In the year 680 AD, a military engagement occurred in the town of Karbala, in present-day Iraq. The forces of Hussein ibn Ali, grandson of Islam's prophet, were defeated by the army of the ruling Umayyad caliph. Hussein was beheaded, and approximately 150 men on both sides died. Based strictly on military casualties, the Battle of Karbala would be viewed by historians as a mere skirmish. However, the importance of a battle cannot be measured strictly by an accountant's ledger of losses inflicted and incurred. In terms of its long-term strategic significance, the Battle for Karbala must be ranked as one of the most consequential in recorded history, for it created the seismic divide in the Islamic world between Shia and Sunni Muslims, and the for the past 13 centuries the internecine struggle persists as to the correct and legitimate line of succession beginning with the Prophet Muhammad.
The followers who mourn Hussein, his bother Hasan and father Ali as the first Imams, and martyrs of the true path of succession in Islam, have come to be known as the Shia, a large minority branch in the Islamic world that has been in perpetual theological conflict with the majority within the Muslim world, the Sunnis. This internal strife within Islam that has endured for more than a millennium sets the context for the fearsome bloodletting occurring in Syria.
In a uniquely insightful column published in Lebanon's English language newspaper, the Daily Star, entitled "Qusair Portends Great Danger Ahead," Beirut-based Palestinian-American journalist Rami Khouri points out that the victory in that devastated Syrian town for President Assad is in a larger sense a defeat, for it was only with the massive intervention of the Iranian backed and controlled Shiite militia based in Lebanon, Hezbollah, that a triumph could be claimed over heaps of rubble in a once predominantly Sunni populated city.
In response to the destruction of Qusair, prominent Sunni theologians throughout the Arab and broader Muslim world are calling on their faithful to flock to Syria to fight a new Jihad, not against the Western world or Israel, but in opposition to what is being described as a Iranian Shiite plot to dominate the Middle East. Those sentiments are being echoed by renewed sectarian violence in Iraq, and continuing Sunni-Shiite conflict in Pakistan.
Khouri writes with prescient eloquence, "The Hezbollah-Syria-Lebanon dynamic now also feeds into the newest regional problem arena: deteriorating Sunni-Shiite relations across the Middle East, including increasing incidents of outright ethnic cleansing, bombings, and intense provocations that started after President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair invaded Iraq and turned it into the first modern Arab battleground of Sunni-Shiite mutual demonization and death. "
Now, a decade after the beginning of the first modern Sunni-Shiite civil war that resulted from the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Syria has become the center of gravity in a regional sectarian bloodbath that displays every indication that it will get far more bloody, with no end in sight to the carnage, as the rest of the world lulls itself into believing that it can be mere spectators to frightful instability that will likely not confine its ruinous impact to the Middle East.