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Al-Qaida is positioning itself as a vanguard defending the Sunni community against what it sees as persecution by Shiite-dominated governments across Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. As a result, a Syrian rebellion whose aim was the removal of President Bashar Assad is evolving into something both bigger and more ambiguous: a fight increasingly led by Sunni jihadis — often foreign and animated mainly by hatred of Shiites — who are determined to create an Islamic state. Battling these extremists is a coalition that includes moderates who are horrified that their rebellion in Syria has been discredited, with parts of the country falling under strict religious law. For moderates in the Middle East, the renewed assertiveness of the extremists is increasingly taking on the aspect of a regional calamity.