In nearly two and a half years, the Syrian war has passed through one savage stage after another: The initial popular uprising against President Bashar Assad and his regime in March 2011 mutated into an armed rebellion, then a regional conflict encompassing Iran, Hizballah, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey and Israel.
In mid-2013, with the death toll passing the 100,000 mark, Syria is a churning vortex sucking in global powers: A duel between the United States and Russia by means of expanded weapons supplies and intelligence to the warring sides crisscrosses – and at times converges – with the Muslim intercine war fast overtaking the Syrian battlefield.
This stage, in the view of DEBKA Weekly’s Western intelligence sources, will overshadow all the foregoing stages as the bloodiest and most pervasive them all.
Wednesday, June 26, Moscow announced the evacuation of all Russian military and diplomatic personnel from Syria, including its naval base at Tartus, “for fear of an incident involving the Russian military that could have larger consequences.”
A 16-ship Russian naval task force remained in the eastern Mediterranean.
In the early stages, Iran stepped in to bolster the Assad regime and his ruling Alawite clan against their foes in the interests of preserving this alliance as their bridge to Hizballah, the Lebanese Shiite surrogate the ayatollahs prized for opening a second front against Israel if their nuclear facilities were attacked.
This perception changed in the summer of 2011 when Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu shelved his plans for preempting Iran’s nuclear weapons aspirations by force.
The Economist of London wrote on Friday, June 21: The die is cast for a nuclear Iran. An Israeli attack is unlikely. Neither Iran’s election, nor sanctions nor military threats are likely to divert it from the path it is on to getting nuclear weapons, says The Economist, citing top independent experts in the field.
Discounting an Israeli attack, Iran goes for regional hegemony
Safe in the conviction that neither Israel nor the US any longer posed a military threat, DEBKA Weekly's Iranian experts found the ayatollahs moving on to their next objective, the status of regional hegemon.
In their first foray, they picked the Syrian conflict as their vehicle. It was then that they initiated the process of superimposing on the Syrian war a violent trial of strength between Shiite fighters and rival Sunni-led rebel forces.
The Shiite Hizballah and Iraq Shiite militiamen mobilized in their thousands to Assad’s war effort.
In late May of this year, Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s call to arms of all Lebanese Shiites led to victory in the battle for al-Qusayr.
The Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab regimes were in shock.
Qatar enlisted the influential Sunni cleric Yusuf Qaradawi to pour fire and brimstone on Hizballah and muster Sunnis across the Muslim world for jihad against the Shiites massed in Syria although some Gulf leaders fought shy of dipping into the perilous waters of holy war. They may think again when they see Shiite forces vanquishing Sunni rebels in the impending decisive battle of Aleppo.
Religious fever spreads out from Syria to engulf Muslims
Seen from Washington and Moscow, the Syrian war now pits Barack Obama against Vladimir Putin in a personal bout for the upper hand in Middle East and Persian Gulf influence.
The region's Muslims see it in a different light. Nasrallah, on the one hand, and Qaradawi, on the other, have transformed Syria into the arena of a religious war whose guidelines and goals are set by global Muslim authorities.
It has opened the floodgates for violent jihad to surge out of Syria and infect nations with sizeable Shiite populations, such as Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Pakistan.
Muslim nations with large Sunni majorities, including those outside the region such as Turkey, may easily be sucked into the fever of religious zeal engulfing Muslim communities. Even Iran and its Shiite Islamic regime might not at the end of the day prove immune to the deleterious effects of the jihad Tehran itself whipped in Syria. The ayatollahs would find that religious hatred is an epidemic more easily started than contained.
The violent Sunni-Shiite schism of the seventh century offers a case in point. In the overcharged contemporary climate, with its high stakes and geopolitical rivalries, a fresh outbreak of Shiite-Sunni strife could become “the mother of religious wars.”
Non-Muslim outsiders likely to be caught up in this clash, like the US and Israel, are unfortunately unprepared and ill-equipped for coming to grips with this menace on their doorstep.
Al Qaeda fights in Syria to disrupt Shiite rule in Baghdad
Washington and Jerusalem are still bogged down in the minutiae of the Syrian conflict, such as how to deal with undesirable Al Qaeda elements while aiding the safe parts of rebel movement and, most of all, how to keep chemical and advanced weapons out of Hizballah and other terrorist hands.
These issues, serious as they are, represent no more than corners of the expanding Syrian battlefield picture. On the other hand, a look at one particular corner makes one wonder where Al Qaeda’s fighting men have disappeared to of late.
The answer to this again points to the bigger picture: The jihadis took note of the fluctuating nature of the Syria war and the approaching knock-down Shiites-Sunni contest and went to ground to make appropriate preparations
Al Qaeda’s overriding goal in joining the Syrian conflict was never just to make war on America and Arab dictators, but to use it as a staging post for challenging the pro-Iranian Shiite regime in Baghdad. By fighting with the Syrian rebels, al Qaeda hoped to bag in one fair swoop three glittering prizes – control in Damascus, Baghdad and Beirut.
Related forces are adapting to the latest stage in the Syrian war. That is why this week, the Lebanese army, 60 percent of whose manpower are Shiite Muslims, used a battle in the southern port town of Sidon with Sheikh Ahmed al-Asir’s Salafite militia, to start killing their Sunni comrades-at-arms in different parts of Lebanon.
Al Jazeera TV platform for Syrian Islamists
In the past two weeks, Qatar’s Al Jazeera TV network has given a regional platform to the radical Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) and its leader Hassan Aboud Abu Abdulllah al-Hamawi. His first public interview took place after he attended a conference of high-ranking Muslim clerics in Cairo, who called for jihad in Syria. Influential Qatari and Egyptian clerics appear to be ready to anoint the SIF as leader of the Syrian revolution against the Assad regime and its Shiite allies.
An important SIF member alongside the Syrian al Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra, is the Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya (HASI). Those two are the best-armed rebel groups in the Syrian rebel movement. HASI recently established a Technical Division for running a cyber war on websites representing the pro-Assad Syrian “Electronic Army.”
Though trailing far behind Syria on the world’s front pages, the Sunni-Shiite war in Iraq is broader and more lethal. It is edging perilously close to Iran and Turkey. The Erdogan government in Ankara has already dipped a toe in those waters by sending arms to Sunni militias in western Iraq.
Shiites gird up for insurgency in Arab Gulf kingdoms
In the oil-rich Eastern Provinces of Saudi Arabia, the large Shiite population is on the march, staging almost daily protests and riots which Saudi security forces have proved unable to suppress.
In Bahrain, the Shiite majority conducts a violent underground war against the ruling Sunni minority.
In Egypt, a large Salafist mob murdered the Shiite cleric, Hassan Shehata, in an attack on his home in the town of Zawiyat Abu Muslim on the outskirts of Cairo.
And in the Gaza Strip this week, Hamas special forces raided the home of pro-Iranian Palestinian Jihad Islami’s missile battery commander Raed Jundeir and shot him dead with a bullet to the head.
Under the influence of Tehran, Jundeir, like other senior Jihadi officers, had recently converted from Sunni to Shiite Islam.
In Yemen, the Houthi rebels fighting from their northern base are armed by Iran and receive military training from Iranian Revolutionary Guards instructors. Their battles may well spread into the Indian subcontinent and reach Afghanistan and Pakistan.