The conflict in Syria has been presented in the past as an internal Syrian matter; part civil-war, part uprising—and Syria’s neighboring countries have no interest in getting involved there. However, the evolving reality is changing the nature of the conflict from its very foundations.
We are talking about a powerful Sunni-Shiite confrontation that is being played out on Syrian soil, in which almost all Muslim parties are involved whether they like it or not. It is a 1,300-year-old conflict that lay dormant for hundreds of years under the Ottoman-Sunni Empire, and over the last hundred years under the region’s new nationalism—a nationalism that is emerging as an artificial phenomenon. 85 percent of Muslims are Sunnis and only 15 percent are Shiites. In the last decade, due to the fall of the Sunnis in Iraq, Shiite power was on the rise and they tried to redefine the Middle East. Now the Sunnis have returned and are demanding to be re-instated in their "natural place."
In this great rupture, two sides are readying themselves for the great confrontation that still lies in wait. On the Sunni side are: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the Kurds (who may actually receive Sunni backing for their approaching independent state), and all the Arab nations in the Persian Gulf. On the other side stand the Shiites: Iran, the new Iraq, Syria (the Alawites who control Syria are viewed as an extension of the Shiites) and Hezbollah.
Most of the Shi’a-Sunni players are undergoing a process of radicalization. For example, Turkey versus Iraq (Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister, accused Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan of acting from “ethnic”—Sunni—motives), or Turkey versus Iran. Thus, it is only a matter of time until these [verbally warring] parties will fight one another for real. What was cynically labeled the “Arab Spring” has returned the Sunnis to the top of the hill and pushed the Shiites to the bottom, as the Islamic religion has adopted the role of political ruler at the expense of the regressing nationalism. Religion at the expense of State. The Syrian struggle has long since become international and regional because it was there that the intra-Islamic conflict has erupted, as the Middle East is becoming more and more religious. Therefore, the Sunni-Shiite split has grown in importance.
It is interesting to note that this religious classification crosses ethnic or national identities, so that some Arabs are finding themselves side-by-side with the Turks while other Arabs are finding themselves warming up to the Persians. Both sides view the conflict as critical for their future, and now we understand that Iran, which is angling for nuclear power, is interested in using it against the Sunnis, whom they view as a threat to their existence. Iran uses Israel as a subterfuge to attract attention outward, though in fact it is preoccupied with the Sunnis and the intra-Islamic rupture. Meanwhile, the Arab Sunnis have begun to demonize the Iranians and their allies. What all this means is that this conflict is going to be long and brutal.
Its echoes are being heard everywhere in the Middle East: in Bahrain, where the Sunni-Shiite conflict sabotaged the Formula One competition; in Hezbollah, which lost a great deal in the Arab world due to its blind support of Assad; or in Iraq, that is falling apart under the Sunni-Shiite tension. The Sunni minority in Iraq is planning an independent Sunni entity within Iraq that will be called Salah a-Din, next to an independent Kurdish (Sunni) state.
The Palestinians have gotten lost in this conflict and are torn between the two camps. Hamas and Jihad support the Shiite side (though sections of Hamas have defiantly defected to the Sunni side), while the Palestinian Authority has taken its place on the Sunni side.
Now we can easily understand just how marginal is the invented [Palestinian] conflict with Israel, less than 100 years old, when compared to the explosive conflict between Sunnis and Shiites that has extended since the seventh century. What we see is not an internal Syrian confrontation, as Israeli conventional wisdom dictates, but pan-Middle East religious turmoil that awaits us—and has nothing whatsoever to do with Israel. Fortunately so.