In the 1990s the Israeli Palestinian conflict dominated the news about the Middle East. The long-standing conflict pretty much defined the Middle East. However, after the American led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the focus shifted to another conflict, the confrontation between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam. Violence between the two strains of Islam had never been seen on such a ferocious scale in Iraq and this conflict began to define the Middle East.
After the Arab uprisings reached Syria and developed into a violent conflict, sectarian tensions quickly began to emerge, for example; increasing rhetoric against Shiite and Alawite in many anti government protests around Syria, and the sectarian violence spreading into neighbouring Lebanon with recent Sunni Alawite clashes in Tripoli this June. With the diverse nature of Syria and Lebanon’s population (Alawite, Shiite, Sunni, Druze, Christian and so on), the increasing economic woes, increasing anger and encouragement from now established Jihadi groups as well as the slow disintegration of the security system in Syria, the region is a tinder-box ready to ignite.
If the sectarian tensions do explode in Syria, the centre of the Sunni Shiite divide that is currently defining the Middle East could rapidly slide from Iraq and into Syria and Lebanon. This view is not just speculation, in Lebanon the view is a real fear, “It’s all down to Bashar al-Assad. He promised that if Syria doesn’t have security, he’ll set fire to the whole Middle East…” Amer Annous, a Lebanese University lecturer, stated in a BBC interview. In any future scenario for Syria, with or without Assad, factional fighting is a sure path for Syria and Lebanon, and with larger powers vying for influence in Syria (Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi), this Sunni Shiite divide is a sure path for defining any future Middle East.
J Robinson –Twitter: @jprobinsons