Recent conflict in Syria: a revival of the Cold War

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Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world has been referred to as unipolar. However, recent events in Syria undermine this view.

At the onset of the Syrian Civil War, the main belligerents were the Sunni Muslim rebels and the Syrian military led by President Bashar al-Assad, who hails from the Alawite minority sect. While the war has always been limited to Syrian soil, the agents involved have drastically increased.

On one hand, Western powers like France, the United Kingdom, and the United States have individually and collectively ­— through the European Union — taken the side of the Syrian rebels. They have been bolstered by support from Sunni Muslim states such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar, while Russia, along with Shiite Muslim states like Iran, have supported the Syrian government.

The situation can be characterized as a replay of the Cold War, and the illumination of the Sunni-Shiite divide as the opposing sides seek to maximize their influence through involvement in a proxy conflict.

The belligerents operating from abroad have managed to escalate the intensity of their involvement. Since the beginning, Western powers and their regional allies like Turkey have repeatedly called for Bashar al-Assad to relinquish his post as President.

As Assad shows no signs of doing so, it has escalated beyond verbal support from many Western countries; in the U.S., President Obama has signed an executive order, while the U.K. has been providing support in the form of non-lethal military equipment for some time.

Things have taken a turn this year with the European Union (EU) adopting modifications to the oil and arms embargo it implemented in 2011. While the Syrian government would still be subject to those sanctions, the rebels are now exempt from such sanctions. In fact, the EU is now set to purchase oil sourced from rebel-held oil fields; rebels can now consider the possibility of arms purchases from Western armament manufacturers.

This can be seen as an effort to counter the continuous supply of arms from Iran and Russia. Further, the timing can be seen as a response to Russia’s recent arms deal to supply long-range ballistic missiles. Not only have recent events shown an escalation in the tension between the West and Russia, but they also shed new light on the growing Sunni-Shiite divide that has come to be a fixture in the Syrian civil war.

While this armed conflict has pitted the general public against its autocratic government, it has also shed light on the age-old tension between Sunni and Shia Muslims. While not all Sunnis necessarily support the Free Syrian Army (FSA), most of the rebel fighters are of Sunni background. On the other hand, the Alawite minority, of which President Assad is a member, is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. This has aggravated tensions between Sunnis and Shias, as members of each sect are increasingly picking sides.

Recent events have given the sectarian conflict in Syria elevated importance. The Lebanese Shiite terrorist organization Hezbollah has announced its active participation in the conflict alongside the Assad regime, while Sunni Muslim states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have continued to provide support to the rebels. The dissection of the belligerents who are directly involved in day-to-day fighting based on their religious sect highlights the increasing role played by religious sectors in the conflict.

The ongoing conflict in Syria should not be seen merely as a struggle for democracy by the FSA against the Assad regime. Rather, it should be seen as a conflict capable of putting the wider Middle East in a position of great turmoil and instability as it continues to nurture the tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, and the West and Russia.