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Fear of Syrian Sectarianism Spreads Beyond Middle East to Other Muslims

12:47 PM, Jul 9, 2013 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Arab and non-Arab commentators alike perceived a definitive regionalization of the Syrian civil war last month, when Iranian regular troops and Tehran-backed Hezbollah forces helped the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad retake the strategic town of Qusayr, near the Lebanese border, from rebel fighters. Other incidents have pointed in the same direction. They include fighting in northern Lebanon between pro- and anti-Assad combatants, simultaneously with the battle for Qusayr, Syrian incursions into the Israel-administered Golan Heights, and threats to Jordan. At the end of June, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 100,000 people had been killed in the Syrian bloodshed.

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Transformation of the Syrian conflict into a Shia vs. Sunni sectarian confrontation across the Middle East has been aggravated by extremists within both religious factions. The patron of Assad in Syria, Iran, and its Shia followers in numerous countries, have appealed insistently for support to the Damascus dictatorship, although the Alawite sect that rules Syria has only been considered within Shia ranks since the 1970s, and until the 20th century was viewed as outside Islam altogether.

In a gesture destined to be ignored, the foreign minister of the Gulf state of Bahrain, sheikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, has called on the new Iranian president, Hassan Rohani, to withdraw Hezbollah from Syria to alleviate the carnage there. In Bahrain, a Sunni monarch rules over a Shia majority—with the latter agitated from Tehran.

But Rohani is committed to Iran’s alliance with Assad, according to Tehran official Ahmad Bakhshayesh. In an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, Bakhshayesh said, “The tactics may change but the strategic aims will not change.” He described Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah as a “resistance front” opposing Israel, and said, “We don’t want Syria to leave the resistance front.”

Shia-governed Iraq has also been drawn into the Syrian strife. On June 28, Baghdad foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Sunni Kurd, admitted, “Iraqi Shiite fighters are participating in combat in Syria, just as Sunnis from the Gulf are doing in that country. . . . But that does not come under government policy,” he said. In addition, Assad's and Hezbollah's propaganda claims Syria is the victim of an invasion by Wahhabis, Israeli Arabs, and Lebanese Druze partisans.

Sunni radicals have reacted with similar provocative bombast. Qatar-based hate preacher Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), has summoned Sunni jihadists everywhere to head for Syria in opposition to Iran and Hezbollah. He referred to the latter, whose Arabic name means “the party of God,” as “the party of Satan.” Al-Qaradawi demanded that “every Muslim trained to fight and capable of doing that make himself available” for military action in Syria.

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