BEIRUT, Lebanon, April 19 (UPI) -- The bloodbath in Syria is developing into a battle between Islam's mainstream Sunni sect, led by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and the breakaway Shiites, led by Iran.
The main fear in the region is the conflict could spread to Arab states, particularly those with sharp sectarian divisions, such as Iraq and Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia, the world's leading oil producer and the birthplace of Islam in the seventh century, has a sizeable Shiite minority, which predominates in the kingdom's Eastern province.
That's Saudi Arabia's main oil-producing zone, so it's highly sensitive and Riyadh has long feared that Shiite-dominated Iran seeks to use its co-religionists as a fifth column to sabotage its all-important oil industry.
Turkey, a Sunni-dominated state that under its Islamic government is striving to restore its Ottoman-era power and become the paramount state in the region.
Turkey, neighbor to both Iran and Syria, is increasingly being drawn into the Syrian conflict against the Damascus regime, its former ally.
"It's becoming increasingly clear that the Syrian uprising transcends the strategic interests of Iran and Turkey, as it has become the battleground between the Sunni and Shiite communities throughout the Middle East," observed Alon Ben-Meir, professor of international relations and Middle East studies at New York University's Center for Global Affairs.
"The new political order that will eventually emerge in Syria will determine not only the ultimate success or failure of Iran's aspirations to become the region's hegemon but whether or not the Sunni Arab world will maintain its dominance.
"Hence, the conflict will be long, costly and bloody, reflecting the troubled history between the two sides that has extended over a millennium," Ben-Meir wrote in a Huffington Post analysis published April 13.
Sectarian conflict is simmering in Iraq in the wake of the completion of the U.S. military withdrawal Dec.