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Sectarian Explosion beginning in Syria?

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The situation in Syria took an even graver turn yesterday. As the ruling Assad regime continues to brutalise dissenting citizens, some Syrians appear to be lashing out at the regime's minority Alawite sect. In retaliation, several Alawites went on a rampage of their own. Nada Bakri reports in The New York Times:

On Sunday, residents of Homs, Syria's second-largest city, discovered the bodies of three Alawites mutilated and dumped in a deserted area, according to Omar Idlibi of the Local Coordination Committees, a group that helps organize and document protests. All three were armed government loyalists, he said.

News of the deaths enraged other Alawites, who went on a rampage, according to residents and activists. Three people were killed, including a mother of three, and scores of shops owned by Sunnis were burned and vandalized, Mr. Idlibi said.

The escalation of sectarian tensions in Syria does not bode well for President Assad and his supporters. The Alawites comprise only 10% of the Syrian population and therefore would undoubtedly become the targets of sectarian persecution in the event that they were to lose power. Unfortunately, incidents such as this would only encourage Assad to hold more firmly onto his seat - with the Syrian people suffering as a result.

Meanwhile, Assad has not let the slaughter of his people cause him to lose sight of his foreign policy priorities. The Syrian Foreign Ministry today released a statement recognising Palestinian statehood - two months ahead of the upcoming UN vote on the issue. This could potentially be a last-ditch attempt to continue the long-standing Syrian tradition of increasing tensions with Israel in order to distract from domestic difficulties; although another view would be that the Assad regime does not believe that it will still be around to vote in September.

Furthermore, as the editorial in The Australian today points out, amid all of the ongoing chaos within Syria, the ruling regime has been ramping-up its supply of arms to its ally, the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah.

Just when it seemed reasonable to assume the dictator in Damascus had his hands full in ruthlessly suppressing the democratic aspirations of his blighted people, it has been disclosed his regime is accelerating weapons supplies -- including missiles that bring Israel, Jordan and Turkey within range -- to Hezbollah terrorists in neighbouring Lebanon.

Unsurprisingly, Iran's thumbprints are all over shipments that make Hezbollah's the most powerful non-state military force in the world. The Shia group's new arsenal includes Scud missiles with a range of 700km.

Again, the move seems to indicate that the Assad regime is hedging its bets by creating tensions in the surrounding region. Also, empowering Hezbollah gives a signal to Syria's neighbours that they will pay a price if any harm comes to Assad.

That Turkey is now within range of Hezbollah rockets is particularly significant, given reports that are emerging that a terrorist attack in Istanbul in May was actually caused by Hezbollah and not, as had been previously believed, the Kurdish PKK. Commentary's Jonathan Tobin has observed that this could be a factor in Turkey's apparent moves to re-embrace Israel.

While sources in Ankara are denying Hezbollah is operating on their territory, this incident may have been part of a recent trend in which Turkey's Islamic government has backed away from Iran and Syria in the wake of the Arab Spring protests. Turkey chose not to play any role in this year's version of the anti-Israel flotilla to Gaza, and it has been alarmed by Syria's military activities close to their southern border as the Assad regime tries to wipe out dissidents.

This blog has previously reported that Turkey may be called on to solve the problems in Syria. Incidents like this make such a solution ever more likely.

Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz

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