Right Web

Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

Syria’s Twin Jihads

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.

Share RightWeb

Featured Profiles

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), one of the more effective U.S. lobbying outfits, aims to ensure that the United States backs Israel regardless of the policies Israel pursues.


Erik Prince, former CEO of the mercenary group Blackwater, continues to sell security services around the world as controversies over his work—including in China and the Middle East, and his alleged involvement in collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia—grow.


Gina Haspel is the first woman to hold the position of director of the CIA, winning her confirmation despite her history of involvement in torture during the Iraq War.


Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) is a pressure group founded in early 2019 that serves as a watchdog and enforcer of Israel’s reputation in the Democratic Party.


Richard Grenell is the U.S. ambassador to Germany for the Donald Trump administration, known for his brusque and confrontational style.


Zalmay Khalilzad is Donald Trump’s special representative to the Afghan peace process, having previously served as ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq under George W. Bush.


Robert Joseph played a key role in manipulating U.S. intelligence to support the invasion of Iraq and today is a lobbyist for the MEK.


For media inquiries,
email rightwebproject@gmail.com

From the Wires

The Senate on Wednesday passed a measure mandating the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Saudi/UAE-led war against Houthi rebels in Yemen. The vote marks the first time since the War Powers Act of 1973 became law that both chambers of Congress have directed the president to withdraw American forces from a conflict.


The Trump administration’s failed “maximum pressure” approach to Iran and North Korea begs the question what the US president’s true objectives are and what options he is left with should the policy ultimately fail.


In the United States, it’s possible to debate any and every policy, domestic and foreign, except for unquestioning support for Israel. That, apparently, is Ilhan Omar’s chief sin.


While Michael Cohen mesmerized the House of Representatives and President Trump resumed his love affair with North Korea’s Kim Jong, one of the most dangerous state-to-state confrontations, centering in Kashmir, began to spiral out of control.


The Trump administration’s irresponsible withdrawal from the landmark Iran nuclear agreement undermined Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and emboldened hardliners who accused him of having been deceived by Washington while negotiating the agreement. However, the Iranian government could use the shock of Zarif’s resignation to push back against hardliners and take charge of both the domestic and foreign affairs of the country while Iran’s foreign opponents should consider the risks of destabilizing the government under the current critical situation.


Europe can play an important role in rebuilding confidence in the non-proliferation regime in the wake of the demise of the INF treaty, including by making it clear to the Trump administration that it wants the United States to refrain from deploying INF-banned missiles in Europe and to consider a NATO-Russian joint declaration on non-first deployment.


The decline in Israel’s appeal to Democrats is directly related to the wider awareness of the country’s increasingly authoritarian nature, its treatment of Palestinians, and its reluctance to take substantive steps toward peace. Pro-Israel liberals face a fundamental paradox trying to reconcile Israel’s illiberalism with their political values.


RightWeb
share