Belfast Telegraph

Monday 1 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

West needs to tread warily in Syria's sectarian war

Syrian President Bashar Assad

It didn't start that way but the Syrian uprising has been sucked into a sectarian conflict which dwarfs our own little differences and has global implications.

Like people here, most Muslims want to live at peace with their neighbours and build a better future for their children. Yet the underlying dynamic is conflict between adherents of the faith's two main sects – Shia and Sunni.

Outsiders should not simply pick a side in this wider struggle. Sunnis control Saudi Arabia and the gulf. That creates influence with oil importing countries; America and Britain regard gulf states as a key regional allies and export markets. Yet Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were also both Sunnis, and Sunni extremists still control Al-Qaida.

Bashir Al Assad, the embattled Syrian dictator, is a secular Alawite, a Shia breakaway, which is why the Shia leaders of Iran support him. They are hoping for a Shia crescent running through Iran, southern Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

Western powers need to be very careful about getting sucked into a struggle which will take decades to resolve itself and in which no side is all good or all bad.

The trick is finding a way to help those who are suffering and to make long-term friends in the region. Aid, trade and diplomacy must be the primary tools in that task.

COMMENT RULES: Comments that are judged to be defamatory, abusive or in bad taste are not acceptable and contributors who consistently fall below certain criteria will be permanently blacklisted. The moderator will not enter into debate with individual contributors and the moderator’s decision is final. It is Belfast Telegraph policy to close comments on court cases, tribunals and active legal investigations. We may also close comments on articles which are being targeted for abuse. Problems with commenting? customercare@belfasttelegraph.co.uk