Syria Conflict Could Radicalize Levant's Sunni Population

By Riad Kahwaji

The Muslim Sunni community of the Levant, traditionally known for its liberal and moderate character, is becoming radicalized by the bloody events in Syria where a pre-dominantly Alawite regime has been using its armed forces to crush a 15-month-long uprising led by the Sunnis that make up over 80 percent of the country's population. Nearly 14,000 people have been killed and thousands others injured or missing or detained in the revolution that has been sliding into a civil war as the international community stood by very much helpless with nothing more than words of condemnation, moderate sanctions by some countries and dispatching of some 300 useless international observers who did nothing other than count the number of shells and casualties. The Syrian regime has been receiving strong support from its strategic allies: The pre-dominantly Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran, the Lebanese Shiite group Hizbullah and Russia.

Allowing the situation in Syria to deteriorate without adequate swift international intervention to bring an end to the violence has been increasing the frustration and anger of the Sunni community in the Levant region, especially Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan. This could be clearly seen in northern Lebanon where Sunnis have taken up arms on their own without instructions from the traditional Sunni political leadership in the country. Observers were shocked to see hundreds of Sunni gunmen turn out to the funeral of two Sunni clerics who were killed at a Lebanese Army checkpoint last May, an incident that remains under investigation. On-and-off clashes have increased between Sunni and Alawite neighborhoods in Tripoli, Lebanon's second largest city and a known Sunni stronghold. Repeated Syrian army incursions into northern and eastern Lebanon that resulted in the death of few Lebanese villagers and destruction of their property have prompted the residents of these border Sunni towns to acquire arms to defend themselves after the Lebanese Army failed to come to their assistance.

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Many analysts and observers believe that the Syrian regime has been trying to spark a Sunni-Shiite sectarian war in Lebanon to divert international attention from the situation in its own country. Its efforts have failed thus far, largely because most Lebanese parties, including Hizbullah, do not wish to see a civil war in their own country. Nevertheless, the heightened threat perception and the growing sense of weakness and humiliation within the Lebanese Sunni community is driving its members to follow the footsteps of their Sunni brothers in Syria in becoming self-dependent in acquiring arms and forming local militias to defend themselves against threats from Alwaite or Shiite groups. The Syrian rebellion that turned into an armed insurgency is largely dependent on its own resources and support from sympathizers in the Arab Gulf States. The same is happening in northern Lebanon. According to a Lebanese security official most of the Sunni fighters in the Bab el-Tebbaneh district clashing with Alawites of Jabal Mohsen district in Tripoli do not answer to any of the Sunni political leaders in Lebanon and use cease-fire periods to raise funds in order to buy ammunition and arms for future rounds of fighting. "Al-Qaeda exploits areas where extremism and radicalism are spreading and the area (Levant) that was relatively immune to Al-Qaeda in the past could become vulnerable in the future if Syrian conflict persists much longer," the security official said.

If the situation in Syria continues as is for a few more months, its consequences on the Sunni community of the region would likely be adverse and irreversible. The spillover effect is not even controlled by the villain - Syrian regime - as it would like Western powers to think. It would rather take on a momentum of its own, and would prove costly to the Middle East peace process, even with the Syrian regime gone and Iran weakened. The Syrian regime propaganda machine is spreading rumors of an Al-Qaeda-like Sunni Islamic Emirate of Salafis emerging in northern Lebanon in order to play on the fears of the international community and force it to reverse its stance in supporting the rebels and keep it in power. It is a very dangerous game because the Syrian regime's actions are impacting the Sunni community throughout the Levant and not just in northern Lebanon. Current moderate Lebanese Sunni political leaders will either be slowly replaced by bearded Salafi figures and clerics or feel compelled to adopt a radical tone to maintain the support of their constituencies. This is already happening in Syria and Iraq and could spill over into Jordan.

There are many reasons given to the delaying of the inevitable international intervention in Syria. But regardless of what this reason could be, any further delay would risk creating a situation where a radicalized powerful sleeping Sunni giant could be awakened in the Levant with severe consequences far beyond anybody's imagination.

Riad Kahwaji is the CEO of the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA).

(AP Photo)

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