But in the year since Tunisians and Egyptians kicked off the Arab Spring, the phenomenon has shifted from a regionwide revolt against corrupt, unjust rulers into a series of much narrower battles, most of them fought along sectarian lines.
To be sure, the shift reflects ideological and historical realities of the region, from ancient tribal rivalries in Libya, to fears of Christians as Islamists go for broke in Egypt, to the backdrop of the Persian-Arab power struggle in the Gulf. Much of the realignment, however, is strategic. Sectarian politics has proved an effective way for leaders to redirect the populist spirit of the uprisings in an effort to avert their downfall and boost their regional influence.
Sunni Gulf states aligned against Shiite Iran, for example, have supported the Syrian uprising in hopes of reshaping the region's balance of power in their favor. Unseating President Bashar al-Assad would eliminate a key link in the Iran-led "axis of resistance."
To mobilize support at home, Sunni regimes have seized upon the fact that the majority of opposition leaders and fighters in Syria are Sunni, with minorities such as Druze, Kurds, and Christians often reluctant to back the uprising out of fear that a Sunni Islamist government would not protect their rights.