Upwards of 85 percent of the world's Muslim population are Sunni, and this helps explain the firm stand of the Arab League against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Al-Assad is an Alawite, and it is this ethnic group -- some 12 percent of the Syrian population -- which controls the main units of the army and security forces and is thus able to dominate the general population by violence and intimidation. Other principal minorities, Christians (9 percent) and Druze (3 percent), as well as lesser minorities, also generally support the al-Assad regime, as do many of the Sunni businessmen in the two major cities of Damascus and Aleppo. But the rest of the population, 74 percent, are Sunnis, and it was the largely Sunni city of Hama that suffered more than 10,000 deaths at the hands of Bashar's father, Hafez al-Assad, in the Muslim Brotherhood uprising there in 1982.
The Alawite sect is considered an offshoot of Shia Islam, but its belief in the Trinity and a few other elements of Christianity would hardly endear itself to the Shia regime in Iran, let alone the worldwide Sunni population. But the Syrian relationship with Iran is based on a long-standing political alliance. Indeed, what the Sunni powers seem to reproach Syria for is that it has allowed Iran to penetrate the Arab world, through a crescent that stretches from Iran through Iraq through Syria to include the large Shiite party in Lebanon, the Hezbollah, which is a major recipient of Iranian military support and a constant threat to Israel. A lesser recipient is Hamas, but the latter is a Sunni organization which may be taking its distance, both literally and figuratively, from Damascus. It has declined to support Bashar al-Assad's regime in the current uprising in Syria.
The most fervent opponents of Syria and its Iran-backed regime are Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) monarchies. It was no accident that Morocco, a putative GCC member, sponsored the UN Resolution on Syria that Russia and China vetoed on February 4. Moreover, Islamist opinion in other Sunni countries (cf. Tunisia and Egypt) seems also to be inflamed against the killings in Syria.
So what we seem to have is a three-level chess game in Syria: internal (the Sunnis, an overwhelming majority, against the Alawites, now in a Gotterdammerung struggle to maintain themselves; regional (the Iranians and their allies against the Saudis and their allies); and worldwide (the Russians and Chinese, who as autocratic powers do not support internal uprisings, versus the West).
Editor's Note: Charles Cogan was the chief of the Near East-South Asia Division in the Directorate of Operations of the CIA from August 1979 to August 1984. He is now an historian and an associate of the Belfer Center's International Security Program at the Harvard Kennedy School.