- - Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The conflict raging in Syria for 20-plus months to oust Bashar Assad from power has evolved into a sectarian battle for Middle East supremacy by two ancient enemies: Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Sunni rebels appear poised for victory. It’s vitally important for the Obama administration to discourage a new Syrian government from supplanting the secular dictatorship with a more dangerous regime based on Islamic law. Another Islamic state in the Middle East could threaten regional residents with more religious tyranny, perpetual war with neighbors and another caliphate.

Syria’s Sunni Muslims, who comprise nearly 75 percent of the country’s 22.5 million people, sparked the uprising by demanding more freedom and a greater role in government from Mr. Assad’s oppressive minority Alawite regime. Mr. Assad responded with a brutal military crackdown. Demonstrations spread and escalated into full-fledged war involving other countries and foreign fighters, mostly along religious lines. This almost exclusively Muslim-on-Muslim conflict has claimed 60,000 civilian and warring-faction lives and displaced an estimated 2.5 million people.

At stake is a historically prized, diversely populated and strategically important land. Syria’s rich history dates back 4,500 years. Its population includes Muslims, Alawites, Kurds, Christians, Druze, Turkmen and Palestinians. Moreover, it borders Israel, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and the Mediterranean Sea. Since 1971, it has been ruled by the Assad family’s Baathist dictatorship, Hafez and then his son Bashar.

Here are some particulars about the main warring parties:

Alawites (members of a Shiite Muslim offshoot) represent about 12 percent of the population, yet occupy most of Mr. Assad’s top military and government posts. They are also Mr. Assad’s most trusted, best-armed and best-trained military components and serve as shabiha paramilitary (irregular) enforcers against his enemies.

Iran’s Shiite regime is Mr. Assad’s most important ally in the Middle East. It supplies Mr. Assad’s security forces with arms, ammunition, missiles, fighters and trainers mostly via the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds force. Iran’s most lethal terrorist proxy, Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah, also has joined the fight on Mr. Assad’s side. The loss of the Syrian alliance will be a devastating setback for Iran’s regional ambitions, especially because it serves as a strategic gateway for this non-Arab state to other Arab countries, Palestinian refugee camps, the West Bank, Gaza, Syrian seaports and Israel’s border.

Sunni Muslim rebels (about 100 local militias filled with many Syrian military defectors) form the opposition’s core and operate under various non-unified umbrellas such as the Free Syrian Army and National Coalition of Revolution and Opposition Forces. Opposition forces also include transnational Sunni Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi units, as well as al Qaeda affiliates. Arms are supplied openly to rebel units by Middle Eastern states such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey that promote Sunni interests and, to varying degrees, interests of Sunni Islamists.

Muslims consider the dominion of Islam — with a man serving as temporal or spiritual successor to the Prophet Muhammad — as the central pillar of their global-domination political program. Sunnis and Shiites disagree sharply on which of them, and who, should lead. They agree that the prime basis of governance and administration of justice should be Islamic (Shariah) law as enunciated in the Koran and traditions of Muhammad, and further elaborated by classical Muslim legists.

Many Westerners, including President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, argue that the Arab Spring is bringing democratic transition to Arab world countries such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. After elections, however, the democratic model envisioned by many of them with similar political rights and civil liberties as free-world nations instead are progressing toward intolerant Shariah-based models.

Therein lies a major problem and danger. Shariah is incompatible with democratic theory. As implemented and practiced by many Muslims, it totally subordinates women and mandates many other human rights violations, such as relegating non-Muslim minorities to a much lower legal status than Muslims and dispensing cruel and unusual punishment. It also rejects freedom of speech and conscience and mandates aggressive jihad until the world is brought under Islamic hegemony.

Americans will welcome the fall of the Assad dictatorship and with it the end of the Syrian-Iranian alliance. The U.S.-designated terrorist state duo and their terrorist proxies are responsible for a three-decade Middle East rampage of mayhem and death that also took many American lives. However, U.S. and regional security will not be enhanced if a Sunni Islamic state with caliphate aspirations rises from the ashes of the Assad regime’s ruins.

Ideas abound on what the United States could best do to facilitate a more peaceful Syria and Greater Middle East when Mr. Assad falls. One bold action Mr. Obama could take is to publicly urge new Syrian leaders to install a government that promotes gender, ethnic and religious legal equality, outlaws cruel and unusual punishment and isn’t a threat to neighbors.

Fred Gedrich, who served in the departments of State and Defense, is a foreign policy and national security analyst.