The Syrian civil war is increasingly drawing in nations across the Middle East, a regionwide conflict that threatens to pit world powers against each other and Muslim against Muslim.
On May 29, the United Nations Human Rights Council pushed through a resolution to investigate the abuses of the Syrian regime, over the objections of the regime’s ally Russia, who insisted the West was making matters worse.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry continued his travels in the region, trying to get all parties to agree to a peace conference in Geneva in the next few weeks. But councils representing the Syrian rebels again refused to join, demanding that representatives of Bashar Assad’s regime be banned.
In a war that is now clearly pitting the two main branches of the Islam — Sunni and Shiite Muslims — against one another, the dithering and differences between world powers is bringing about a desperate situation, according to experts.
“The longer this conflict goes on the more chances it has of spilling over,” said Vali Nasr, dean of John Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
Whether the battle will be contained to Syria is in doubt now that Islam’s two major strands have taken sides against one another, threatening to spark a wider war that is centuries in the making between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
“There is great fear over a massive sectarian war starting. If it does, the entire region will turn into a genocidal war, engulfing everyone,” says Samir al-Ibrahim, 55, secretary-general of the Syrian Free Religious Scholars Association and a Sunni Muslim in Idlib, Syria.
Sunni Muslims, who include the royal families of the Persian Gulf oil sheikdoms, have banded behind the rebels (Sunnis are the majority in Syria). The royal family of Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been funneling arms and cash to rebels, and Sunni Muslims who dominate al-Qaida have dispatched fighters to the front.
Assad has appealed to the Shiites, who are helping him hang on to his regime. The Shiite theocracy of Iran has deployed officers and fighters from its Revolutionary Guards. The U.S.-designated terrorist group Hezbollah, which has fought two wars with Israel from its base in Lebanon, is pouring militants into Assad’s forces.
Religious leaders from both Islamic branches in Sunni-dominated Egypt and Shiite-heavy Iraq have denounced each other for killing Muslims. Arab capitals have expressed fears that restive members of one sect or the other will erupt in the streets as they did in Bahrain during the Arab Spring of 2011.
Already, the fighting has bled across Syria’s border with Lebanon, where Lebanese Alawites are fending off attacks from Sunni citizens of the same nation, leaving several people dead. Rockets have been fired back and forth between Turkey and Syria and Iraq.
The schism that gave birth to the Sunni and Shiite divide occurred in the seventh century soon after the death of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
Some Islamic leaders took the position that it was legitimate for Muhammad’s successor to be chosen through consultation, and they selected the father of Muhammad’s wife to be caliph, or leader of the Muslim world. They became the Sunnis.
Others believed Muhammad intended his cousin and son-in-law Ali, a blood relative, to be his rightful heir. They became the Shiites.
The disagreement led to war. Ali was killed as were his two sons. The two branches flourished as the Shiites, translated roughly as “the followers of Ali,” and the Sunnis, “the people of the tradition of Muhammad and the consensus of the Ummah,” or the Islamic world.
Over the centuries, there were many conflicts. The Sunnis achieved dominance in numbers, wealth and power. The Sunnis of the Ottoman Empire based in modern-day Turkey swept through the Arab world in the Middle East and controlled the caliphate for centuries until World War I.
The victorious allied powers divided up the empire into nations, turning power over to their favored tribes and leaders in newly created countries such as Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia — but they also threw together Sunnis and Shiite communities and largely left Sunnis in positions of power.
Today, Sunnis are the majority in most Muslim countries, except in Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and Iran. Assad’s Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
One reason given by the Obama administration for refusing to arm rebels to topple a man it wants gone is concern over who will replace him. Sunni foreigners allied with al-Qaida have been streaming into the fight and winning some battles.
Abu Said, 35, a Sunni member of the Revolution Council in Outer Damascus, a rebel group, says foreign fighters fill a void for anti-government fighters who are outgunned and out-funded by Assad’s forces.
“As for al-Qaida, it’s not only our problem, but yours too,” Said added referring to the West. “You’ve allowed our country to become a feasible environment for everyone to operate, whether al-Qaida, Hezbollah, or Iran’s and Iraq’s volunteers.”
Adnan Oumama, a hard-line Lebanese Sunni sheikh, sees the strife already bleeding into his country.
“There is no doubt that the war in Syria has turned into a sectarian conflict pitting Shiites and Alawites against Sunnis,” Oumama said. “We are against a religious war with the Shiites, but if someone starts killing us based on our religion, we will defend ourselves.”
Shiite cleric Sheik Mohamad Ali Hajj el Ameli also sees the Syrian sectarian war spreading to Lebanon.
“The Muslim street, whether Sunni or Shiite has radicalized,” Ameli said, “Although politicians do not seem to want a war in Lebanon, it is doubtful they can maintain control of their followers, given the involvement of both communities in Syria. A religious war is thus a growing possibility, all the signs are pointing to one.”
A longer version of this story originally appeared in USA Today, reported by Oren Dorell and Ahmed Kwider with contributions from Mona Alami.