Syria may be on the brink of a civil war far bloodier than anything seen for a long time in the Middle East. To make matters worse, it could spill over into neighboring countries by pitting Sunni and Shia Muslims against one another, a conflict whose power has already been seen in Iraq

Iran, Hezbollah, and their allies in Iraq and elsewhere are often extremist Shia Muslims; the radicals further west — as in Saudi Arabia, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood — are Sunni Muslims.

Syria is on the borderlands between these two doctrines. Most of its people are Sunni Muslims but there are also Christians, Druze, and Alawites. Who are the Alawites? While arguably Alawites are not Muslims at all, they claim to be Shia Muslims. Syria’s government is also aligned with Iran and Hezbollah — in other words, the Shia Muslim forces.

And therein lies the danger. The ruling Alawites comprise only about 12 percent of Syria’s population but largely dominate the government. The bloody repression of the opposition, which is largely Sunni, is creating communal tensions. Sunni Muslims, who outnumber Alawites by a margin of more than five-to-one, may view this as a Sunni-Alawites and equally a Sunni-Shia conflict.

The Syrian dictatorship has thus begun a blood feud regardless of these potential consequences. Many Syrians I have spoken with inside the country are seething with anger over the Alawite-led government’s butchering of Sunnis. They are equally aware that Hezbollah and the Iranian regime support President Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s dictator, secretly and cheer him publicly.