Sunni-Shia conflict being stoked by Syria's civil war

A year ago or so, the Syrian civil war was about overthrowing President Assad and bringing some sort of democracy to the country.

But as many predicted at the time, the war has morphed into a sectarian nightmare that could fuel similar eruptions all across the Middle East.

David Brooks:

The Syrian civil conflict is both a proxy war and a combustion point for spreading waves of violence. This didn't start out as a religious war. But both Sunni and Shiite power players are seizing on religious symbols and sowing sectarian passions that are rippling across the region. The Saudi and Iranian powers hover in the background fueling each side.

As the death toll in Syria rises to Rwanda-like proportions, images of mass killings draw holy warriors from countries near and far. The radical groups are the most effective fighters and control the tempo of events. The Syrian opposition groups are themselves split violently along sectarian lines so that the country seems to face a choice between anarchy and atrocity.

Meanwhile, the strife appears to be spreading. Sunni-Shiite violence in Iraq is spiking upward. Reports in The Times and elsewhere have said that many Iraqis fear their country is sliding back to the worst of the chaos experienced in the last decade. Even Turkey, Pakistan, Bahrain and Kuwait could be infected. "It could become a regional religious war similar to that witnessed in Iraq 2006-2008, but far wider and without the moderating influence of American forces," wrote Gary Grappo, a retired senior Foreign Service officer with long experience in the region.

"It has become clear over the last year that the upheavals in the Islamic and Arab world have become a clash within a civilization rather than a clash between civilizations," Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote recently. "The Sunni versus Alawite civil war in Syria is increasingly interacting with the Sunni versus Shiite tensions in the Gulf that are edging Iraq back toward civil war. They also interact with the Sunni-Shiite, Maronite and other confessional struggles in Lebanon."

Some experts even say that we are seeing the emergence of a single big conflict that could be part of a generation-long devolution, which could end up toppling regimes and redrawing the national borders that were established after World War I. The forces ripping people into polarized groups seem stronger than the forces bringing them together.

We all know that power abhors a vacuum. The retreat of America from the Middle East has meant giving free reign to extremists on both sides as Iran and the Saudis fuel the fires of sectarian strife, struggling for power and influence in the region by helping to turn the conflict into a religious crusade.

There is great danger in this. The Gulf states have large, restive Shia minorities and the more images of atrocities that come out of Syria, the more agitated those minorities become. In the end, playing the religious card may be a monumental miscalculation as long oppressed minorities take their vengance on governments.

It may already be too late to turn the tide against this kind of sectarian war. About all we can be certain of is that the conflict won't end anytime soon.