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Syria’s Twin Jihads

The longer Syria's civil war drags on, the more it develops a religious character for its sectarian combatants—Sunni and Shiite alike.

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Inter Press Service

The war in Syria has brought back to the forefront the concept of ‘jihad’, with tens of thousands of fighters currently waging what they believe to be a religious war there.

On both sides of the religious divide, Lebanese militants have relied on similar arguments to justify what they perceive as a never-ending war of convictions, which poses great dangers in a region where self-identities are shaped by belief instead of citizenship.

On this cold morning, a cortege of vehicles headed by a car covered in coloured flower arrangements drives through the busy streets of Dahieh – a bastion of Shiite Hezbollah – surrounded by militants carrying Kalashnikovs.

Every few minutes, a staccato of gunfire is followed by ululations, as men dressed in fatigues wave the yellow banners of the Party of God. “Labayka Ya Hussein”, says one militant, invoking the prophet Muhammad's grandson Hussein, whose martyrdom is a widely spread symbol among Shiites.

What appears like a wedding procession is in fact the funeral of a Hezbollah fighter killed in Syria. Surprisingly, the funerals of Shiite Hezbollah fighters bear a striking resemblance to the “martyrs’ weddings” of Sunni jihadists organised in Palestinian camps in Lebanon or Jordan, during which confectionery and juices are generously distributed.

The strong similarities between funeral processions of Sunni and Shiite fighters killed in Syria and staged as celebrations underline the converging views on jihad of the two groups, at odds since the beginning of the Syria war in which Sunnis support the rebellion and Shiites fight alongside the regime of President Bashar Assad, a member of the Alawite community, a Shiite sect.

For both Shiite and Sunni jihadists, the fight in Syria was initially motivated by the desire to protect their fellow coreligionists. “We fight to defend the children and women being slaughtered by the Assad regime,” said Abu Horeira, a Lebanese jihadist from Tripoli who fought in Qussayr. In April 2013, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, relied on a similar analogy, promising to defend the Lebanese Shiite inhabitants of Al-Qusayr: “We will not abandon the Lebanese residents of Al-Qusayr.”

As the battles in Syria increased in intensity, the political discourse of jihadists in Lebanon further polarised, with religious motivations coming to the fore. “Religious arguments are often used to appeal to the masses,” says Shiite cleric Sayed Hani Fahs.

Lebanese sheikhs on both sides of the divide have relied on religious text to provide a rationale for their call for Jihad, which is mentioned over 150 times in the Quran, the sacred book of both Sunnis and Shiites.

“Jihad in Syria is an obligation for all Sunnis,” said Salafi Sheikh Omar Bakri, in a previous interview. While Hezbollah has not officially called for jihad, fighters such as unit commander Abou Ali have reported that “everyone who goes to fight in Syria has received a taklif sharii (a religious command).”

Militants from the capital Beirut, the Bekaa and Tripoli, both Shiites and Sunnis, have answered the call to fight in Syria. “Early this year, at least 100 [Sunni] men from North Lebanon were killed in Qalaat al Hosn, in Homs,” said a military source speaking on condition of anonymity. They belonged to Jund al Cham, an al-Qaeda style organisation.

On the other hand, security estimates point to the involvement of over 5,000 Hezbollah fighters in Syria. A source close to the militant organisation believes that at least 500 of its members have been killed in Syria.

“My place is secured in heaven if I die [in Syria] and my family taken care of,” says Abou Ali, who has been deployed several times in Qussayr, Qalamoun and Damascus. Abou Ali, like many other fighters from Hezbollah, argues that he is defending his community, his religious beliefs and his sect’s dignity.

Sunni and Shiite religious narratives used in the Syrian war are reminiscent of an enmity over 14 centuries old. In several speeches, Hezbollah figures have revived fears rooted in the events that led to the Sunni/Shiite schism, invoking the protection of Shiite religious shrines, namely that of Sayyeda Zeinab, to justify their involvement in Syria. Zeinab was the daughter of Imam Ali, who is revered by Shiites, and Fatima, who was the daughter of prophet Muhammad.

“There is no better satisfaction than dying fighting to protect the religious shrine of Sit Zeynab,” says another Hezbollah fighter on condition of anonymity. This discourse has been reinforced in many Shiite minds by scenes of beheading perpetrated by rebel groups.

In a recent interview with a Free Syria Army fighter on the Lebanese border of the Syrian Qalamoun region, the fighter, a secular man, admitted that rebels often resorted to this tactic to make “an example of traitors”, regardless of whether they belonged to regime forces or to Hezbollah. For Shiites nonetheless, these beheadings are a stark reminder of the beheading of Hussein, Zeinab’s brother, during the Battle of Karbala.

Religious ideology has served as a magnet for both Shiite and Sunni fighters willing to give up their life for the Syrian “religious” cause.

A recent report by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College in London put the number of foreign Sunni jihadists at about 10,000. The same can be said of Shiite fighters fuelling the war in Syria, which has attracted Shiites from Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.

According to Michael Knights, an expert from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a think tank that was spun off from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), there are between 800 and 2,000 Iraqi Shiites in Syria which, including Hezbollah, would put the number of Shiite fighters at no less than 6,000 militants.

Armageddon ideology used in the Syria conflict has fanned Shiite-Sunni fires in Lebanon as well as across the region. Reducing the conflict there to a battle within Islam, as portrayed by jihadists on one side and by Hezbollah on the other, could portend a greater conflict that would wreak havoc in region where the Muslim divide runs deep, and religious identities prevail over nationalism.

“There is no difference between foreign jihadists and Hezbollah militants fighting in Syria, both are practising political terrorism,” says Sayed Fahs, who believes the only hope for both communities resides in replacing sectarianism by citizenship.

Mona Alami is a contributor to Inter Press Service.

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