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Activists begin to see revolution through sectarian lens, suspicious of West’s inaction

June 4, 2013 This is the second of a two-part […]

4 June 2013

June 4, 2013

This is the second of a two-part series looking at the possibility of the Syrian war expanding across the region.

By Kristen Gillespie and Ahmed Kwider

AMMAN: Activists from Syria’s opposition says that the West is deliberately allowing Syria to collapse.

“The priority for America is to weaken Syria in the region,” says Samir al-Ibrahim, 55, secretary general of the Syrian Free Religious Scholars Association in the northwest Idlib province.

“The evidence is in their current stance of just watching: America and Israel consider Iran their enemy, but America still keeps silent regarding the Iranian [government] providing support such as fighters and weapons to the regime. But if they do not stop the fighting in this region, the whole region will burn.”

“We are waiting for the results in Geneva,” al-Ibrahim added. “If a sectarian war starts, America cannot stop it, it is going to lose its credibility in the region.”

Other regime opponents agree.

“It looks like America and Europe have abandoned their traditional role and given up on red lines drawn in front of the tyrants,” said Abu Said, a spokesman for the Revolutionary Council in Outer Damascus “Chemical weapons were used [last week] on Syria’s frontlines. Al-Assad and the world’s tyrants have made a joke out of red lines.”

As Turkey tries to keep the Alawite-Sunni tensions from escalating in its southeastern province of Hatay, the spillover is already threatening a delicate balance in Lebanon.

“(War) is a very real threat,” said David Hartwell, IHS Jane’s Middle East analyst in London. “If we accept that there is already sectarian conflict going on in Syria, you don’t really have to look far to find countries that will be affected by that, like of course Lebanon. If widespread violence was to break out across the country, the security forces might have quite a job to do.”

“The longer the conflict in Syria goes on, the more drawn out these tensions in Lebanon will become,” Hartwell added. “That will fuel desire – particularly Sunni desire – for defense and will fuel the growth of Sunni militias in the future.”

Hartwell says that the Sunni-Shiite clash is “one of those internal schisms within Islam that really has its own dynamic, one of those unresolvable conflicts that has gone on for centuries where there is not necessarily an end.”

Asaad al-Zu’bi, 59, a former Staff Brigadier in the Syrian army before he defected to the FSA last year, says Iranian and Iraqi cooperation inside Syria with the Shiites of Hezbollah are intended to ignite a sectarian war, as the Jordanian King Abdullah warned against when he introduced the controversial term “Shiite crescent” in 2004.

 “The Shiite existence in the neighboring countries and their support for the regime in its war against al-Qusayr and protecting the [Shiite] holy places as they claim is enough to ignite this war,” al-Zu’bi said. “They are making Shiites fear the Sunnis and the opposite. The most dangerous thing about this war is that it will extend to the Islamic world and the Middle East.” 

But Muhammad Ghaleb, 35, an Arabic teacher from Daraa, says the West would not let that happen.

“It is normal for those who fight a strong enemy like the Syrian bear to wish the world would take their side,” he said. “The rebels ask for help from the Arabs sometimes, and sometimes they appeal to the West, especially given that Iranian and Russian assistance to the Syrian regime continues. As for whether the war might turn religious or sectarian with Washington becoming unable to end it, I think [the Americans] are observing what’s happening and they won’t allow for that.”

But analysts say that Washington will do anything it can to stay out of the conflict. The West, led by the US, may want the war to end, but is not playing an active role in making that happen.

“The events of the past decade (such as Iraq) have fundamentally changed the U.S. perception…now you have a president at the moment who is deliberately re-orienting U.S. military strategy, probably even diplomatic strategy, away from the Middle East toward Asia,” added Hartwell.

Despite the well-documented spillover of the Syrian war into bordering countries, the United States appears ready to stay on the sidelines as a proxy war intensifies in and around Syria.

“Despite what John Kerry says, the White House is not particularly interested in getting involved in the Middle Eastern peace process, and there’s a desperate effort to remain as far away from the Syrian conflict as much as possible.”

With additional reporting from Jacob Wirtschafter in Amman.



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