Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Syria plunging Mideast into sectarian war?

By Peter Bergen and Jennifer Rowland
September 4, 2013 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Syrian Kurds wait behind border fences to cross into Turkey near the southeastern town of Suruc on Sunday, September 28. As many as 200,000 people have left the area surrounding the Syrian city of Kobani, also known as Ayn al-Arab, as ISIS advances, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said September 22. Syrian Kurds wait behind border fences to cross into Turkey near the southeastern town of Suruc on Sunday, September 28. As many as 200,000 people have left the area surrounding the Syrian city of Kobani, also known as Ayn al-Arab, as ISIS advances, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said September 22.
HIDE CAPTION
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Photos: Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Photos: Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
80
81
82
83
84
85
86
87
88
89
90
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Peter Bergen: Complicating the Syria picture is regionwide sectarian strife
  • He says the historic Sunni-Shia split is a key dynamic and U.S. strike could worsen conflict
  • Iraq's death toll from sectarian struggles has been increasing
  • Bergen: Al Qaeda-affiliated groups will seek to take advantage

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a director at the New America Foundation and the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad." Jennifer Rowland is a program associate at the New America Foundation.

(CNN) -- As they contemplate military action against Syria, one of many considerations members of Congress and Obama administration officials have to weigh is how a U.S. strike against the regime of Bashar al-Assad might effect the already complicated, even poisonous, state of Sunni-Shia relations in the region.

Three of the leading Sunni states, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE, have already offered their military assets if a US strike happens.

Last week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that the Shia government of Iran and close Syrian ally Russia would work in "extensive cooperation" to protect Syria.

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

An American-led war in Syria with the military backing of some powerful Sunni states against a de facto Shia alliance of Iran, Syria, Iraq and Lebanese Hezbollah would likely greatly exacerbate the already tense relations between Sunni and Shia across the region.

In Syria, a popular uprising against a repressive ruler in 2011 has morphed into what is now a largely sectarian civil war pitting the country's Sunni Muslim majority against al-Assad's minority Alawite sect, which is associated with Shia Islam.

The Syrian regime is propped up with weapons and funds from Iran's Shia rulers and also benefits significantly from the support on the ground of battle-hardened fighters from Lebanese Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy.

As a possible U.S. strike looms in Syria, what had hitherto been a shadowy proxy war, with Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia quietly supporting the Syrian rebels and Iran supporting al-Assad, could now devolve into a full-blown war that is openly supported by the most powerful Sunni and Shia states.

That is a real potential problem that needs to be weighed by Obama national security officials and representatives in Congress as they consider the options in Syria, because across the Muslim world from Lebanon to Pakistan, Sunnis and Shias are increasingly at each other's throats.

A further intensification of the already brutal Syrian civil war might further destabilize Syria's fragile neighbors; both Lebanon and Iraq could plunge back into civil wars.

Should U.S. enter a sectarian war?
Obama: 'I didn't set a red line'
Why are Iraq's Sunnis so upset?

Already in July, the United Nations recorded the highest death toll in Iraq since 2008, when the Iraq War was raging. In that month alone, more than 1,057 civilians and security personnel were killed. Many of those deaths were the result of bombings claimed by the Sunni terrorist group al-Qaeda in Iraq and were directed at Shia targets.

A splinter organization of al-Qaeda in Iraq is now fighting in Syria and is regarded as the most effective force fighting Assad, who it deems a heretic.

It's a very old story. The two dominant sects of Islam, Sunni and Shia, first split over the issue of who was the rightful successor of the Prophet Muhammad following his death in 632.

The conflict between the two sects has waxed and waned over the many centuries since, but right now the Syrian conflict could exacerbate the regional split along sectarian lines that we have seen over the past few years.

In 2011 the Sunni monarchy of the Gulf state of Bahrain backed by more than a thousand soldiers from Saudi Arabia put down with harsh tactics an uprising by its disadvantaged Shia majority population. The Bahrain government hinted that the uprising was an Iranian plot.

The sectarian conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Bahrain have also spilled over into Lebanon and Egypt. On June 23, in Lebanon's port city of Sidon, soldiers clashed with supporters of a hardline Sunni cleric, Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir, who had spoken out vehemently against the Syrian regime as well as the Shia Lebanese militant group, Hezbollah.

On the same day, four Egyptian Shia Muslims were stabbed, beaten, and dragged through the streets by members of a hardline Sunni group in the Giza neighborhood of Cairo.

The intensifying sectarian tensions in Egypt were partially the fault of the recently-ousted Muslim Brotherhood government. A week before the Giza attack, for example, President Mohamed Morsi had appeared on stage with hardline clerics who called Shias "filthy." And in May, Salafist members of Egypt's parliament denounced Shias as "a danger to Egypt's national security."

Beyond the Middle East, sectarian violence has also soared in South Asia over the past few years. More than 180 members of Pakistan's minority Shi'a Hazara community were killed in two massive bombings in the first two months of 2013 alone.

In neighboring Afghanistan, violent attacks on Shia Muslims are less frequent, but in December 2011, two nearly simultaneous suicide bombs in Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif killed more than 60 Shia civilians as they celebrated the annual religious festival of Ashura.

We can expect sectarian tensions to continue boiling across the Muslim world, as the Syrian conflict grinds on and political and social unrest persist in many countries in the region.

Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups will seek to exploit these sectarian divisions to garner support for their own violent agenda, and may well find greater room to operate because of it.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have mobilized their deep coffers to support extremist Sunni groups in the past, and will continue to do so as long as it means they are able to counterbalance Iran and its support for Shia regimes and militant groups.

All of these factors must be weighed as the United States weighs military action. They are not an argument for doing nothing in the face of al-Assad's large-scale use of chemical weapons but they are a reason to heed Machiavelli's warning "Wars begin when you will, but they do not end when you please."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1947 GMT (0347 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2156 GMT (0556 HKT)
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2221 GMT (0621 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 0217 GMT (1017 HKT)
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2139 GMT (0539 HKT)
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT