As the regime of the Syrian strongman falters and Bashar al-Assad is probably haunted by images of the terrifying end of Libya’s tyrant, Moammar Gadhafi, the Arab Spring is turning into an inter-Arab and sectarian Sunni-Shiite regional conflict.
The recent decision of the 22-member Arab League to suspend Syria for the violent repression of the opposition has come on the heels of its earlier decision in March to vote for a no-fly zone over Libya. It was the March decision that turned fatal for the long-standing tyranny of the Gadhafi regime.
The League’s demands that the Syrian regime immediately halt the use of force against civilian demonstrators or face sanctions, coupled with King Abdullah II of Jordan publicly calling for Bashar al-Assad to step down, signal the deep sectarian and political divisions among Arab and Middle Eastern states.
But the situation with Syria — regardless of if, or how, the internal strife escalates into a likely civil war — is much different than Libya, and the stakes for regional security much greater.
The Arab world has been divided politically between republican-type tyrannies and traditionalist monarchies, and religiously between majority Sunni and minority Shiite sects within Islam.
Syria sits on this fault line of the Arab world, as does Iraq. In Syria, the Alawites, a sub-sect of the minority Shiite Islam, has held power since Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, emerged as the military dictator in 1970. The majority of Syrians are Sunni and resentful of being ruled by a minority Shiite clan.
In Iraq, on the contrary, the Sunni Muslims are in minority but under Saddam Hussein ruled brutally over the Shiite majority. Only with the U.S.-led regime change in Baghdad the Iraqi Shiite majority has risen to power.
The League’s decision against Bashar al-Assad’s regime barely masks the reality of the sectarian divide in Arab ranks. Iraq’s abstention on the vote to suspend Syria is revealing of this divide, since the government in Baghdad reflects the concerns of the Shiite majority in the country.
The Arab Spring has witnessed the toppling of the republican-type tyrannies in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, while Yemen’s strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power since 1978, remains embattled.
These recent changes resulting from populist uprisings have benefited most the Islamist movements associated with the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, even as the party of Hasan al-Banna edges closer to power in Cairo.
From the perspective of the Brotherhood, bloodily repressed in Syria under the Alawite clan, the Syrian regime is twice an enemy as it has been the stalking horse for the Shiite Iranian clerical dictatorship in the Sunni Arab world.
Behind the Arab League’s warning to Damascus lies an even bigger conflict in the making. This is the struggle for influence in the Middle East between Saudi Arabia — the bastion of Arab Sunni power, the leading petrodollar monarchy and financial backer of the Muslim Brotherhood — and Iran. It is this struggle edging close to a flashpoint as Iran lurches forward defiantly to become a nuclear power. The Arab Spring has been most fortuitously spring time for Islamists. And this heralds an intense sectarian conflict in the region with Syria in the eye of the storm.