Mona Alami

Rising sectarianism in Syria's ongoing war

The Syrian revolution has drifted far from the democratic slogans of the early days

Free Syrian Army rebel fighter holds position

The Bekaa town of Arsal is one the last illegal crossings connecting Lebanon to Syria. Strong winds sweep through the high mountains of the Jurd Arsal, where new smuggling routes have been redrawn and where the Free Syrian Army (FSA) can walk freely. NOW investigates.


Three soldiers at a Lebanese Army checkpoint above Arsal throw us suspicious looks. “Are you foreigners?” they ask, before allowing us to pass. Beyond the checkpoint, the mountain summit appears isolated from the world with the exception of a few Bedouin horse riders. The rundown road we are driving on quickly turns to a dirt path, leading a few kilometers away into Syria. Close to the border, the activity picks up significantly - large trucks and four-by-four cars, most of which do not hold any license plate, tread the illegal crossing carrying merchandise and men.


A huge four-by-four Chevrolet appears from nowhere carrying two officers from the FSA who have agreed to talk to NOW. The older man dressed in a military garb is named Safwan, a lieutenant in the FSA. The other is an officer called Abou Wali who dons the jilbab typically worn by Islamists.


The Syrian revolution seems to have drifted far from the democratic slogans of the early days. The two men quickly ask about our religious beliefs before starting the interview. The officers start by describing the fighting alongside the rebellion as a religious duty. “It is a war of ideologies between Sunnis and Nussari (Alawites) who are supported by the party of Satan," asserts Abou Wali, in reference to the Lebanese party Hezbollah. The cleric underlines the growing role played by Iran and Hezbollah in the Syrian war. "Iranian forces and Hezbollah were initially providing the Assad regime with technical support, as well as reinforcing Syrian troops with sniper cover. They are now leading many of the ground operations in areas from Qusayr to Barzeh," says Safwan.


A new military landscape seems to be emerging in Syria, one situated around three main axes. Namely, the intensification of clashes around strategic highways, weapons caches, and the growing role of Islamic groups in the Syrian war.


The two officers both underscore the attempts made by both FSA and regime loyalists to take control of the main roads linking Damascus to the country’s major cities, coastal regions, and border areas. “Fighting has recently intensified in regions along the main routes such as Beirut-Damascus, Damascus-Aleppo, Damascus-Homs and Damascus-Tartous, as well as the axis connecting the capital to the Jordanian border through Daraa. Clashes are also taking place around weapons caches, which the FSA is trying to take over as 70 percent of our armaments come from the Syrian army’s stocks, " says lieutenant Safwan. He adds that weapons supplies are either made locally or provided by foreign donors.


Another point that both fighters emphasize is the growing role of Islamic movements in the Syrian war. “We admire the successes of the al-Nusra Front in Syria, which now enjoys significant support among the Syrian population because of its many achievements. The Americans told us to fight al-Nusra, but why should we renounce a precious ally who provides us with so many victories?“ ponders the lieutenant Safwan. Both fighters also point to the presence of between 5,000 and 7,000 foreign jihadists currently fighting in Syria. “They are part of the elite fighters of rebel brigades. Jordanians and North Africans are among the most ferocious in battle, while the Saudis are the least keen on suicide bombings,” adds Abou Wali.


In this war sweeping over Syria and ushering in a new balance of power, terror attacks are becoming the weapon of choice against forces loyal to the regime. "The assassination of Assef Shawkat has shown the validity of this strategic approach, one that that could intensify in the future, ” says Safwan.


The war in Syria is being increasingly defined by sectarianism. Whether or not Assad is able to hold on to his regime’s offensive on rebel territories, maintaining control in the long term could be a difficult, if not daunting task.


"It is impossible for Assad’s militias to remain in regions where they are opposed by the majority of the population. Any victory will be temporary,” warns lieutenant Safwan.

A rebel fighter for the Free Syrian Army holds a position. (AFP image).

"'It is impossible for Assad’s militias to remain in regions where they are opposed by the majority of the population. Any victory will be temporary,' warns lieutenant Safwan."