Whereas internal sectarian and external geopolitical elements have combined to propel Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to boost the armed rebellion against the Assad regime, the focus of the U.S. and Israeli policymakers is geopolitical – to delink Iran from Syria, depriving it of the Mediterranean flank next to Israel, and divest Russia of its Mediterranean naval presence, narrowed down to the Syrian port of Tartus since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya last year.
The primary driving force in the anti-Assad camp is Sunni hostility toward Alawis/ Shias. The success in overthrowing the status quo in Syria can only be achieved by inflaming Sunni-Shia relations. This is tantamount to playing with fire, because the sectarian fault line extends beyond the oil-rich Middle East, well into Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In Iraq, Sunni-Shia relations deteriorated to a low-intensity civil war in 2006-2007 and remain strained. On 13 June concerted suicide attacks on Shia gatherings in Baghdad and elsewhere killed 72 people. In Lebanon, pro-Riyadh Sunnis and pro-Tehran Shias coexist uneasily. In Bahrain, the Shia majority has protested against the Sunni al Khalifa ruling family off and on since 1994.
Saudi Arabia is vulnerable. Most of its Shias, 15 percent of the population, are concentrated in its oil-bearing Eastern Province, where they're an integral part of the petroleum industry. In March 2011, defying warnings by authorities, Shias in the province's major city of Qatif demonstrated, shouting: 'One people, not two – the people of Qatif and Bahrain.' In oil-rich Kuwait, Shias are 30 percent of the indigenous population. Sabotage of the Saudi or Kuwaiti oil industry by local Shias, facing a Sunni onslaught, would have global repercussions.
This factor weighs heavily with the policymakers of China, dependent on Middle East oil supplies. In collaboration with the Kremlin, the Chinese have consistently opposed any move, covert or overt, by Western powers at the UN Security Council to bring about regime change in Damascus. The Beijing-Moscow stance is in line with a common aim to create and sustain a multipolar globe on the ashes of a unipolar world dominated by Washington.
Such global visions do not inform FSA commanders, who routinely foreswear any sectarian bias. Yet the FSA consists almost entirely of Sunnis, many followers of the clandestine, deeply rooted, anti-Shia Muslim Brotherhood. Most FSA units are named after historical Sunni warriors who battled Shias.
al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri called on Muslims in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and elsewhere to join the fight against 'the pernicious, cancerous regime' of Assad last February – and many militant jihadists heeded the call.
Terrorist attacks on the Syrian government's targets have been claimed by Jabhat al-Nusra li Ahl Ash-Sham, or Support Front for the People of Syria, an al-Qaeda affiliate. Farouq Brigade, composed mainly of al-Qaeda operatives, is an openly recognized part of the FSA, and performing better than other FSA units.
Regrettably, leaders in Washington, Ankara, Riyadh and Doha have either failed to ponder the probable consequences of the overthrow of Assad or feel unduly confident of managing them: a bloody civil war destabilizing the region, at worst; the post-Assad regime inheriting a fractured country where al-Qaeda militants have free rein, at best; and an inevitable spike in oil prices for a world in the midst of the longest recession since the 1930s Great Depression.