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July 31, 2013 6:34 pm

Middle East: Battlelines drawn

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Fears are growing the Syrian war might become a region-wide religious conflict

The Syrian soldier unlocked a bullet-pocked gate at south Damascus’s Sayyeda Zainab shrine, revealing a near-deserted street where sandbags and concrete blocks walled off the side-roads from the battlezone beyond.

The central thoroughfare of this once religiously-mixed area has for the past year been a dividing line, separating the peaceful government-controlled Shia Muslim-majority district on one side of the mausoleum from the rebellious Sunni-dominated suburbs on the other.

“One day there were some rumours and suddenly everyone was running away from here,” recalls Akram, a pharmacist and one of the few remaining local shopkeepers, of the moment last summer when war came to his home. “They were telling Sunnis, ‘run away because the Shia are coming to kill you’. And they were telling the Shia, ‘the Sunnis are going to kill you’.”

The following 12 months of ghettoisation around the reputed burial place of one of the Prophet Mohammed’s granddaughters form part of a bigger narrative that some say shows Syria’s uprising has turned decisively into a religious war.

As the battle between a regime backed by Shia foreign powers and a rebel movement dominated by members of Syria’s Sunni majority grows ever more intense, extremists inside and outside the country have stepped up efforts to cast the conflict as the epicentre of an existential fight between the two main branches of Islam. The conflict has mobilised fighters ranging from Sunni jihadis to members of the Lebanese Shia militant group Hizbollah – and triggered a debate over whether Syria will be the spark for a sectarian cataclysm in the wider Middle East.

Preachers in the Sunni-ruled Gulf have used Syria as the justification for increasingly virulent rhetoric against Shia, seen by some Sunni extremists as apostates because they have a different view over who was the rightful successor to the Prophet Mohammed.

Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the widely followed Qatari-based cleric, has called for a holy war in support of the rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president. Shafi al-Ajmi, a Kuwaiti preacher, praised an alleged massacre in June of dozens of “bad” Shia by Syrian opposition fighters in the village of Hatla in the country’s east. In a video, a Syrian rebel who took part in the killing called on Sunnis to exterminate their Shia fellow citizens in Kuwait. That was a disturbing call to hear in the Gulf, where Shia form a majority of the population in Bahrain and sizeable minorities in other states, including Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the region’s giant.

In an article published last month by Foreign Affairs magazine, Thomas Hegghammer and Aaron Zelin argued that “the genie of militant sectarianism is out of the bottle” in Syria, after a conflict already estimated to have claimed well over 90,000 lives.

“Before long, Syria’s civil war could turn into an all-out sectarian conflict involving the entire region,” they warn.

Yet some observers say this verdict is too bleak, conforming to a classical western view of the Middle East as a region governed by immutable historical prejudices. Robin Yassin-Kassab, a British-based writer, says the communal tensions seen in Syria – while worrying – are primarily a tool used by the regime to spread chaos, a construct that may yet die with the Assad hegemony.

“The longer the regime lasts, the more time it has to make good on its promise to regionalise the conflict,” Mr Yassin-Kassab wrote in an article published in July in The National, the United Arab Emirates newspaper. “But the revolution continues on the ground and this provides reason to hope.”

. . .

Sayyeda Zainab’s story is a microcosm of how sectarian sentiment is seeping through Syria almost two-and-a-half years into its uprising-turned-war. Government shelling has for months boomed out from surrounding suburbs, while loyalists say rebels have fired mortars at the shrine, killing one of its custodians in a July 19 attack. The golden-domed shrine – particularly sacred to Shia – has long made the district a natural magnet not just for pilgrim tourists, but for Shia settlers from elsewhere in Syria and neighbouring countries such as Iraq. They lived, peaceably enough by most accounts, alongside the Sunni of Sayyeda Zainab itself and the surrounding suburbs.

All that changed when conflict exploded across south Damascus a year ago, during a momentous July week when rebels killed four top regime security officials and penetrated briefly to the heart of the capital. Residents in the government-held part of Sayyeda Zainab say many people from both sects fled the area, while Shia from Sunni-dominated surrounding areas flocked in seeking safety. It was not ethnic cleansing but a natural process of division, motivated less by hatred than by fear.

Now, one side of Sayyeda Zainab is tightly under the control of the regime – and its foreign allies. When a guard at one of the many checkpoints was asked if he was from Lebanon – and thus probably a member of Hizbollah – he replied curtly: “Yes, from Beirut. Now move along.”

The longer the Syrian regime lasts, the more time it has to make good on its promise to regionalise the conflict

At the main security post at the entrance to the community, a large banner on the wall shows a masked fighter with a rifle, superimposed on a backdrop of the shrine and a few lines of poetry. “Once Hizbollah joins a battle, it wins it”, the message concluded.

This part of Sayyeda Zainab is a haven for Shia these days, said a local pro-government doctor, noting that his clinic now served 200 patients a day, compared with 50 before the fighting. He saw the sectarianisation of Syria’s conflict as part of a bigger struggle being waged against the Assad regime, not least through satellite television channels beamed into the country that promote Gulf states’ anti-Assad world views and are “working against Shia”.

“It’s a political war,” he says, in an interview ended by the frantic knocking on the door from his next patients. “But the weapon is religious.”

Syria’s battle lines provide support to both those who argue the conflict has a sectarian dimension and those who say the struggle is about power and cuts across religious lines.

On the one hand, the heartlands of the rebellion are almost all Sunni areas, while much authority in the Assad regime – from the presidency downwards – is held by Alawites, adherents of an offshoot of Shia Islam. Sectarian killings have, according to people familiar with the situation, long been a feature of the conflict, including massacres of Sunnis by loyalist shabbiha militias and tit-for-tat slayings between Sunni and Alawite communities in central Syria. Activists have for some time accused regime loyalists of trying to “cleanse” Sunnis from the central province of Homs.

Yet it is also true that some members of religious minority groups – including Christians and Alawites – oppose the regime. The Assad family’s dictatorship of more than four decades has in turn been sustained by influential Sunnis, particularly in the country’s business class.

Sectarianism in Syria has undeniably been given an opportunity to flourish as overseas involvement in the war has grown. The conflict has long been a proxy conflict between Russia and Iran on the regime side, and the western and Gulf states that back the rebels. While this is in large part a political and ideological battle, the rivalry between the Gulf capitals and Shia-ruled Tehran also has a strong religious dimension.

In Syria, thousands of foreigners, including many Sunni jihadists, are estimated to have joined the gaggle of revolutionaries, community defenders, army defectors and opportunists fighting against Mr Assad’s government. On the regime side, Hizbollah is now fighting openly alongside loyalist forces, playing a crucial part of the recapture from the rebels of the town of Qusair near the Lebanese border in June. The movement, once widely admired by both Sunni and Shia for its battle against Israel, marked a historic – and contentious – change in stance in June when Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah’s leader, publicly committed to the defence of the Assad regime.

Inside the Sayyeda Zainab shrine, a retired Syrian army officer on guard duty insisted that Hizbollah’s involvement in the area was not a sign that Assad loyalists had a sectarian agenda. In his office, where the barred window was blocked by sandbags and bore the remains of a mortar round on the sill, he sat under pictures of both Hizbollah’s Mr Nasrallah and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, supreme leader of Iran.

The officer, who declined to give his name, said the other side were extremists, not his. He reminisced about how he fought in the 1982 government offensive against a Sunni Islamist uprising in the central city of Hama, a campaign that claimed an estimated 20,000 deaths.

“I lived day by day and minute by minute the story of the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama,” he recalls, in a reminder that there is more of a sectarian history in Syria than some of its citizens are prepared to acknowledge. “I remember that at that time they killed a lot of soldiers – and a lot of Shia.”

In the shrine itself, a vault of dazzling arabesques and mirrored surfaces, women in black abayas who had been displaced from their homes crowded around to denounce rebel jihadism. One woman from the al-Zahra district of the central city of Homs said opposition fighters had killed local people in crimes whose motivation appeared as blurred as the wider argument over sectarianism.

“I don’t understand why they are killing them and kidnapping them,” she says. “Sometimes they say because they are Shia, sometimes they say because they are with the regime.”

. . .

There is a belief – bordering at times on desperation – among some Syrians that the country will always pull back from a full sectarian war. Syria’s history of more than a millennium as a home for people of many ethnic groups and religious beliefs is a source of justifiable pride. But the harsh truth is that, in an ever more brutal conflict, a near 1,400-year-old schism within Islam is already serving as a potent rallying point.

Whether sectarian ideology is ultimately a symptom or a cause of the conflict may matter little if it increasingly defines the boundaries on which the struggle is drawn.

Syrians commonly cite a chilling slogan they claim is used by opposition extremists: “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the grave.”

Back in Sayyeda Zainab, the shopkeeper Akram surveyed the deserted highway beyond his window.

He evoked a sense of loss that many Syrians share these days, their self-image as a diverse yet cohesive society shattered. “This street used to be full 24/7,” he says. “But now the people who once lived together are afraid of each other.”


Letter in response to this article:

Mideast identity politics more than Sunni-Shia schism / From Mr Chris Doyle

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