Initially, Syria appeared as yet another domino falling in the wave of Arab Spring movement , popular uprisings against autocratic regimes in West Asia and Northern Africa (Arabian Peninsula, the Maghreb and possibly, a part of the Levant ). Yet, unlike Tunisian revolution or Egyptian revolution against Mubarak regime, the developments in Syria has been quite violent and have now taken the form of a bloody civil war. After allegation of use of chemical weapon by government forces, a limited, surgical strike to destroy it's stock of chemical weapon seemed reasonable enough and Obama seemed on the verge of ordering it but then retracted from the position. If this is an unprecedented situation , so is Russia and China's aggressive opposition to it. A weak global economy and probability of an attack on Syria further raising fuel price may have factored in Obama's change of decision but Russia's opposition and Putin's message to American people through an article in a leading newspaper is uncommon, perhaps marking a paradigm shift in global politics.
What makes Syrian Crisis different from other recent upheavals in the region is the fact that it is in essence a very complex conflict involving various factors with the Shia and Sunni sectarianism acting only as the common denominators as well motivating sentiments. However, viewing the conflict only as Shia-Sunni conflict, oversimplifies the situation. Fault lines in the region are based not just on religious doctrines but also on racial,ethnic, nationalistic and even secular ideologies. History of last 1400 years, reveals animosity between the two sects but it does not provide us with evidence of Shia-Sunni conflict taking such a massive proportion. The current animosity stems from the time of the Iranian revolution in 1979. The Iranian Shia supreme leader, Ayotallah Khomeini 's statement on his eagerness to export revolutions to neighboring countries alarmed the Arab states. Apart from being a non-Arab state, Iran also was and is seen as a Shia state capable of fomenting trouble in their regions through minority Shia populations.
Historically, this region has seen antagonism not just between religious sects but also tribes,clans race and ethnicity such as those between Arabs vs Iranians vs Kurds vs Turks to name a few. The Iran-Iraq war of the 80's saw most of the Arab countries in the peninsula cut off ties with Iran and assist Iraq which also received military aid from the West and the US. The only Arab country to ally itself with Iran was Syria whose ruling class belong to the Alawite sect of Shia Islam . But more importantly, Syria was apprehensive of Saddam Hussein's designs and it had major stake in Lebanon where Iran had considerable influence over the militias involved in a civil war. Despite Cold War the mutual hostility didn't escalate to large-scale conflicts because of several reasons including shared hatred for Israel, local insurgencies (Kurdish militants were equal threats to Iraq,Turkey,Iran ) but most likely it was because all of the players were equally matched militarily, making it unlikely for any one side to prevail in a larger conflict.
However, the Iraq invasion upset the apple cart completely. Over the last two decade, two simultaneous processes have been in motion - Iran's nuclear program and spread of Salafist thought among Sunni Muslims. The Western media often associate Salafis only with radicals and terrorist groups such as Al- Qaida but the fact is that only a minuscule section of the group can be called terrorists and they are said to adhere to a more radical school called Qutbism. . Moreover, a few ideas from Salafi school may have influenced global Sunni population even if they are now unaware of it. But comparatively, it has far more influence in Saudi Arabia which is the leader of the Sunni Arab world. The Salafi view places Shias much outside the Muslim fold and this could act as a spark to barrels of gunpowder (or highly inflammable oil) that currently the region sits on . [Update: Mass execution of Shias by ISIS vindicates this view, but unfortunately it is not over yet]
Though the global Shia population within Muslim community constitutes less than 20%, their representation in the West Asia and Armenia is around 30% mostly concentrated in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain. Despite being a minority, the military strength makes up for the lack in numbers. Iran, the only country in the region to possess at least a rudimentary knowledge required to create nuclear weapons (apart from Israel,of course) is also the only Shiite theocracy in the world. Syria may be a Sunni majority but the ruling elite belong to the Alawite sect of Shia Islam (however, Syria is a secular state, so it is more of a strategic alliance than sectarian). Destabilization of Iraq (a Shia majority country ruled by Sunni leaders) led to emergence of several militant groups, also acting as proxies for regional powers. While the Sunni groups were backed by Saudi Arabia, Iraqi Shia militias levitated towards Iran. Caught in a game of shifting loyalties, complex sectarianism, ethnic strife and tribal warfare, the US and all parties involved have taken turns training militant groups. Even Israel was/is a participant, training Kurdish militants.
The realignment of political powers in the region in the last decade have included not only nation-states but also non-state entities and splinter groups. Arguably, the biggest guerrilla force in the world, the Hezbollah had always been an Iranian proxy, in the West Bank, Hamas has been beneficiary of large funds when it's traditional beneficiaries backed out. But Iraq is an asset that the US served to Iran on a platter because of the hugely foolish decision of G.W. Bush. For majority of Iraqi Shias, Iran was a natural ally, even civilian government installed now show strong inclination towards the Iran axis which now includes Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and non-state entities such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Iraqi Shia insurgent groups. The emergence of Iran-Iraq-Syria-Lebanon Axis can also attributed to Cold War politics and the aftermath. As Soviet Union allies, Iran and Syria have had gained much in terms of military. After the collapse of Soviet Union, Russia and China have been arming and training their respective troops.
But more importantly,the Sunni Arab states have been existing as client state of the US and the West, their military capability is severely restricted, possessing only those weapons that the US may allow them to possess, of course after Israeli approval. Iran or its allies never had to face a similar handicap. While Russia or China may not have handed over every weapon Iran had asked for, they have nonetheless been provided much better weaponry and training. The greatest irony of all is that though US has always supported Sunni regimes, including that of Saddam Hussein, by invading and destabilizing Iraq, it gave birth to numerous radical Sunni and Shia militant groups. While Sunni groups were supported by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states, the Shia militant groups virtually fell into the lap of Iran. The Wikileaks cables revealing Saudi Arabia, Jordan,Bahrain, UAE and Egypt have been repeatedly calling for preemptive strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities and secretive alliance between Arabs and Israel indicates the insecurity and hostility between Iran and Arabs. Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition has been infiltrated in huge numbers by the jihadi elements, creating fear of Al Qaida affiliated militants taking over the country
On charges of Syrian regime having used chemical weapon on it's own population, the US and France were eager to punish Al-Assad and his regime and would have carried it out had there not been so much opposition by people across the world. The Syrian crisis had already triggered a surge in oil prices affecting the already global market, there was a fear that an attack on Syria would skyrocket oil prices. This may be one of the reasons behind widespread disapproval of any attack on Syria. There was hardly a murmur of dissent when NATO intervened in Libya to ensure a no-fly zone was established which led to Gaddafi's . ouster and execution. Interestingly, Israel had already carried out four air strikes on Syria this year the last one being in July which targeted Syria's newly acquired advanced anti-ship cruise missiles from Russia.
Obama's initial hesitation and subsequent volte face suggests there may have been indication of Iran taking a more aggressive stance,and possible mobilization of the new formation, in case of US intervention. One way or the other, the Syrian crisis marks a turning point in world history. For the first time since the Cold War, the US hegemony has been openly challenged and forced to take a step back. The first unilateral decision the US took under the leadership of GW Bush has now left it in a situation from which Obama has been unable salvage much. If the US expects a longer ,costlier war then most likely it expects Iranian proxies to be involved .
According to latest news reports there has been a thaw in the relationship between the USA and Iran after the newly elected President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, issued conciliatory statements calling the US, "a great nation". That is certainly a long way from "Great Satan" that Iranian spiritual heads have often used in reference to the US.