Thursday, June 13, 2013

How the Syrian Conflict Has Intensified Regional Sectarian Rifts

By Ali Rawaf

“How could 100 million Shiites [worldwide] defeat 1.7 billion [Sunnis]? Only because [Sunni] Muslims are weak.”

These were the words of Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, a prominent Egyptian Sunni cleric, in a recent TV interview during which he encouraged his followers to carry arms and join the fight in Syria. He was later praised for his stance by Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti, the most senior religious authority in the country.

Al-Qardawi’s statements followed a televised speech last month by the Shiite leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah where he vowed victory in Syria, "Syria is the back of the resistance, and the resistance cannot stand, arms folded while its back is broken." He told his adversaries to fight his men in Syria, not in Lebanon, Hezbolla’s home . But that’s too late. The violence had already spilled into Lebanon, where gun battles frequently rage between Shiites and Sunnis.

Lebanon is not the only neighbor being impacted by the Syrian conflict. Tensions between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq are at the highest levels since 2007. May was the bloodiest month since June of 2008 with over a thousand people killed. The violence continues to escalate as Sunnis continue their protests against the Shiite-dominated government. They accuse the government of succumbing to Iranian influence.

The Iraqi PM has charged the protests as being waged by Saudi Arabia and Qatar in their bid to contain Iran’s growing influence in the region. He also accuses them of funding Sunni rebels in Syria in their fight against Assad’s regime.

Qatar does not hide its concerns about Iran’s growing influence in the region. The Qatari government has declared Hezbollah as a terrorist group and has been leading an effort at the Gulf Cooperation Council to have its Sunni member states take a similar action. The country is also home to Al-Qardawi whose recent calls for Sunnis to fight Shiites further strained relationship between the Qatari and Iraqi governments.

Iraqi Shiite men have gone to Syria to fight along side Assad’s army and Hezbollah. It will be a matter of time before more Sunnis act on the words of Al-Qaradawi. It has become clear that the fight to win Syria is no longer a local one. It is regional. It is sectarian. And the sect that wins in Syria will win the region.