Syria unrest widens Sunni-Shiite divide: AFP analysis

AFP , Saturday 7 Apr 2012

The conflict in Syria, pitting majority Sunnis against rulers from an offshoot of Shiite Islam, is increasing sectarian tension that is closely linked to political discord in the region

Demonstrators protest against Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad in Kafranbel, near Idlib April 6, 2012. Picture taken April 6, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

Thousands of people have died in a crackdown by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, a member of the Alawite sect, on a mainly Sunni uprising against his rule that erupted in March 2011. Protests began peacefully but the movement gradually took on a militant face and has evolved into an armed revolt, though demonstrations are still held.

How to respond to the violence in Syria has split the Arab world. Influential Sunni-ruled Gulf states Saudi Arabia and Qatar want to arm the Syrian rebels and Shiite-majority Iraq opposes the move.

The Middle East is seeing "tension and regional escalation" -- part of it between Iran and Gulf Arab states -- "and another part sectarian, and they are intertwined with each other," said Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center. "The situation in Syria is fuelling the Arab division," Salem said.

Iraqi analyst Ibrahim al-Sumaidai also warned of a "major division" between states led by Saudi Arabia and the so-called Shiite crescent led by Iran, that is underpinned by sectarian differences. "The tension between them is especially centred on ... states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar that are trying to end Bashar al-Assad's regime because of a sectarian mindset," he said.

At last month's Arab summit in Baghdad, all the Gulf states except Kuwait sent low-level delegations to the meeting, and Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem Al-Thani said that was a "message to the government of Iraq."

Without elaborating, he went on to accuse Iraq of "neglecting" some parts of its population, including minority Sunnis, in the formation of its government. "Iraq is a very important state in the Arab world, but we do not agree with some of the policies against a specific component," an apparent reference to Sunnis.

On Sunday, Iraqi premier Maliki criticised the Qatari and Saudi stance on Syria, saying: "We reject any arming (of Syrian rebels) and the process to overthrow the (Assad) regime, because this will leave a greater crisis in the region." "We are against the interference of some countries in Syria's internal affairs," the Iraqi leader said.

Fugitive Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, who took refuge in Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region in December to avoid charges of running a death squad, left for Qatar on Sunday and then moved on to Saudi Arabia. Baghdad slammed Doha for receiving him and called on Qatar to hand him over, but it declined to do so.

Saudi and Qatari newspapers lashed out at Maliki on Tuesday, calling for a boycott of him and his government, with one accusing him of bias against Sunnis and asking whether he was "a voice for Iran or the ruler of Iraq."

Qatar University professor Mahjub al-Zuwairi said the region "entered into a type of sectarian dispute since 2003," when a US-led coalition overthrew Saddam Hussein. That ended decades of rule by Iraq's minority Sunnis and brought the Shiite majority to power.

The Jordanian academic referred to a "unified Gulf stance" regarding Iraq, a country he said is seen as "supporting Iran in its stance on Syrian events." "Iraq is afraid that there will be a Salafi (fundamentalist Sunni) system after Bashar al-Assad," Sumaidai said.

Iraq is well aware of the dangers of Sunni fighters entering from Syria, having accused Damascus in the past of letting Sunni insurgents and arms transit the country for attacks inside Iraq. Former Iraqi national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubaie, a Shiite, said "the (Sunni-ruled) countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council are playing with fire that will burn the whole region."

"These countries take a sectarian direction in their efforts, and consider the Syrian regime as Shiite, and this is a big mistake," he said.

Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt over the past 16 months have brought Islamists to power, replacing Arab nationalist regimes. And Sumaidai said that those Islamic movements and parties are ready "to send fighters to other states such as Syria ... because there are those on the other side of the same sect."

While the Sunni-Shiite divide is a major factor in the Syrian crisis, it has also surfaced violently in Bahrain and even in Saudi Arabia itself.

Last year, Bahrain's Sunni ruling family crushed Shiite-led protests calling for reform, with backing from forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that entered the tiny Gulf kingdom.

Maliki warned at the time that the intervention in Shiite-majority Bahrain by its Sunni neighbours risked a sectarian war in the region. And protests in Saudi Arabia's eastern oil-rich region, which has a significant Shiite population, have been violently put down.

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