Syria’s Civil War Inspiring Sectarian Violence Outside Syria
Syria's violence is slipping across it's borders.That's not good news at all.
The New York Times takes note today of the fact that the Syrian Civil War seems to be causing sectarian violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims to flare up in other parts of the Middle East:
BAGHDAD — Renewed sectarian killing has brought the highest death toll in Iraq in five years. Young Iraqi scholars at a Shiite Muslim seminary volunteer to fight Sunnis in Syria. Far to the west, in Lebanon, clashes have worsened between opposing sects in the northern city of Tripoli.
In Syria itself, “Shiites have become a main target,” said Malek, an opposition activist who did not want his last name published because of safety concerns. He was visiting Lebanon from a rebel-held Syrian town, Qusayr, where his brother died Tuesday battling Shiite guerrillas from the Lebanese militia Hezbollah. “People lost brothers, sons, and they’re angry,” he said.
The Syrian civil war is setting off a contagious sectarian conflict beyond the country’s borders, reigniting long-simmering tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, and, experts fear, shaking the foundations of countries cobbled together after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
For months, the fighting in Syria has spilled across its borders as rockets landed in neighboring countries or skirmishes crossed into their territories. But now, the Syrian war, with more than 80,000 dead, is inciting Sunnis and Shiites in other countries to attack one another.
“Nothing has helped make the Sunni-Shia narrative stick on a popular level more than the images of Assad — with Iranian help — butchering Sunnis in Syria,” said Trita Parsi, a regional analyst and president of the National Iranian American Council, referring to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. “Iran and Assad may win the military battle, but only at the expense of cementing decades of ethnic discord.”
The Syrian uprising began as peaceful protests against Mr. Assad and transformed over two years into a bloody battle of attrition. But the killing is no longer just about supporting or opposing the government, or even about Syria. Some Shiites are pouring into Syria out of a sense of religious duty. In Iraq, random attacks on Sunni mosques and neighborhoods that had subsided in recent years have resumed — a wedding was recently hit — as Sunni militias fight the army.
With Sunni-led Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey backing the uprising against Mr. Assad, who is supported by Shiite Iran and Hezbollah, sectarian divisions simmering since the American invasion of Iraq are spreading through a region already upended by the Arab uprisings.
The Syrian war fuels, and is fueled by, broader antagonisms that are primarily rooted not in sect but in clashing geopolitical and strategic interests: the regional power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran; Iran’s confrontation with the West over its nuclear program; and the alliance between Hezbollah and the secular Syrian government of Mr. Assad against American-backed Israel.
But sectarian feeling has seeped in. Iraq has been especially vulnerable. With the Sunni majority in Syria battling to overthrow a government dominated by Mr. Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiism, some in Iraq’s Sunni minority grew emboldened by the prospect of overthrowing their own Shiite government.
Today, many Iraqis feel they are on the road back to the dark days of 2006 and ’07, the peak of sectarian militia massacres by Shiites ascendant after years of oppression under Saddam Hussein, and by minority Sunnis disempowered by his fall.
While the 2007 American troop surge helped to limit the bloodshed, random attacks against Shiites never stopped. What was different was that the Shiites, who finally felt firmly in control of the security forces, stopped retaliating. But that seems to be changing.
Sunni militias have risen up to fight the army, and for the first time in years Sunni mosques and neighborhoods are being regularly targeted. The first notable attack was in April, at a cafe in the Sunni neighborhood of Amariya; it started late at night as young men played pool, and it left dozens of people dead. While it is unclear who is responsible for the new violence, many Sunnis blame the government, or Iranian-backed Shiite militias.
In Lebanon, perennial clashes between Alawite and Sunni militias in Tripoli have reached their worst level in years as each side blames the other for carnage in Syria.
The danger that the war in Syria could spread across the border has been a concern virtually since it started. We’ve already had several cross-border incidents at the Turkish border, including one that briefly inflamed tension between the Turks and the Syrian government after a Turkish plane was shot down. Now, though, it seems to look as though the war in Syria is influencing violence beyond Syria’s borders. The recent uptick in violence in Iraq, for example, may well be influenced by the Sunni-Shiite fighting going on right next door. Perhaps of more concern, though, is the fact that a known terrorist group is getting in on the action:
Lebanese Hezbollah militants have massed in and around the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, a senior commander in the Lebanese Shiite movement said Sunday, broadening the group’s backing of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and stoking fears of an imminent assault on the city.
The commander, who declined to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said there were about 2,000 Hezbollah fighters in Aleppo province, largely stationed in Shiite towns north of the city. Rebels said Hezbollah forces had entered the city itself Sunday and were preparing for an attack.
Rebels have secured swaths of Aleppo — Syria’s commercial capital and most populous city — since fighting engulfed the city last summer, but the front lines have been locked in a stalemate. An assault on the city could stretch rebel forces, which have sent reinforcements from Aleppo to fight against Hezbollah and Syrian army troops in the battle for the town of Qusair, near the Lebanese border.
The presence of Hezbollah’s guerrilla fighters in Syria’s north point to its widening support for the government in the wake of its leader Hasan Nasrallah’s pledge to back Assad until the end. Previously, the Hezbollah fighters largely had been concentrated in Qusair and the Damascus suburbs, where they are guarding the Shiite shrine of Sayyida Zaynab.
“The Aleppo battle has started on a very small scale, we’ve only just entered the game,” said the commander, who was on leave from fighting in Qusair, where he oversees five units. “We are going to go after strongholds where they think they are safe. They are going to fall like dominos.”
He said that the militants were largely concentrated the Shiite towns of Zahra and Nubol, which have been under siege from largely Sunni rebel forces. A spokesman for Hezbollah said he could not confirm or deny their presence.
Louay al-Mokdad, political and media coordinator for the Free Syrian Army, said Hezbollah militants had gathered at a military academy in Aleppo’s western district of Hamdaniya on Sunday. He put the number of the Shiite movement’s soldiers in the area at 4,000, citing rebel intelligence.
There also reports of elements of Hezbollah and elements of the Free Syrian Army exchanging fire inside Lebanon itself.
Reports that Hezbollah is getting involved in the war, and that the war itself is spreading into Lebanon are particularly concerning. Hezbollah’s military arm is at least as powerful as the Free Syrian Army, and likely more powerful and much better armed. That force fighting alongside the pro-Assad forces in Syria would give a significant boost the regime and make it far more difficult for Syrian rebels to pull off the kinds of victory they need to either push Assad to the negotiating table or force him out of power. Indeed, over the past several months, there appears to have been a decided shift in the tide of the war back in favor of the regime, which is actually the direction the war has been moving for two years now notwithstanding the advances we’d been seeing from the rebels at the beginning of the year. Just as worrisome is the prospect of the war spreading into Lebanon and reigniting the sectarian fighting that had gripped that country for decades, including the period during which the nation was effectively under de facto control from Damascus. The more Lebanon becomes a second battlefield in the Syrian war, the more likely it is that those passions will be reignited, only this time Hezbollah will be a far stronger player than it was in the past while the Lebanese Christians and Druze will be far weaker. That development alone is likely to be of great concern to Israel, which fought a war against Hezbollah less than a decade ago. The prospect of a civil reigniting on their Northern border to compete with the one just on the other side of the Golon Heights is likely of great concern to Israel, and may end up provoking them to take pre-emptive action that would turn a civil war into a wider regional war. Add the Palestinians into the mix, and the future of that area of the Middle East becomes a lot more murky.
Reports like this are yet another reason why it would be a tremendous mistake for the United States, or indeed any part of the West, to get heavily involved in the war in Syria. Slowly but surely, that war has morphed from the war between the Assad regime and the rebels seeking to overthrow it that was inspired by the Arab Spring movement into what looks for all the world like a sectarian conflict involving Sunni, Shiites, Alawaites, and the other ethnic groups that make up Syria. Now, it appears that the war is spreading outside of Syrian in the form of sectarian violence. Placing ourselves in the middle of this type of conflict would be a tremendous mistake and would likely make us (and by us I mean both the U.S. and the West in general) targets for both sides of the conflict when they inevitably start to interpret our involvement as being in favor of the other side regardless of whether or not we profess our neutrality. It is, in other words, a complete no-win situation.
It’s hard to say where things are headed in the Middle East now. Perhaps these explosions of sectarian violence in Iraq and Lebanon will quiet down at some point, in which case the fears of a wider war could be set aside. The worst case scenario, obviously, would be for the violence to spread, perhaps into Jordan, which has managed to avoid both the violence to date and many of the more violent aspects of the Arab Spring. In either case, it seems clear that there’s unlikely to be a quick end to the war in Syria and that things are likely to become more murky and dangerous as time goes on. Sounds to me like a good reason to keep as far away as possible.