David Brooks, my favorite New York Times columnist, identifies "the biggest threat to world peace right now" as "the possibility of a wave of sectarian strife building across the Middle East." Others go even further. One British politician is warning that the conflict in Syria raises "the spectre of a third world war." Another news outlet headlines: "Could Syria ignite World War 3?"

Why does the Syrian conflict threaten world peace? What does it mean for Israel? For Christians in the Middle East and around the world?

Ryan Crocker is currently serving as the Kissinger Senior Fellow at Yale University and is a former U.S. ambassador to Syria. Crocker reminds us that the Syrian conflict did not begin with the Arab Spring, but in 1982, when the Assad regime systematically eliminated the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. The government has been preparing for insurgency ever since. Unlike the regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, it was ready for this war.

The Assad regime is backed by Iran and other Shias. The strongest opposition group, Jabhat al-Nusra, is the al Qaeda branch in Syria. The Free Syria Army is another insurgent group — backed by Sunnis, including Saudi Arabia, it has been accused of widespread atrocities against Christians in the country. As you can see, the conflict in Syria is a "proxy war," as Iran and Saudi Arabia work against each other to increase their leverage in the region. Meanwhile, Sunni vs. Shia tensions threaten to bring Iraq back into civil war and inflame tensions in Lebanon.

This situation affects Israel directly. Iranian lawmakers are warning that a military strike on Syria would lead to a retaliatory attack on Israel fanned by "the flames of outrage." The commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards states that an American attack on Syria "will result in the imminent destruction of the Zionist regime of Israel." Israelis take these threats seriously — last week, crowds thronged gas mask distribution centers in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and northern Israel.

Hopefully, this is more empty rhetoric — Iran has been promising the destruction of Israel since its Islamic government took power in 1979. But there is a theological connection between our actions in Syria and an attack on Israel, a dimension of this issue that is not being reported in the secular press. Since the Syrian conflict is too complex to discuss in a single Cultural Commentary, let's continue our conversation tomorrow.

Jim Denison, Ph.D., is a subject matter expert on cultural and contemporary issues. He founded the Denison Forum on Truth and Culture, a nonsectarian "think tank" designed to engage contemporary issues with biblical truth in 2009 and is the author of seven books, including Radical Islam: What You Need to Know. For more information on the Denison Forum, visit www.denisonforum.org. To connect with Dr. Denison in social media, visit www.twitter.com/jimdenison or www.facebook.com/denisonforum.

Publication date: September 4, 2013