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Syria War, Sectarian Rivalries Fuel Violence in Middle East

  • Meredith Buel

An explosion of bloodshed continues in the Middle East as the civil war in Syria spreads violence and extremism to neighboring countries. Sectarian rivalries are fueling instability and radical Islamist militants are battling for influence and territory across the region.

Ambulances rush to the scene of another bombing in Lebanon, as Beirut is hit by attacks linked to sectarian tensions over Syria’s civil war.

Thousands of foreign jihadists turn their guns on each other in Syria as the bloody civil war reaches its third year.

And the Iraqi military battles radical militants who stage the most brazen takeover of neighborhoods in western Anbar province since the withdrawal of U.S. troops two years ago.

Analysts say al-Qaida-linked groups see the region as one big battlefield, an arena for the most extreme Sunni version of radical Islam.

“The threat to American interests and to American allies is growing. It is time to face up to that reality right now," said analyst David Pollock.

Analysts say the conflicts are stoked by the sectarian split and bitter regional rivalry of Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Iran backs Hezbollah and other Shi’ite fighters, while Saudi Arabia spends millions arming Sunni rebels.

“Saudi Arabia plays this game because it has to, because it is going up against Iran which is backing Hezbollah," said analyst Bill Roggio. "So Saudi Arabia says well we will find our Salifists, our radicals and we will go ahead and arm and back them, so it increases the chance of a widening regional war as well as state sponsorship of terrorist groups."

The current fighting in Iraq underscores the sectarian divide.

Al-Qaida extremists are backing some Sunni tribesmen who feel marginalized by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government.

"I call upon all those who were involved or have been lured to take part in the terrorism machine led by al-Qaida to return to reason and we will open a new chapter to settle their cases," said Maliki.

But analysts say Maliki’s poor treatment of his Sunni opponents has led to the resurgence of al-Qaida.

“There are extremists from al-Qaida and affiliated groups that are now collaborating with more moderate Sunni tribal elements because all of them hate Maliki," said Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. "All of them feel that Maliki has turned against the Sunni population."

And that, analysts say, is helping al-Qaida-linked groups recruit and raise money.

“So the situation is just about as bad as it has ever been," said Bill Roggio. "Al-Qaida has expanded, it has grown, and this is all happening as the U.S. and the West are withdrawing."

The United States has rushed missiles to the Iraqi government to help fight the jihadis.

But American officials have made clear no U.S. troops will join the battle.
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