Washington’s decision to arm Syria’s Sunni Muslim rebels has plunged America into the great Sunni-Shia conflict of the Islamic Middle East, entering a struggle that now dwarfs the Arab revolutions which overthrew dictatorships across the region.
For the first time, all of America’s ‘friends’ in the region are Sunni Muslims and all of its enemies are Shiites. Breaking all President Barack Obama’s rules of disengagement, the US is now fully engaged on the side of armed groups which include the most extreme Sunni Islamist movements in the Middle East.
The Independent on Sunday has learned that a military decision has been taken in Iran – even before last week’s presidential election – to send a first contingent of 4,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards to Syria to support President Bashar al-Assad’s forces against the largely Sunni rebellion that has cost almost 100,000 lives in just over two years. Iran is now fully committed to preserving Assad’s regime, according to pro-Iranian sources which have been deeply involved in the Islamic Republic’s security, even to the extent of proposing to open up a new ‘Syrian’ front on the Golan Heights against Israel.
In years to come, historians will ask how America – after its defeat in Iraq and its humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan scheduled for 2014 – could have so blithely aligned itself with one side in a titanic Islamic struggle stretching back to the seventh century death of the Prophet Mohamed. The profound effects of this great schism, between Sunnis who believe that the father of Mohamed’s wife was the new caliph of the Muslim world and Shias who regard his son in law Ali as his rightful successor – a seventh century battle swamped in blood around the present-day Iraqi cities of Najaf and Kerbala – continue across the region to this day. A 17th century Archbishop of Canterbury, George Abbott, compared this Muslim conflict to that between “Papists and Protestants”.
America’s alliance now includes the wealthiest states of the Arab Gulf, the vast Sunni territories between Egypt and Morocco, as well as Turkey and the fragile British-created monarchy in Jordan. King Abdullah of Jordan – flooded, like so many neighbouring nations, by hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees – may also now find himself at the fulcrum of the Syrian battle. Up to 3,000 American ‘advisers’ are now believed to be in Jordan, and the creation of a southern Syria ‘no-fly zone’ – opposed by Syrian-controlled anti-aircraft batteries – will turn a crisis into a ‘hot’ war. So much for America’s ‘friends’.
Its enemies include the Lebanese Hizballah, the Alawite Shiite regime in Damascus and, of course, Iran. And Iraq, a largely Shiite nation which America ‘liberated’ from Saddam Hussein’s Sunni minority in the hope of balancing the Shiite power of Iran, has – against all US predictions – itself now largely fallen under Tehran’s influence and power. Iraqi Shiites as well as Hizballah members, have both fought alongside Assad’s forces.