4 min read  | Politics, Reports

Fears of regional wars rise as Sunni-Shiite fighting crosses borders


June 3, 2013

June 3, 2013

This is the first of a two-part series looking at the possibility of the Syrian war to expand across the region.

By Kristen Gillespie and Ahmed Kwider

AMMAN: As the United States remains on the sidelines of the Syrian war, the conflict is rapidly spilling across borders into what regime opponents and analysts say could transform into a regional, sectarian war.

Over the weekend, Syrian rebels fired rockets and mortar rounds into the Hezbollah-stronghold city of Baalbek. Also last week, rebels fired into south Beirut’s Dahiya district, a virtually autonomous section of the Lebanese capital entirely controlled by the Shiite militia.

The unfettered spillover is resulting in warnings from inside Syria that a power vacuum could drag in the entire region.

“There is great fear over a massive sectarian war starting – if it does, the entire region will turn into a genocidal war, engulfing everyone,” said Samir al-Ibrahim, 55, secretary general of the Syrian Free Religious Scholars Association based in Idlib province.

The association, while independent, provides counsel to Free Syrian Army brigades on adhering to the tenets of Islam. “There are indicators warning this is coming: the involvement of Hezbollah, Iranian and Iraqi militias and other countries,” al-Ibrahim said, adding, “we found an obituary for a Saudi Shiite who died in Syria.”

Part of the problem is intervention from outside in the fighting. The West has grown increasingly concerned over militants traveling to Syria to fight, in particular over Jabhat al-Nusra, which the United States government designated as “terrorist” last year.

The Saudi citizen who died, Ahmed Adnan al-Qaroush, for example, appears to be one of hundreds, if not thousands, of foreign fighters currently in Syria.

Al-Qaroush “was martyred defending the shrine of our lady Sayeda Zeinab,” read a post on Facebook announcing the death. “A condolence reception will be held at the home of his older brother in al-Qutaif (Saudi Arabia).”

But the opposition says the West makes too big a deal out of the supposed extremists flocking to Syria.

“We do not have al-Qaeda, only some young Arab jihadists,” says al-Ibrahim. “I met them in Turkey before they entered Syria and they have no relation with al-Qaeda,” he added. “They were heading to fight with Jabhat a-Nusra but I advised them to join the FSA. I see Jabht al-Nusra as great in fighting against Bashar Assad. But their ideas do not fit with Syrian mentality.”

Other rebel fighters say it’s to be expected – the militants are filling in a gap because the rebels are outmanned and outgunned by the regime.

“Let the Americans come to the rebels’ frontlines and see the assistance the rebels have received,” said Abu Said, 35, a spokesman of the Revolutionary Council in Outer Damascus. “There’s nothing significant about it, especially here in Damascus. Forget about anti-aircraft weaponry, machine guns and light arms – there aren’t even bullets or RPG shells, and when there are, the rebels can’t afford them.”

“As for al-Qaeda, it’s not only our problem, but yours too,” he added referring to the West. “You’ve allowed our country to become a feasible environment for everyone to operate, whether al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, or Iran’s and Iraq’s volunteers. The United States has neglected working to empower humane values in this region and limit hatred. Had the superpowers intervened to solve the conflict…sectarianism would have been nipped in the bud. Your unjustified fear [of extremism] resulted in the rule of sectarianism. What do you expect from us when you designate our fighting battalions as terrorists?”

Another reason for increased involvement by outsiders is the Shiite mistrust of Sunnis by the ruling Alawites, says Abu Said.

“It’s become clear the regime doesn’t trust Sunni men in its army, so they place Sunni soldiers on the frontlines with the FSA where they defect,” said Abu Said. “Because Sunni soldiers are either excluded or defect, the regime needs replacements to fill the gap and they are depending on Iran, Hezbollah and Iraqi volunteers (for that).”

Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, despite his brutality, never sold himself to Iran or any other country, say analysts, while noting that Syria had an independent policy and a clear presence in the region.

When Bashar al-Assad became president, the Iranian Republican Guards took control of Syria’s politics, economy and military, dissidents say, which was the reason why Shiism has spread throughout the country during his reign. Shiite mosques, called husseiniyat, were established and Shiite schools were only opened during Bashar al-Assad’s reign.

Now, the Iranians are pouring money into Syria, say rebels, pointing to a one-billion dollar loan Iran granted the Syrian Central Bank. Al-Qusayr, in Homs province, is the key battleground for sectarian fighting. While held by the rebels for months, the strategic town lies along the east-west axis that Hezbollah formerly used to transport weapons and fighters and along the north-south route that runs along the coast.

“Why would Hezbollah abandon its frontline with Israel and head for Syria’s frontline in al-Qusayr and al-Abadeh, al-Otaybeh in Ghouta and Jobar?” asked Abu Said. “They are part of the push for a coming Sunni-Shiite war.”

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