Currently, Sunni and Shiite forces are battling it out in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon in what appears to be an escalation in this regional battle for supremacy, as sectarian divisions widen in the Middle East. Hezb'allah leader Hassan Nasrallah has declared that his fighters will help Syrian President Bashar Assad achieve a victory in the country's bloody two-year civil war. Bahrain's Foreign Minister Sheikh Kaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa has responded by proclaiming that Nasrallah is a terrorist. Nasrallah's recent admission of directly helping Assad's forces has infuriated Sunni Muslims, stirring financially rich Gulf Arab monarchies to consider new options in supporting the Sunni resistance in Syria.
Iran has been deploying its proxy forces into Syria (Hezb'allah militias from Lebanon and Shiite fighters from Iraq), along with its own Revolutionary Guards, strengthening Assad's regime to retake key positions, like Qusayr, a strategically situated city in Homs Province close to the Lebanese border. If the Syrian government is able to recapture the city, it will be a guarantee of a Shiite corridor within Syria leading into Lebanon. It would assure Iran a partial victory, because weapon supply lines from Iran to Syria to Hezb'allah could still be maintained and used in any future war against Israel. In the eventual break-up of Syria, Iran would sustain control over part of the country through its Syrian Alawite proxy, which is sympathetic to the Shiite cause.
In response to Iran's direct support for Shiite forces openly operating in Syria, a coalition of Sunni Gulf states plans to play a much greater role in supporting the Sunni rebels. Before the purported international peace conference in Geneva takes place, Saudi Arabia's monarchy is already taking the lead, with support from Qatar and other Gulf Arab states, to financially back a new provisional Syrian government. The Syrian National Coalition, most likely to head up the proposed government alternative to Assad's regime, is overshadowed by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The U.S. is demanding that more liberals join the coalition to prevent the Brotherhood and other Islamists from dominating the coalition. But the U.S. has had little influence in the region because of President Barack Obama's choice to keep America in the background during Syria's civil war. Sunni Islam has filled the gap left by Obama's reluctance to get involved.
The bloody war, which has left more than 80,000 Syrians dead and at least 1.5 million displaced, is no longer about the needs of the Syria people, but about which Islamic powers in the Middle East will control Syria and neighboring countries. Will the region become more dominant Shiite or more dominant Sunni?
Israel has mostly stayed out of the raging war, its concern focused mainly on the aggressions of Assad's regime, Hezb'allah's tactics, and the movements of Sunni rebels on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. Israel's air force (IAF) has engaged in pre-emptive strikes against advanced weapon systems in Syria, preventing these arms from being transferred to Hezb'allah or to the Sunni rebels who could use them against the Jewish State. Israel's defense forces (IDF) have also retaliated against Assad's forces when missiles or mortar fire have fallen near soldiers protecting the Israeli side of the Golan Heights.
Leaders in Jerusalem continue to warn regional players, including arms suppliers like Russia, that Israel will not allow the balance of power to tip in the Middle East. This means that any new deliveries of advanced weapons into Syria or deliveries of Assad's chemical weapons into enemy hands that threaten Israel's security will be destroyed by the IAF. The question remains as to how supportive the Obama administration will be if Israel's defense forces strike Syrian territory -- again, possibly widening the Middle East conflict.
At a recent conference in Jerusalem, Jonathan Spyer, a senior researcher at the Inter-Disciplinary Center in Herzliya (IDC), explained that prior to the Arab Spring, the region faced two blocs -- a U.S. bloc and an Iranian bloc. "Today, I would argue that the Iran-led Shiite bloc still exists, but there is no longer a coherent western bloc in the region."
Spyer concluded that one of the central reasons for the nonexistence of a pro-Western bloc has been mistaken U.S. policies over the upheavals during the last two years. This has led to political Sunni Islam taking over America's role in the region. But the Shiites, led by Iran, remain the most formidable enemy facing Israel and the West. Iran's bloc is united, well-organized, and self-financed, which is of critical significance. This bloc has set itself on a collision course with the West and Israel because of its nuclear ambitions and its terrorist connections.
The Sunnis are a far less united force. The Gulf monarchies, which control the flow of oil money to Sunni resistance forces in the region, are largely allied with the West. This is because the monarchies are dependent on the west to defend them from Iranian Shiite threats.
The regional picture, therefore, is currently characterized by a strong Shiite bloc led by Iran facing a much more disorganized and weaker Sunni bloc of disparate powers.
Spyer believes that for Israel and the West, it would be better for the Sunnis to win the battle in Syria. He thinks that if Iran becomes stronger, it will lead to the Sunnis coming back under Iran's power and influence, resulting in a much greater global threat.
When faced with the question of what the United States should do at this late hour in the battle for dominance in Syria, Spyer suggests that it is still possible for America to have influence despite Obama's confusing foreign policy in the region.
"I think it is not quite too late, and it is of crucial importance to the West and Israel and to all of us, that the Iranian side not be allowed a victory in the Syrian civil war. It is for this reason, even though I am not naïve at all about some of those people in the Syrian rebellion, that I am supportive of greater Western support for the rebels."
But Obama knows that some of those rebels who are fighting in Syria sympathize with America's enemy al-Qaeda, which puts him between a rock and a hard place. Yet America's failure to get involved in what was originally about the Syrian people demonstrating against their own government's policies has resulted in this new battle for dominance in Syria and in the whole region.
As the clashes increase between Shiites and Sunnis, the ability of the Arab Gulf states to unite together, along with Israel's help on a covert level, could define the outcome. Russia will keep trying to supply advanced weapons to the Assad regime. Iran will keep sending in Shiite fighters from Iraq and Lebanon. The involvement of American and Western powers in directly supplying the Sunni rebels with finances and arms could determine who will win this battle in the Middle East, or if it will go on and on for years to come.
C. Hart reports on political, diplomatic, and military issues as they relate to Israel, the Middle East, and the international community.
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