Mona Alami

Sunni-Shiite divide looms over region

Syria may spill over in more ways than one

islamist sunni fighters

Syria’s protracted conflict has turned into a proxy war between President Bashar al-Assad's Shiite ally Iran and Sunni Arab Gulf countries, threatening neighboring countries with large Muslim communities, such as Lebanon and Iraq, with sectarian spillover, something that experts believe plays in favor of the Damascus regime.


Last October, Reuters reported that Iraqi Shiite militants are fighting in Syria, alongside President Bashar al-Assad's troops. In recent weeks, the number of Hezbollah fighters killed in Syria has increased significantly, a figure estimated at over 100 by Hezbollah’s former secretary, Sheikh Sobhi Toufayli.


“Dictatorships, especially those such as the Assad regime which have undergone training in eastern Europe, have learnt to penetrate tribes, sects, and political parties in countries such as Lebanon and Iraq and manipulate them when needed,” says Nadim Shehadeh, analyst at Chatham House.


This manipulation of local Lebanese and Iraqi factions includes playing on their sectarian fears. “One such example is the threat of destruction of the Shiite holy shrine of Sayyida Zeinab,” emphasizes Shehadeh. Zeinab was the daughter of Imam Ali, who is revered by Shiites, and his wife Fatima, Mohammad’s daughter.


According to Reuters, some defectors from the Iraqi Mehdi army fighting in Syria said they were securing the Sayyida Zeinab shrine, as well as Shiite neighborhoods. A similar argument has been voiced by Hezbollah, whose secretary general Hassan Nasrallah has partly justified the deployment of the party’s fighters in Syria by arguing they were defending Sayyida Zeinab’s shrine as well as Lebanese Shiites residing in the Kousseir border region. “The regime is using religious reasons to mobilize the Shiite community. It has extended of the myth of [the 680 Battle of] Karbala to encompass Shiite holy shrines in Syria. Lebanese and Iraqi Shiites fighting in Syria are thus doing it for ideological reasons,” says AUB political science professor Dr. Hilal Khashan.


In addition, both Iraqi and Lebanese members of Lebanese Hezbollah or Moqtada al-Sadr's Iraqi Mehdi Army, the Badr group, and Asaib al-Haq, among other factions who follow Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have argued that the Syrian uprising threatens the interests of the Shiite community and the resistance axis.


“Like any other dictator, Assad wants to prove that he is irreplaceable and indispensable and that his removal will cause chaos. He has used this weapon repeatedly in the past. In Lebanon he has armed Hezbollah… while in Iraq he manipulated al-Qaeda,” points out Shehadeh.


Alongside Shiites defending the Assad regime, the war in Syria has also attracted hordes of Sunni jihadi fighters from across the region who have joined the rebel cause. A call for jihad has been recently issued in Lebanon by the Salafi Sheikh Salem Rafei. On the other hand, the involvement of Iraqi jihadis in the Syrian conflict was recently crystallized by the announcement made by the emir of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, detailing the rebranding of his organization into the “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant,” a conglomeration which would include the Syrian Jabhat al-Nusra group (a proposal rejected by al-Nusra).


This dangerous escalation on both sides of the Sunni-Shiite divide will encourage Lebanese and Iraqi factions involved in it to drift away from their central state and further strengthen their ties with sectarian regional actors.


Both Iraqi and Lebanese governments have implemented a policy of non-interference in Syria. However recent developments are threatening the precarious status quo. According to a recent report by Crisis Group, the standoff in Iraq between Sunni Arab protesters and the central government has begun “a perilous, downward slide toward confrontation. On 23 April, Iraqi security forces killed 50 people in a demonstration in the Sunni town of Hawija, in Kirkuk governorate.” The report stated that Sunni Arab were feeling disenfranchised and alienated by Baghdad and experiencing mounting solidarity with their Syrian brethren next door, sharing “feelings of hostility toward a purported Shiite axis linking Hezbollah, Damascus, Baghdad, and Tehran.”  


Similarly, tensions have been on the rise in Lebanon. The country has been plagued with a power vacuum, exacerbated by the inability of the prime minister-designate to form a government and the possible postponement of the next parliamentary elections. Hezbollah’s deeper involvement in Syria has triggered widespread resentment among the country’s Sunni community, which, like its Iraqi counterpart, identifies with the rebels. Khashan believes that the involvement of Hezbollah in the Syrian war will have serious long-term repercussions, as Syrians will not easily forgive the Party of God’s support for the Assad regime. The ever-increasing number of Syrians seeking refuge in Lebanon may exacerbate the tensions, eventually bringing them to a head.


Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq are now thus forming an arc of instability, which might trigger a regional doomsday scenario.


 “There is a real danger of spillover: Sunni and Shiites (from both Lebanon and Iraq) who are fighting in Syria might one day bring the conflict closer to home,” says Shehadeh.


Read this article in Arabic

Sunni fighters from Islamist Jabhat al-Nusra and Katiba al-Mustafa stand on a mosque in Deir Ezzor in February. (AFP photo)

"This dangerous escalation on both sides of the Sunni-Shiite divide will encourage Lebanese and Iraqi factions involved in it to drift away from their central state and further strengthen their ties with sectarian regional actors."

  • david.hersch

    And may they rip each other apart, these f....... primitive uncivilised savages.

    May 18, 2013

  • Beiruti

    There is a possible silver lining to all of this. One must ask, where does this all lead? To a better life for Sunnis at the expense of Shiites? A better life for Shiites at the expense of Sunnis? Which or neither? At the end of the day, public policy is about only one thing, namely providing security, insuring justice and for the general welfare of all the people. Any group or system that does not perform these tasks prove unstable and will fall. The Imams and the Sheikhs pushing these sectarian agendas of promoting one sectarian group at the expense of the other are reaching for a brass ring that may have existed 1500 years ago, but does not exist any longer in the 21st Century. They are trying to recapture that which was lost centuries ago, by visualizing an opportunity that is a mirage. The Ottoman occupation is over, the French and British occupations are over, the Age of the Dictator is passing, the US is not interested, so the mirage appears to go back and to recover the glories of the past. But the glories of the past are just that. The people of the MENA are not with this brand of sectarian governance that is so barbaric. They are modern people like the rest of us. Unfortunately, the blood will continue to flow and the dream of recapturing the past will not end until the depths of the nighmares that are being created to search for them have been reached. Then the silver lining will appear and the people will throw off religion as an organizing principle of governance.

    May 14, 2013