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Sunni and Shia jihad in Syria

Today's battle in Syria is clearly split along religious lines and could have serious consequences for the West

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Has the Syrian conflict moved past mere anger at Assad?
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Valentina Colombo
On 13 June 2013 09:44

In 2011 after the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia and the Lotus Revolution in Egypt, Syria proved that it was not immune to regional unrest. Syrians directed their anger against the secular Assad regime and, at the time, sectarianism did not play a role.

Today, however, the battle in Syria is clearly split along religious lines. It is no longer about freedom versus dictatorship, but about Sunni versus Shia. According to Syria’s constitution, “freedom of religion is guaranteed” and “the State respects all religions.”  But, as I wrote at the end of 2011, there has been an opportunistic use of religion by the Syrian regime: “Assad has already tried to delegitimise the protesters as Islamist extremists in a bid to garner the support of Syrian liberals and Christians. He is now trying to revive a form of state-backed Islam to defeat the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Almost two years since the article was published, the situation has worsened and religion now takes centre stage. On April 7th, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s top cleric, gave an interview to Al Jazeera and declared, “The jihad in Syria is now a personal duty incumbent upon all Muslims.” Last year, in early June, he repeated his call for jihad with added vigour: “Iran is pushing ahead with arms and men, so why do we stand idle?” He also pointed to Hezbollah: “The leader of the party of Satan comes to fight the Sunnis. Now we know what the Iranians want. They want to continue massacring Sunnis”.

In late May Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah confirmed that his forces were fighting alongside Assad’s troops in the Lebanese border town of Qusayr.  Two Lebanese clerics, one in Sidon and one in Tripoli, issued fatwas urging young Lebanese people to join the fight.  Thus Syria is helping to demarcate Lebanon’s own population between Sunni and Shia, who each have the backing of either Iran or the Gulf states.

In November 2012 the Syrian government presented the UN Security Council with a list of 143 foreign citizens killed in Syria. The countries mentioned included, among others: Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Sudan, Tunisia, Turkey and Chechnya. In December 2012, the German daily Die Welt published an article reporting that roughly 100 European Muslims had joined Jabhat al-Nusra and other armed Islamist groups.

Other proof, which reveals the extent of foreign involvement in the Syrian conflict, is the presence of Yemeni Houthi rebels. On May 30th the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat featured a story from a Yemeni source, which stated that hundreds of Houthi fighters are heading to Syria and “consider the fight in Syria to be a sacred jihad”. The source added, “Houthis go to Hezbollah camps in Lebanon before moving to the Syrian front” and they started to come once Hezbollah declared its allegiance to Assad. This serves to confirm Assad’s opportunistic use of religion for political ends.

The relationship between Yemen’s Shia Houthis and the Syrian regime is an old one.  Many went to Syria during the fight against the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Yemeni government has battled the armed group over the past nine years and according to Madeleine Wells from George Washington University, president Saleh once charaterised the Houthis as proto-Hezbollah footsoldiers for Iran.

The Houthis’ motto is telling: “Allah is great, death to America, death to Israel, damnation to the Jews, the victory to Allah”. Their aims and ideology are very similar to Hezbollah’s.  According to the newspaper, Syria acts as a stop over along the way to Tehran and South Lebanon, where Houthis receive combat training and the use of Iranian documents, so that on their return journey Yemeni security don’t know where they have been. 

It is through the support of groups like the Houthis that Syria’s political battle is now painted in religious colours. It is also in part thanks to the theories of jihad: when a fatwa is issued it is universal, but it does not compel a Muslim to obey it, but any Muslim cleric can call for jihad in Syria and invite those interested Muslims to come and fight. It is due to sectarianism that Syria’s uprising has become a playground for international jihadists, which has serious consequences for the West.

The calls for jihad could lead to an international conflict involving both Muslim and non-Muslim countries. Western states should be wary of reducing the Syria conflict to a battle within Islam, as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah would like to do, but remember that Syria is home to Christians, Kurds and many who adhere to a secular identity. If left unresolved, this “Islamic” trap could spell the end of Syria as a viable nation and have grave consequences for the wider Middle East.

Valentina Colombo is a Senior Fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy in Brussels

Read more on: Houthis in Syria, jihad in Syria, sectarian violence in Syria, syria, Syrian Kurds, violence in Syria, and Valentina Colombo
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