Americans are rightly mortified by scenes of the terrible civil war now lashing Syria. Meanwhile, the bloodiest internal fighting since the withdrawal of U.S. troops has broken out in next-door Iraq.
The Syrian and Iraqi conflicts aren’t entirely separate episodes. In both countries, Sunnis and Shiites — Islam’s two main groupings — lamentably are at each other’s throats as part of a troubling regional struggle.
The Muslim “cold war” that has long pitted a Sunni bloc (led by Saudi Arabia) against a Shiite bloc (led by Iran) has now turned hot.
Syria — a majority-Sunni country ruled by a regime with Shiite connections — has become an outright battleground between outside players. On the Shiite side: Iran and the powerful Lebanese militia Hezbollah. On the Sunni side: Persian Gulf oil states plus rebel fighters, many of whom are radical Islamists.
The war in Syria, the New York Times recently reported, has “brought into sharp relief the danger of a regional nightmare, all-out war between Shiites and Sunnis.” Sunni and Shiite fighters have streamed into Syria from Iraq while Hezbollah’s Shiite fighters have crossed into Syria from Lebanon.
The war in Syria has sparked growing tension between Lebanon’s Sunnis and Shiites, leading to violent street clashes in some instances.
An article in Foreign Policy magazine stated: “There is a growing sense that the conflicts in Syria and Iraq are merging into one, with Shia regimes, backed by Iran, battling against Sunnis, including al-Qaida elements.”
The article went on to observe that “we may be witnessing the breakdown of the post-World War I settlement” in the region, with one or more countries at risk of splitting into sectarian enclaves. Should that breakup occur, there’s no predicting what the ultimate effects would be for the region.
As the world looks on in concern and as our government debates how best to proceed, it’s important for Americans to understand the magnitude of what’s going on and what potentially might come to pass if the Middle East’s Sunni-Shiite tensions continue to worsen.