With Lebanon's Hezbollah fighters now officially involved in the Syrian war, the conflict becomes even more a religious and regional clash of Sunnis against Shiites. The prospect of Syria becoming a proxy 'holy war,' mainly between Iran and Saudi Arabia, adds urgency to calls for peace talks.
Any hope that Syria’s civil war could be contained within that country ended over the weekend. The major military force in neighboring Lebanon, Hezbollah, officially declared it had joined the fight. In fact, its declared entry triggered violent sectarian clashes within Lebanon.
The question now is whether the Syrian conflict, which began with peaceful pro-democracy protests in 2011, could erupt into a religious war between branches of Islam, pitting forces backed by Shiite Iran, such as Hezbollah, against militias backed by Sunni-run states like Saudi Arabia or even Turkey.
The prospect of a “holy war” in the Middle East adds urgency to joint calls by Russia and the United States for an international conference on Syria. The risks of an intra-Muslim conflict engulfing the region are too great to ignore this plea for peace. One need only look at the ongoing violence in post-Hussein Iraq to see how intractable a Sunni-Shiite conflict over Syria might be.
While the Syria war had already attracted foreign Sunni jihadists and special Iranian forces on either side, Hezbollah’s entry brings heightened concern. Its leader, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, says his Shiite forces are in Syria to kill “takfiris,” or Islamists who urge Sunni Muslims to kill anyone they consider an infidel. He also wants to defend a key corridor across Syria long used to ship Iranian military equipment to Hezbollah (“Party of God”).
A pure war over religious doctrine is rare in history, and that may hold true in this case. Much of the struggle in Syria is a geopolitical contest between Iran and Saudi Arabia for influence in the region. This competition began after the Iranian revolution in 1979 and accelerated in 2003 when Iraq shifted from being led by a Sunni-led regime to one that is Shiite-dominated and Iran-leaning.