Bashar Assad is doing."

Amin Taba, a Beirut-based Syrian activist who sends humanitarian aid into Syria, said that in the uprising's early days, the pro-democracy marches included Sunnis and Alawites, as well as Christians. But the longer the conflict rages, he said, the deeper the Sunni-Shiite chasm will grow.

"Because of the situation, people are going to resort to mullahs," he said.

The divisions also are hardening across the region, with Sunni Arab governments, eager to eliminate Iran's chief Arab ally, making it clear that they intend to intensify their backing of the opposition.

"We cannot abandon our religious and moral position towards the situation in Syria," Saudi King Abdullah told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in a telephone conversation Feb. 22, according to Saudi Arabia's official news agency.

Two days later, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal said he thought that arming the rebels was "an excellent idea" because "they have to protect themselves."

On Monday, denouncing Assad, Kuwait's Parliament also recommended arming his opponents. The same day, the tiny Persian Gulf oil sheikdom of Qatar, which played a central role in arming the Libyan rebels who toppled Moammar Gadhafi, indicated that it would do so.

"We should do whatever necessary to help them, including giving them weapons to defend themselves," said the Qatari prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al Thani. "This uprising in Syria now (has lasted) one year. For 10 months, it was peaceful. Nobody was carrying weapons, nobody was doing anything. And Bashar continued killing them."

In an apparently coordinated move, the Paris-based Syrian National Council, the internationally recognized opposition coalition, said Thursday that it was forming a military council to unify the Free Syrian Army under a single command that would help funnel weapons to the rebels.

Murhaf Jouejati, a member of the Syrian National Council's foreign relations bureau who teaches at the National Defense University in Washington, told McClatchy that he thinks that the Saudis and Qataris are more likely to provide money for arms purchases than actual weapons.

"I think they are going to facilitate this, certainly, by providing money for the Free Syrian Army to buy its equipment where it can," Jouejati said. He noted that arms are "plentiful on the black market," including guns being sold by Syrian troops, an estimated 80 percent of whom are Sunni conscripts.

Some experts worry that Iran could step up its support for Assad as the Saudis and other Sunni Arab regimes intensify their backing for the rebels. That could include aiding Bahrain's Shiite opposition — which has resisted Iranian help so far — and instigating the restive Shiite majority in Saudi Arabia's oil-producing Eastern Province.

"This portends very bad things for the region," said Vali Nasr, a former State Department adviser who teaches at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

"If this gets worse and becomes a full-scale civil war ... this will spill over. Other countries are vulnerable ... and could end up having a bigger, broader conflict in the Gulf between Saudi Arabia and Iran."

(Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent. Landay reported from Washington. Special correspondent Sahar Issa contributed to this article from Baghdad.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2012

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