Deadly war: Activists have claimed that the death toll in Syria has exceeded 100,000 since the conflict there started in March 2011
Syria’s ripple effect
By Anthony H. Cordesman, Published: July 22
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Americans cannot afford to forget that they face more than one crisis in the Middle East. Critical as Egypt is, the situation in Syria continues to spiral out of control, affecting the security of Lebanon, Turkey, Iran and Iraq and giving Iran new opportunities.
The Assad regime continues to make gains and has less and less reason to negotiate. For all the talk of U.S. arms transfers, the Syrian rebels have problems moving arms and supplies across the Lebanese, Turkish and Iraq borders. Meanwhile, Lebanon and Iran are supplying the regime with volunteers and arms. The lack of outside support weakens the moderates among the rebels, while the upheavals in Egypt polarize Syria’s Sunnis and tend to empower the more extreme factions.
Even “success,” or the fall of Bashar al-Assad’s government, would result in a new government whose structure is unpredictable and that will inherit enduring political problems and regional tensions. On balance, however, there are clear humanitarian and selfish reasons for the United States to intervene.
At least 93,000 people have been killed — and probably close to twice that many — and up to 400,000 seriously wounded. The State Department estimated in May that 6.8 million Syrians need serious assistance, with 4.2 million internally displaced and 1.4 million outside Syria: That’s more than a third of the country’s 22.5 million people. Economic and social costs will rise indefinitely unless the Syrian people get a government the world can accept.
This may not be enough to sway U.S. public opinion, or congressional action, at a time when Americans are war-weary and facing a federal budget crisis and competing strategic demands. But although Washington cannot guarantee an outcome in Syria simply by arming and supporting the rebels, doing nothing could create a much broader threat to U.S. interests and our allies in the region.
What started as a civil conflict more than two years ago now threatens to fuel a major conflict between Sunnis and Shiites throughout the Muslim world. The conflict is dividing Lebanon and giving Hezbollah and other extremists a larger foothold there. It is also creating problems in Jordan and Turkey, pushing Iraq toward civil war and making Iraq’s Shiite leadership more dependent on Iran.
If Assad succeeds in crushing the opposition or otherwise maintains control over most of Syria, Iran will have a massive new degree of influence over Iraq, Syria and Lebanon in a polarized Middle East divided between Sunni and Shiite. Minorities will be steadily driven into exile. This would present serious risks for Israel, weaken Jordan and Turkey and, most important, give Iran far more influence in the Persian Gulf, an area home to 48 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves.
If Washington arms the rebels and they still lose, the United States will at least have shown its willingness to make decisions and honor its commitments. It will have shown it will make good on its words and support its allies.
More advance transfers of U.S. arms, such as the antitank guided missiles and surface-to-air missiles that the rebel commanders say can shift the balance, could also be supplied and funded by our gulf allies. They do not have to be cutting-edge U.S. systems, and the rebels already have some Chinese and Russian man-portable surface-to-air missiles, as well as systems that could be a major threat to civilian targets, should they fall into extremist hands. It is unlikely the United States can control such transfers from friendly Arab gulf states if we do not supply the rebels, and it is far more likely that we can have a major influence on which faction gets such arms if we work with the rebels — particularly now that Qatar seems more willing to cooperate with the United States and Saudi Arabia.
The costliest and riskiest U.S. option is direct intervention. To be truly effective, this would require a “no-fly zone” over all of Syria, covering all air and helicopter movement. The United States could, however, begin with arms transfers that would have a far greater chance of success if they included man-portable surface-to-air missiles and antitank guided weapons. U.S. officials could make clear that either the rebels will succeed with such weapons, leading to a negotiated departure of Assad’s government and the installation of a new national government, or the United States will join with allies in creating a no-fly zone.
No one is advocating a serious U.S. air campaign, with substantial money committed and probably significant U.S. air casualties. But the United States should show its willingness to act if its allies join and can help defer the cost. Doing so would give the rebels enough of an advantage to force efforts to negotiate — and may well intimidate Assad’s forces into halting air operations without requiring a massive attack on Syria’s air bases. It would show that the United States is serious about strategic partnerships. It might help us persuade allies to back up their words with actions. And it might even show the Islamic world that there is an alternative to extremism and Sunni-Shiite conflict.
Syria’s proxy war
What began in Syria as another civil uprising of the Arab spring against an established government has grown into a multi-dimensional war, drawing in first the region, then the world.
A few days after the Syrian army took Qusayr, in early June, the influential Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi described his grim vision of a Muslim world dominated by “Persians and Shia”: “The guide of the Revolution … Ayatollah Khamenei will fulfil his dream of delivering a sermon from the pulpit of the Umayyad Mosque [in Damascus] to announce that he [has] achieved Islamic unity, which he has long promised. He will descend from the pulpit with much pomp to wipe the head of a poor child to show the ‘tolerance of the powerful’ [toward Sunnis]. Then he will stand next to … Syrian Sunni scholars, with their white turbans, as there are always people like the mufti Ahmad Hassun who are ready to serve. He will [raise their hands] high, while cameras record this historic moment” (1).
In a speech the same day, Hassan Nasrallah, secretary-general of Hizbullah, justified sending fighters to Syria while recognising that although “a large part of the Syrians [support] the regime”, many were probably against it. He felt this internal conflict was secondary, since “Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and the entire region are targeted by [a] US-Israeli-Takfiri scheme” (2) that must be resisted at all costs, which meant rushing to help the Assad regime.
As a US official wrote in a report by the International Crisis Group (3), “a Syrian war with regional consequences is becoming a regional war with a Syrian focus.” A new cold war is dividing the region, like the original, which set Nasser’s Egypt, allied with the USSR, against Saudi Arabia and the US in the 1950s and 60s. But times have changed. Arab nationalism has declined, sectarian positions are hardening, and there is even doubt over the future of the states and frontiers created after the first world war.
Syria, with its tens of thousands of dead, millions of refugees, and severely damaged industrial infrastructure and historic heritage, is the main victim. The hopeful dream of the spring of 2011 has turned into a nightmare. Why have the Syrians been unable to do in Damascus what the Egyptians did in Cairo?
The Egyptians were able to overthrow Mubarak relatively easily. The elite and social classes with ties to the clique that held power never really felt their privileges were threatened, let alone their physical safety. After the revolution, businessmen, senior army officers and intelligence service directors calmly changed sides. Only a few were brought to trial, slowly and with great reluctance. And Mubarak’s departure did not upset the regional geopolitical balance. The US and Saudi Arabia were able to adapt to changes they had not wanted but which did not threaten their interests, as long as they were able to channel those changes.
It is different in Syria. From the start of the conflict, unrestricted use of force by the intelligence services gained the regime precious months in which to organise. The regime encouraged the militarisation of the opposition, escalation of the conflict, and even sectarianism, in order to scare large sections of the population; minorities, the bourgeoisie and the urban middle classes were already frightened by the extremist language of some opposition groups and the influx of foreign fighters reported by the regime.
As the atrocities continued, hopes of a transition without calls for revenge faded, and relatively large sections of society rallied to the regime, fearing for their safety in the event of an Islamist victory. The West had been invoking Islamist bogeymen for years, which made that prospect all the more frightening, and lent credence to the Assad regime’s challenge to France: “Why are you helping the same groups in Syria that you are fighting in Mali?”
The regime also used Syria’s strategic position as leverage to elicit support from its main allies, Iran and Russia, which have surprised the world by intervening in the conflict with far more determination than Arab or western countries.
Syria is the only Arab ally that Iran has been able to count on since the 1979 revolution. Syria stood by it in difficult times, especially during Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980, when all the Gulf countries sided with Saddam Hussein. Given Iran’s deepening isolation over the last few years, the harsh sanctions imposed by the US and the EU, and the continued risk of military intervention by Israel and/or the US, Iran’s involvement in Syria, while not morally justifiable, is a rational strategic decision, and unlikely to be reversed by its new president, Hassan Rohani. Iran has done everything it can to rescue its ally, from granting credit to Syria’s central bank to supplying oil and military advisers.
Iran’s involvement has led it — with the approval of Russia — to encourage Hizbullah to become directly involved in Syria. Hizbullah could argue that thousands of Islamist fighters, from Lebanon and other Arab countries, are already there, but direct involvement can only worsen tensions between Sunni and Shia (armed clashes have since increased in Lebanon) and embolden radical Sunni preachers.
The conference in Cairo on 13 June held in support of “our Syrian brothers” called for jihad. Mohammed Morsi took part and, though he had until then been cautious on Syria, announced that Egypt was breaking off diplomatic relations with the Assad regime. Anti-Shia rhetoric, even from moderate sheikhs, grew louder. Hassan al-Shafii, representative of Al-Azhar, the major institution of Sunni Islam based in Cairo, asked: “What is the meaning of Hizbullah’s interference [and spilling of] innocent blood in Qusayr? It is a war against Sunnis, it is Shia sectarianism” (4).
Russia’s involvement is not just a whim of Vladimir Putin, but a reassertion of its international importance. An Egyptian diplomat said: “The West is paying the price for its attempts to marginalise Russia since the end of the USSR. Despite Boris Yeltsin’s goodwill, Nato has expanded right up to Russia’s borders.” For two years, “the West has been suggesting to Russia that it should simply adopt the West’s line [on Syria]. That was not a realistic proposition.”
The way in which the UN Security Council resolution on Libya was distorted to legitimise military intervention also made Russia wary, and other countries too: Brazil, China, India and South Africa have expressed reservations over resolutions on Syria presented at the UN by the West. The fall of the Assad regime would be unacceptable to Russia: it would be a victory for Islamists and could stir up Muslims within the Federation, among whom Russia claims Wahabist propaganda is being disseminated.
Compared with the determination of Russia and Iran, external support for Syria’s opposition has been fragmented, erratic and incompetent, hardly a vast Saudi-Qatari-American-Israeli-Salafist conspiracy. Each country has been doing its own thing and helping its own clients, providing aid to some and refusing it to others. The absurdities reached a peak this April when Qatar funded the imposition of Ghassan Hitto, a US national, as prime minister of Syria’s “interim” government. Interference from rich Gulf businessmen not subject to any form of control adds to the confusion (5).
It is difficult to see what is really going on with so many different groups and combat units (katibas), all deceptively labelled “Islamists”, a term that makes it possible to ignore their strategic and political differences (6). Jabhat al-Nusra, which claims to be a branch of Al-Qaida, worries the West as much as it does Saudi Arabia, which fought a war to the death against Al-Qaida at home between 2003 and 2005. This apprehension is also felt within Salafist organisations: Nader Bakkar, the media-savvy spokesman of Egypt’s biggest Salafist party Al-Nour, wants to cut the ground from under Al-Qaida’s feet: “What we are asking for is a no-fly zone. So that the revolutionaries can win the war themselves. We are urging people in Egypt not to go to Syria; the victory must be won by Syrians alone.”
This confusion has been encouraged by the diffidence of the US, which though keen to see the Syrian regime fall, is reluctant to embark on another Middle East adventure after its failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. The change in Washington’s outlook is exemplified by Richard Haass. As one of the brains behind the Republican Party’s foreign policy he worked with President George W Bush. Now head of the influential Council on Foreign Relations in New York, he has just published a book called Foreign Policy Begins at Home: the Case for Putting America’s House in Order, which argues that internal problems, from the deterioration of the transport system to the lack of skilled labour, are preventing the US from exercising global leadership.
President Barack Obama has decided to supply weapons to the Syrian rebels. The pretext is the Syrian army’s use of sarin gas — a controversial affair with no independent enquiry as yet (7) — which, according to the US, has killed about 140 of the 90,000 victims of the conflict to date. But how should the decision be interpreted?
Syria has become a regional and international battlefield, and neither camp will accept the defeat of its champion. After the Syrian army’s success at Qusayr, the US wants to prevent the regime from gaining a complete victory, though such a victory is highly unlikely since much of the population has become radicalised and, with nothing more to lose, strongly rejects the regime. But the desires of the US will probably not turn into large-scale intervention, no-fly zones or the commitment of ground troops. If the military balance is maintained, the stalemate will continue, as will the death and destruction, and the risk that the conflict will spread across the region.
Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon have been caught up in the conflict; Iraqi and Lebanese fighters, Sunni and Shia, find themselves on opposing sides in Syria. The international insurgency highway (8) is bringing fighters, weapons and ideas into Syria from as far as Afghanistan and the Sahel. As long as the external protagonists continue to see the conflict as a zero-sum game, Syria’s people will suffer and the whole region is in danger of being dragged in.
Obama’s decision to step onto Syria’s battlefield was a tacit acknowledgment that the opposition is losing the two-year-old conflict, which has killed an estimated 93,000 people. When Obama first said that Assad had lost the legitimacy to govern, 2,000 Syrians had died.
“…in the course of an hour-long conversation, [French Foreign Minister Laurent] Fabius did voice broad concerns about an absence of strong leadership in the West. And other figures in President François Hollande’s Socialist government expressed strong fears that a loss of U.S. credibility in Syria will encourage Iran to intensify its quest for nuclear weapons.
This underlying concern over nuclear proliferation and Iran — Assad’s battlefield ally — helps explain French efforts to build stronger outside support for the Syrian opposition, including by pressing Washington if necessary. It was only after Fabius went public with indications that Syria had used chemical weapons that the United States pledged to supply unspecified arms to the opposition.”
Blowback is now a given. There is no sure way to avoid it, only to contain it. That can be done only by swiftly arming the moderates and pressing for as quick an end to the war as possible. Obama, as president of the United States, is in a position to save lives and avoid a regional calamity. His dithering has only made matters worse. Give the man an umbrella: He’s becoming a latter-day Neville Chamberlain.
Could Syria ignite World War 3? That’s the terrifying question as the hatred between two Muslim ideologies sucks in the world’s superpowers
polarized, with extremes growing on both sides. In Turkey, the last 10 days have shown a similar divide between the urban middle class and an Islamist government that, while far from extremist, is decreasingly tolerant . Like Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan subscribes to a crude theory of democracy, according to which the winner of elections is entitled to impose his agenda — and sweep aside journalists, judges and minorities who may stand in the way.
Can anyone in the Middle East show a workable way forward? Perhaps not. But I was encouraged by two conversations I had in recent days with leaders of Tunisia’s ruling Ennadha movement, founder Rachid Ghannouchi and former prime minister Hamadi Jebali. While neither could be confused with Thomas Jefferson, both appear to grasp some of the essential principles that the post-revolution Arab political movements — and in particular the Islamists — must internalize.
Ghannouchi, a white-haired 72-year-old who spent most of his adult life in exile or prison, may be the boldest and most progressive thinker among Islamists in power. He goes so far as to compare the history of Muslim countries to Europe in the Middle Ages. “We also have spent five to six hundred years in darkness, where the capacity for reason has stopped,” he said. This “heritage of decadence,” he said, has created an orthodoxy in which “punishment is the main part of sharia.”
“This is the main problem: To convince people that sharia should be about justice, human rights, equality and the spreading of peace,” he went on. “I think that we have in Tunisia an opportunity to promote an image of an Islam that is married with the main values of our time. The real values of modernity — of science and universal values — cannot contradict with our Islam.”
What does that mean in practice? Both Ghannouchi and Jebali said the starting point for the Ennadha party was a renunciation of the majoritarian dogma of Morsi and Erdogan. “We have to move from the framework of the majority of party to that of the majority of society,” said Jebali, a likely candidate for president in Tunisia’s next election. “This should be the practice for the next five to 10 years. When we reach the maturity of the United States we can adopt the principle of the 51 percent.”
The two men boasted about concessions Ennadha has made in the prolonged negotiations over Tunisia’s new constitution, including the exclusion of sharia and the inclusion of a provision on freedom of conscience. Now in its fourth draft, the constitution remains unacceptable to many secularists and human rights groups: Among other things, vague language appears to open the way for controls on free assembly and the media. Ennadha has, however, refrained from Morsi’s tactic of ramming a final version through without secular support — even though the process is months behind schedule.
“Two-thirds supported the Egyptian constitution, but the other third didn’t see themselves in it,” said Ghannouchi. “That is not what we want.”
For the moment, Ennadha’s biggest problem is not secularists, but radical Islamists. After tolerating the extremist Ansar al-Sharia movement for too long, the government finally banned its annual assembly last month, leading to street clashes. Meanwhile, the army is fighting al Qaeda-linked jihadists who have taken refuge in the western mountains with weapons smuggled from Libya.
The turbulence raises the question of whether Ennadha can meet its declared goal of reaching agreement on a new constitution, ratifying it via a referendum and holding new elections by the end of this year. If it can, the party just might achieve Ghannouchi’s goal: “We want to offer a model for all Arabs on how to combine democratic values and Islamic values.”
Message from the ruins of Qusair
By Charles Krauthammer, Published: June 6
On Wednesday, Qusair fell to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Qusair is a strategic town that connects Damascus with Assad’s Alawite heartland on the Mediterranean, with its ports and Russian naval base. It’s a major strategic shift. Assad’s forces can now advance on rebel-dominated areas in central and northern Syria, including Aleppo.
For the rebels, it’s a devastating loss of territory, morale and their supply corridor to Lebanon. No one knows if this reversal of fortune will be the last, but everyone knows that Assad now has the upper hand.
What altered the tide of battle was brazen outside intervention. A hardened, well-trained, well-armed Hezbollah force — fromthe terrorist Shiite group that dominates Lebanon and answers to Iran — crossed into Syria and drove the rebels out of Qusair, which Syrian artillery has left a smoking ruin.
This is a huge victory not just for Tehran but also for Moscow, which sustains Assad in power and prizes its warm-water port at Tartus, Russia’s only military base outside of the former Soviet Union. Vladimir Putin has stationed a dozen or more Russian warships offshore, further protecting his strategic outpost and his Syrian client.
The losers? NATO-member Turkey, the major supporter of the rebels; Jordan, America’s closest Arab ally, now drowning in half a million Syrian refugees; and America’s Gulf allies, principal weapons suppliers to the rebels.
And the United States, whose bystander president, having declared that Assad must go, that he has lost all legitimacy and that his fall is just a matter of time, is looking not just feckless but clueless.
President Obama doesn’t want U.S. boots on the ground. Fine. No one does. But between nothing and invasion lie many intermediate measures: arming the rebels, helping Turkey maintain a safe zone in northern Syria, grounding Assad’s murderous air force by attacking airfields — all the way up to enforcing a no-fly zone by destroying the regime’s air-defense system.
Obama could have chosen any rung on the ladder. He chose none. Weeks ago, as battle fortunes began changing, the administration leaked that it was contemplating possibly, well maybe, arming the rebels. Then nothing.
Obama imagines that if America is completely hands-off, a civil war like Syria’s will carry on as is, self-contained. He simply does not understand that if America withdraws from the scene, it creates a vacuum that invites hostile outside intervention. A superpower’s role in a regional conflict is deterrence.
In 1958, President Eisenhower — venerated by today’s fashionable “realists” for his strategic restraint — landed Marines in Lebanon to protect the pro-American government from threats from Syria and Egypt.
In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Russia threatened to send troops on behalf of the Egyptian army. President Nixon threatened a U.S. counteraction, reinforced the Sixth Fleet and raised the U.S. worldwide military alert level to DEFCON 3. Russia stood down.
That’s how the region works. Power deterring power. Obama deals instead in empty abstractions — such as “international legitimacy” — and useless conclaves, such as “Friends of Syria” conferences.
Assad, in contrast, has a real friend. Putin knows Obama. Having watched Obama’s retreat in Eastern Europe, his passivity at Russian obstructionism on Iran, his bended-knee “reset” policy, Putin knows he has nothing to fear from the U.S. president.
Result? The contemptuous Putin floods Syria with weapons. Iran, equally disdainful, sends Revolutionary Guards to advise and shore up Assad’s forces. Hezbollah invades Syria and seizes Qusair.
Obama’s response? No warning that such balance-altering provocations would trigger even the most minimal American response.
Even Obama’s chemical weapons red line is a farce. Its very pronouncement advertised passivity, signaling that anything short of WMD — say, massacring 80,000 innocents using conventional weapons — would draw no U.S. Response.
And when that WMD red line was finally crossed, Obama went into lawyerly overdrive to erase it. Is it any wonder that Assad’s allies are on full offensive — Hezbollah brazenly joining the ground war, Russia sending a small armada and mountains of military materiel, Iran warning everyone to stay out?
Obama’s response is to send the secretary of state, hat in hand, to Moscow. And John Kerry returns actually thinking he’s achieved some great diplomatic breakthrough — a “peace” conference that Russia will dominate and use to re-legitimize Assad and marginalize the rebels.
Just to make sure Kerry understood his place, Putin kept him waiting outside his office for three hours. The Russians know how to send messages. And the one from Qusair is this. You’re fighting for your life. You have your choice of allies: Obama bearing “international legitimacy” and a risible White House statemen that “Hezbollah and Iran should immediately withdraw their fighters from Syria” or Putin bearing Russian naval protection, Iranian arms shipments and thousands of Hezbollah fighters. Which do you choose?
Iran emerging as victor in Syrian conflict
Russian, Iranian technology is boosting Assad’s assault on Syrian rebels
Pressure of War Is Causing Syria to Break Apart
Syrians tried to remove concrete with the help of a tractor last month to free those trapped under the rubble after an airstrike by government forces in Aleppo.
Victor Breiner/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
By BEN HUBBARD
Published: May 16, 2013
CAIRO — The black flag of jihad flies over much of northern Syria. In the center of the country, pro-government militias and Hezbollah fighters battle those who threaten their communities. In the northeast, the Kurds have effectively carved out an autonomous zone.
After more than two years of conflict, Syria is breaking up. A constellation of armed groups battling to advance their own agendas are effectively creating the outlines of separate armed fiefs. As the war expands in scope and brutality, its biggest casualty appears to be the integrity of the Syrian state.
On Thursday, President Obama met in Washington with the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and once again pressed the idea of a top-down diplomatic solution. That approach depends on the rebels and the government agreeing to meet at a peace conference that was announced last week by the United States and Russia.
“We’re going to keep increasing the pressure on the Assad regime and working with the Syrian opposition,” Mr. Obama said. “We are going to keep working for a Syria that is free of Assad’s tyranny.”
But as evidence of massacres and chemical weapons mounts, experts and Syrians themselves say the American focus on change at the top ignores the deep fractures the war has caused in Syrian society. Increasingly, it appears Syria is so badly shattered that no single authority is likely to be able to pull it back together any time soon.
Instead, three Syrias are emerging: one loyal to the government, to Iran and to Hezbollah; one dominated by Kurds with links to Kurdish separatists in Turkey and Iraq; and one with a Sunni majority that is heavily influenced by Islamists and jihadis.
“It is not that Syria is melting down — it has melted down,” said Andrew J. Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of “In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria.”
“So much has changed between the different parties that I can’t imagine it all going back into one piece,” Mr. Tabler said.
Fueling the country’s breakup are the growing brutality of fighters on all sides and the increasingly sectarian nature of the violence.
Recent examples abound. Pro-government militias have hit coastal communities, targeting Sunni Muslim civilians. Sunni rebel groups have attacked religious shrines of other sects. A video circulating this week showed a rebel commander in Homs cutting out an enemy’s heart and liver, and biting into the heart.
Analysts say this shift in the nature of the violence will have a greater effect on the country’s future than territorial gains on either side by making it less likely that the myriad ethnic and religious groups that have long called Syria home will go back to living side by side. As the momentum seesaws back and forth between rebels and the government, the geographic divisions are hardening.
After steadily losing territory to rebels during the first two years of the conflict, government forces have progressed on a number of key fronts in recent weeks, routing rebel forces in the southern province of Dara’a, outside Damascus and in the central city of Homs and its surrounding villages.
These victories not only reflect strategic shifts by government forces but also could further solidify the country’s divisions.
Since mass defections of mostly conscripted soldiers shrank the government’s forces earlier in the uprising, it has largely given up on trying to reclaim parts of the country far from the capital, said Joseph Holliday, a fellow with the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.
Instead, the government has focused on solidifying its grip on a strip of land that extends from the capital, Damascus, in the south, up to Homs in the country’s center and west to the coastal area heavily populated by Mr. Assad’s sect, the Alawites.
Other than hitting them with airstrikes or artillery, Mr. Assad has made little effort to reclaim rebel-held areas in the country’s far north and east.
The character of those fighting for Mr. Assad has changed, too. As the uncommitted defected, the loyalists remained. “All of these defections and desertions basically created a more loyal and therefore more deployable core,” said Emile Hokayem, an analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, who is based in Dubai. “At least you know who is fighting for you.”
Mr. Assad has also come to rely more heavily on paramilitary militias that draw largely from his Alawite sect and other minorities who consider him a bulwark against the rebels’ Islamism. More recently, fighters from Lebanon’s Shiite militant group Hezbollah have added extra muscle, especially in the border region near the town of Qusair, an area dotted with Shiite and Sunni villages that has seen intense fighting in recent months.
This new focus on tightening his grip on the country’s center suits Mr. Assad fine, said Abdulrahim Mourad, a Lebanese politician and former Parliament member who visited Mr. Assad in Damascus last month.
“He told jokes, was very funny,” Mr. Mourad said. “He was very relaxed and relieved.”
In the void left by the government in the country’s north and east, rebel groups have seized swaths of territory and struggled to establish local administrations.
Although the Obama administration and its allies share the rebels’ goal of removing Mr. Assad from power, they have little else in common with the many rebel brigades that define their struggle in Islamic terms and seek to replace Mr. Assad with an Islamic state. Among them is Jabhet al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, the local branch of Al Qaeda, which the United States has blacklisted as a terrorist group.
The war’s duration and the competition for resources have left the rebel movement itself deeply fractured. Few effective links exist between the rebels’ exile leader, Gen. Salim Idris, and the most powerful groups on the ground.
And recent months have seen increasing fights among rebels, diminishing their ability to form a united front against the government. This week, the Islamist Shariah Commission in Aleppo went after rebels accused of looting. The council sent fighters to surround the group’s headquarters and arrested some of its members, confiscating trucks full of looted goods. The haul in one neighborhood included five washing machines and a television.
Another video, circulated this week, showed a Nusra Front leader in eastern Syria standing behind 11 bound and blindfolded captives. After announcing that they had been sentenced by an Islamic court for killing Syrians, he drew a pistol and shot them in the back of the head, one by one.
Activists later identified the man as a Saudi citizen named Qaswara al-Jizrawi. They also determined that the executions took place months earlier since Mr. Jizrawi was killed in March in a gunfight between his and another rebel group that left dozens of people dead on both sides.
In Syria’s northeastern Hassakeh Province, the country’s largest Kurdish majority area, residents have taken in Kurds fleeing violence elsewhere, expanded the teaching of the Kurdish language in schools and raised militias that have clashed with rebel brigades. Many local Kurds are linked to groups in Turkey and Iraq and hope to use the uprising to push for greater autonomy.
These spreading fissures leave little optimism that Syria can be stitched back together under one leadership in the near future.
“The only real outcome I see in the next 5 to 10 years is a series of cantons that agree to tactical cease-fires because they are tired of the bloodletting,” said Mr. Holliday, the analyst with the Institute for the Study of War. “That trajectory is in place, with or without Assad.”
Hezbollah’s war in Syria threatens to engulf Lebanon
This is potentially the greatest danger to Lebanon’s people since the 1975-90 civil war
Monday 10 June 2013
Robert Fisk: The Lebanese army fears rise of the Sunni Muslim Salafists
As Shia Hezbollah fighters rush to Assad’s aid, Lebanon is fighting a desperate battle to stop the menacing advance of Sunni rebels in the opposite direction
The Lebanese army claims there is a “plot” to drag Lebanon into the Syrian war. The ‘plot’ – ‘al-moamarer’ – is a feature of all Arab states. Plots come two-a-penny in the Middle East. What the military authorities really fear is that Sunni Muslim Salafist groups – perhaps paid by the same Gulf backers as the Sunni rebels fighting the Assad regime – have embedded themselves in the Lebanese population. The army suspects they exist deep in the northern Bekaa valley around the village of Arsal and in the northern city of Tripoli, as well as in Beirut and Sidon.
What the Lebanese army is not saying on the record – but which it acknowledges privately – is that large numbers of “Syrian” rebels are in fact Lebanese. They are being brought home to Lebanon to be buried, as are the hundreds of Shia Hezbollah fighters dying alongside Syrian troops in the battle for Qusayr and – soon, perhaps – for the great city of Aleppo.
In the ancient Roman-Crusader city of Tripoli yesterday, Lebanese soldiers were still tearing down sandbag barricades set up along dozens of streets by unidentified Sunni gangs in the dirt-poor Bab el-Tabaneh district, in the desperate hope that they can reclaim the suburb for the central government and prevent these districts turning into Salafist fiefdoms.
When I visited this same district two weeks ago – it was under constant sniper fire from the Alawite-Shia hilltop of Jabal Mohsen, which largely supports the Assad regime – I met several fighters who would not identify themselves with any major militia, of which there are now at least 25 in Sunni areas of Tripoli. One of the largest is a Salafist group led by a man called “Osam” Sabbagh who, officially, at least, does not wish to participate in the fighting.
“Not all the Salafists are al-Qa’ida people,” a gunman who would call himself only Khaled insisted. “But the Salafists come and talk to us and we have no problem with them.” Many in the same Sunni slum streets – where giant bedsheets are strung across alleyways just as they are in Aleppo to prevent sharp-shooters from killing them – say they will not let the Salafists take over their district. Yet unless the army’s latest operation, authorised by the army command in Beirut and supported by the former Christian general Michel Sulieman – who is now the President – is successful, Khaled and his comrades may be powerless.
Privately, the army has learnt a lot about the “silent” creation of Salafist groups. A few Lebanese journalists have tried to convey these details – but largely on the inside pages of their newspapers. A Sunni anti-Assad rebel fighter from Baalbek, Hussein Dergham, for example, was killed in defence of Qusayr and has been brought home for burial. Three other Lebanese Sunni men from Baalbek were killed in a suburb of Qusayr but their remains have still not been recovered – and may never be, now that the town has fallen to Syrian troops and Hezbollah.
For the army, these dead men represent other ghosts. Many Lebanese have now forgotten how Islamists, from both Lebanon and other Arab countries, took over the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared north of Tripoli in 2007. Ironically, these gunmen of Fatah al-Islam were sent into Lebanon from what was then the super-stable Assad regime in Damascus. After a 105-day siege, Lebanese troops captured 215 of the Islamists – some are today still on trial in Beirut, others have fled to Sidon – but at a cost of 168 of their own soldiers’ lives and 226 Islamist dead. Up to 500 soldiers were wounded. In one Sunni village in the hills above Tripoli, residents refused to allow one of the Islamist dead to be buried because their own Sunni sons were among the army’s “martyrs”.
Now the cemetery “tables” are being ghoulishly turned. When a Hezbollah fighter called Saleh Sabbagh – a Sunni who converted to Shiism – was returned to a Sidon Sunni cemetery for burial last month, supporters of a local anti-Assad Sunni sheikh blocked the graveyard entrance with sandbags and burning tires, one of them screaming that the man’s corpse should be thrown into the sea. Sabbagh, who was killed fighting anti-Assad rebels in Syria, was subsequently interred in a Shia cemetery, but stones were thrown between rival groups and gunfire broke out later in the evening.
In the northern Lebanese border village of Wadi Khaled, members of the anti-Assad Jabhat al-Nusra rebels, which the army suspects may have strong links with the original Fatah al-Islam, began chanting outside the village mosque. And other supporters of Jabhat al-Nusra are reported to have emerged on the streets with banners near the Cite Sportive in Beirut, close to the airport highway – the first appearance of the rebel Islamist group in the Lebanese capital.
The Lebanese army and internal security have amassed other details – infinitely more chilling – about the Islamist groups. One man, identified only as Adnan, told the Lebanese military how Sunni imams were issuing “fatwas” urging them to assault opposition families inside Syria. Adnan, according to the military, said that his group had executed 13 Syrian government troops – three of them by beheading – and admitted that he had entered a Turkman village on the outskirts of Qusayr, shot a man in the legs and then raped his daughters, aged seven, eight and 10. He then – according to a report buried deep inside a long article in one Beirut newspaper – shot all four dead.
To the great consternation of the Lebanese army, up to 20,000 Syrian Sunni refugees from Qusayr have just poured into the Arsal, where three Lebanese soldiers on watch for anti-Assad weapons smugglers were murdered last week. The influx of refugees now equals the town’s total population. Little wonder that the Beirut government is now talking of preventing future flights of Syrian refugees into the country.
From their ultra-safe environment outside Lebanon, Gulf leaders are now encouraging the fury of the country’s Sunnis. The grand mufti of Saudi Arabia – America’s bosom friend in the Gulf – supported the televangelist preacher Youssef al-Qaradawi in calling for all young Sunnis to fight the Assad regime – and Hezbollah – inside Syria. It is easy to dismiss this incendiary demand as part of the great Sunni-Shia divide, one which America, in its support for the Gulf Sunni states and its hatred of Iran and Hezbollah, is happily stoking.
And Hezbollah has done itself no favours in joining Assad’s forces in Qusayr. Lebanese Sunnis have been asking themselves whether Hezbollah – for years the much-touted “resistance” to Israeli occupation in Palestine – had been under the mistaken impression that Qusayr was a suburb of Jerusalem. On Sunday, Islamists with guns and sticks attacked both unarmed male and female anti-Assad protestors outside the Iranian embassy in Beirut, killing the head of the movement’s student organisation, Hashem Salman. One Lebanese newspaper’s front page headline yesterday read: “Who from the Hezbollah or the Iranian Guards murdered Hashem Salman?”
A few hours later, 10,000 Sunni supporters of the Free Syrian Army gathered in Sidon. I counted 750 hitherto-unseen black-uniformed militia guards. They carried radios but no guns. Alas, it is not the same elsewhere. Only seven days ago, there were assassination attempts against two pro-Hezbollah Sunni sheikhs. One of them, whose car was sprayed with bullets in Sidon, had recently condemned Hezbollah’s intervention in Qusayr. But for some, there are no politics in death. In Tripoli two days later, a harmless beggar called Ahmad Soboh sat down on his usual pavement spot near a café where he was usually given food and water. A sniper shot him dead. Perhaps he was so miserable, some locals suggested, that he wanted to take his own life.
In Syria, America’s fractured hopes
The moderate political and military command structure the U.S. has been trying to foster within the Syrian opposition appears to be fracturing, a victim of bitter Arab regional rivalries.
The regional tension splitting the Syrian rebel movement is between Qatar and Turkey, on one side, and Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Emirates on the other. The former group would like to see an Islamist government headed by the Muslim Brotherhood after the fall of President Bashar al-Assad. The latter group opposes any expansion of Muslim Brotherhood influence into Syria, fearing that the movement could spread from there to endanger Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E.
The Obama administration, to the consternation of some of its Arab allies, has been somewhere in the middle, resisting the efforts of Qatar and Turkey to impose their proxies, but not doing so very effectively. The lack of U.S. influence is one more sign of the price that Washington has paid in coming to the Syria problem so late, and so feebly.
The U.S. has tragically misplayed Syria
By Michael Gerson, Published: June 3
A few months ago, the worst-case scenario in Syria was a protracted stalemate along the lines of the Lebanese civil war. Now, the worst case is that Bashar al-Assad wins with the full backing of Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite militias, Russia and Iran. Future worst cases — involving loose chemical weapons, regional sectarian war, the fall of friendly governments — don’t require much imagination.
At some point, the word “worst” — already a superlative — ceases to be sufficient. Syria’s downward spiral demands grammatical innovation. Most worst? Worstest?
The outcome is a massive humanitarian catastrophe, with more than 80,000 dead and millions displaced. But the cause is not insufficient humanitarian concern. It is a failure of realpolitik — a tragically misplayed great game.
Syria has become a global proxy war, in which every other participant is more invested than the United States. Russia, Iran, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia — along with Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and now the Muslim Brotherhood — aid the forces that seem to serve their interests. U.S. support for the moderate opposition that began the Syrian revolution, in contrast, has been hesitant, late and restricted.
It is not that the Obama administration is doing nothing. Nonlethal aid has been dramatically increased. The United States is more active in ensuring that military aid from Turkey and Qatar doesn’t go to the most unsavory rebel groups, and the United States itself may even (according to some reports) be providing some covert military assistance.
The administration has come a long way — to arrive at the policy it should have had in early 2012. Other powers, meanwhile, have doubled and tripled down. In Syria, the United States has taken the placebo of incremental action — a rising trajectory of commitment on a much lower slope than have our opponents.
Action can have unintended consequences. U.S. arms provided to rebel groups could make their way into the wrong hands. But during a crisis, a refusal to commit can also ricochet at odd angles. American hesitance has not prevented Sunni radicals, particularly Jabhat al-Nusra, from getting plenty of arms from other sources. It has only succeeded in weakening the moderates in the Free Syrian Army (FSA), who are their rivals.
It is common to talk about a negotiated settlement as the only hope for Syria. This is true, as far as it goes. But a regime negotiates the sharing of power only when it feels that its ultimate hold on power is threatened. Assad’s thugocracy would turn on its leader to salvage some position or avoid the gallows. Right now the Assad regime, with Russia providing its arms and Hezbollah fighting its battles, believes it is winning — because it is. There can be no negotiated settlement in the absence of a two-sided conflict.
Secretary of State John Kerry’s Russian outreach has only complicated the situation. A return to the Geneva process is marginalizing the people we most want to help. After receiving inadequate support from the United States and taking a beating on the ground, the FSA is being told to shape up and negotiate with Assad and his Russian allies, who are actively providing the means to destroy the rebellion. If the FSA acquiesced, it would be discredited. More Syrians — who generally have no interest in the return of the caliphate — would choose to fight under the jihadist black flag. It is a predicable calculation: better a radical than a lackey.
But the opposite might also be true. If the responsible Syrian opposition was more obviously effective — adequately armed and trained, in control of territory and the air above it, providing public services, building legitimacy — more Syrians might end their marriages of convenience with the jihadists. Syrian nationalism could find more responsible expression.
The problem is that, with the FSA’s prospects and morale in decline, an outside intervention now would need to be decisive to make a difference. And all the options — from providing sophisticated antiaircraft and antitank weapons to taking out Syrian planes on their runways, to destroying Syria’s chemical weapons infrastructure — are risky.
It is increasingly argued that the United States needs to fish or cut bait in Syria — which assumes that bait-cutting is even an option. Disengagement would shift the worst case once again: further spreading cross-border radicalization, refugee flows and uncontainable Shiite-Sunni warfare across the Middle East. Iran would see a United States unable or unwilling to accomplish its goals in the region and draw the obvious conclusions.
The United States is already engaged in Syria, for unavoidable reasons. Just not enough to turn the tide.
In Syrian Victory, Hezbollah Risks Broader Fight
Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad carried a flag on Wednesday after taking the town of Qusayr.
By ANNE BARNARD
Published: June 5, 2013
BEIRUT, Lebanon — In the final days the outgunned Syrian rebels, deprived of reinforcements, ammunition and sleep, were surviving on olives and canned beans. They were hiding in the concrete shells of destroyed houses and underground tunnels near the besieged rebel stronghold of Qusayr, unable to help their trapped colleagues and civilians dying of treatable wounds, as Syrian government forces and their Hezbollah allies from Lebanon assaulted the town by land and air.
By Wednesday morning, it was time to flee for the rebel fighters in Qusayr, who had managed to repel the Syrian Army for months but could not withstand the additional attacks from Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite Muslim organization whose leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has made common cause with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria in the two-year-old civil war.
In triumphal tones, the Syrian news media announced that Qusayr had been seized, as rebels said they had withdrawn from most of the city but vowed to fight on. Syrian state media broadcast photographs of soldiers raising flags over wrecked buildings as the rebels fled, and the Syrian military was calling the victory a turning point.
But Mr. Assad was victorious not because his military alone had defeated the rebels. Rather, he appeared to owe the victory to Hezbollah, which provided crucial infantry power in recent weeks. Hezbollah’s role and the vengeful reactions of its critics have further intensified sectarian divisions in Syria and beyond its borders, creating new risks for both Mr. Assad and Mr. Nasrallah even in their moment of victory.
“We will not forget what Hassan Nasrallah did,” said Abu Zaid, 40, a fighter from Qusayr. “We will take revenge from him and his organization even after 100 years.”
While taking Qusayr could infuse Mr. Assad’s forces with momentum and embolden him to push for more military advances — just as Russia and the United States are pressing the antagonists in the Syrian conflict to negotiate — the intervention by Hezbollah could be problematic for that organization, which historically has been revered in Syria for its opposition to Israel. Now, in the eyes of the Syrian insurgency and its sympathizers, Hezbollah has turned its guns on fellow Muslims and taken on the form of an occupying force.
In the fight’s final days, as a reporter traveled through villages around Qusayr, rebel fighters and their civilian supporters vented rage not only at Mr. Assad but at his allies — particularly Iran and the well-trained Shiite Muslim fighters of Hezbollah, whom they largely blamed for the casualties they had suffered.
The mostly Sunni activists and rebels expressed bitterness toward Shiites generally, but they reserved particular anger for Mr. Nasrallah. The Hezbollah leader had exhorted his followers to come to fight in Syria against what he portrayed as a jihadist-Israeli conspiracy to topple Mr. Assad and subvert Hezbollah’s ability to attack, or defend against, Israel.
The many religious and ethnic groups living in an area stretching from Qusayr across the nearby border into Lebanon have long been entwined in business and familial relationships. Now many Sunnis there said they felt betrayed by Hezbollah, which they had once exalted because its fighters had helped end Israel’s long occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000.
Families in Qusayr and surrounding villages say they remember sheltering many Lebanese refugees during Hezbollah’s war with Israel in 2006. One resident, Abu Mahmoud, 50, led the way along back roads that he said he once used to smuggle weapons to Hezbollah. Now, he said, he was using the same routes to furnish weapons and fighters to the insurgents battling Hezbollah in Qusayr.
One activist, Mohammed al-Qusairi, said Hezbollah was “placing a burden on the shoulders of generations” of Shiites, like the one borne by Germans after their leaders “committed massacres against the Jews.”
The events in Qusayr added to an array of Syria developments on Wednesday that suggested the conflict, which has left more than 80,000 people dead, would worsen and widen as it enters its third year.
A meeting convened by American, Russian and United Nations officials in Geneva aimed at finding a way to hold peace talks was adjourned in failure, with no agreement on even who among the Syrian antagonists would attend. Lakhdar Brahimi, the special Syria envoy of the United Nations, said that the officials would hold another meeting June 25 and that “evidently, there is still a lot of work to do.”
Worries about the use of sarin nerve gas in the conflict intensified, as Britain joined France in asserting that the evidence of such use by Syria’s government was more persuasive. The statements confronted American officials with the possibility that Mr. Assad had crossed what President Obama has called a “red line” that could prompt a more assertive American intervention.
Reflecting concern about a spillover in the war, Jordanian officials said that they had asked the United States for Patriot antimissile batteries and fighter jets to bolster their defense abilities in the event of an attack from Syria, their northern neighbor. A Pentagon spokesman, Army Col. Steve Warren, confirmed the request and said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel “will favorably consider it.” Further underscoring the volatility of the conflict, Syria state news media suggested that the fight there might not be completely over, and said the military was still sweeping northern Qusayr for militants.
During the reporter’s visit, before Qusayr fell, the rebels proudly described the preparations that had allowed their outnumbered force to hold off the assault for longer than expected: tunnels that enabled them to slip in and out of the town; underground command rooms stocked with food, water and drugs; booby traps and mines; even cameras that monitored their attackers.
“We got this experience from Hezbollah’s tactics against the Israelis,” said Abu Ali, a fighter in the nearby village of Hamediyeh who, like most people interviewed, gave only a nom de guerre for safety.
“Today we are using the same tactics against Hezbollah.”
Despite their bravado, fighters around Qusayr said they felt alone, exhausted and abandoned in the face of a more powerful opponent. Strikingly, some seemed to borrow from Hezbollah’s history: embracing a sense of dispossession and grievance that they said would be felt for generations.
That feeling is familiar to Shiites, who still mourn the defeat and death of the revered Imam Hussein in a seventh-century battle against what they viewed as the oppressive faction that would become known as Sunnis. In Qusayr, as the rebels saw it, Shiites were the oppressors.
“The Shiites shout at us that we are the killers of Hussein,” Abu Zaid said. “We will call them the killers of women and children.”
Underscoring the challenge of ever stitching Syria back together, mostly Sunni activists and rebels expressed anger in sectarian terms. Shiites, they said, were arrayed against them with other sects, including Alawites, the sect of Mr. Assad, whom they accuse of attacking Sunni civilians; and Christians, who they say have remained silent on the excesses of the government’s crackdown.
The bigger picture is more complicated. Though it is difficult to gauge events in an area where access has been limited by fighting and government restrictions, sectarian fighting, with attacks by both sides, seemed to begin a year ago. Shiite and Christian civilians, like many Sunnis, have fled to Lebanon, saying they, too, have been attacked and driven from their villages, by Sunni rebels.
The situation inside Qusayr had grown especially desperate in the past few days as the government refused to admit Red Crescent workers until military operations ended.
When his makeshift hospital was bombed, Dr. Qassem al-Zein said, he moved his patients to houses and basements, without oxygen, anesthetics or antibiotics. There was little to offer more than 1,300 wounded people but the blood that others donated as often as possible, said an activist, Ammar.
“Those who are wounded,” he said, “can certainly expect to become martyrs.”
Rebels said they had managed to evacuate some of the wounded, although there were fears of reprisals against those who remained.
“Yes my brothers, it is one round that we lost,” the Qusayr Coordinating Committee, an antigovernment group inside the town, said in a posting on its Facebook page on Wednesday. “But war is a drawn out competition.”
As Syrians Fight, Sectarian Strife Infects Mideast
Iraqi Shiites at the shrine of Sayida Zeinab in Damascus, where the Prophet Muhammad’s granddaughter is said to be buried.
By TIM ARANGO, ANNE BARNARD and DURAID ADNAN
Published: June 1, 2013
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.
In Syria, both the government and its opponents insist that their civil war is not a fight between religious sects. Rebel leaders say their only aim is to depose a dictator. Mr. Assad says he is fending off extremist terrorists, and he is careful not to frame the conflict as a fight against the country’s Sunni majority, which he praises for its moderation.
Mr. Assad’s affinity with Hezbollah and Iran is primarily strategic. Though his Alawite sect, about 12 percent of the population, provides bedrock support, most Alawites are secular. Syria’s fewer than 200,000 mainstream Shiites are a much smaller minority, less
Like Iraqis — who long insisted they were Iraqis first, and blamed outsiders for the rise of sectarian identity, yet descended into bloodletting — Syrians on both sides fear and disavow the slide into sectarianism.
But in real terms, Shiite Hezbollah and the Sunni-dominated Al Nusra Front, a radical group allied with Al Qaeda, have emerged as two of the strongest militias in the Syrian civil war.
Both sides have also been willing to tap into sectarian alliances and emotions. With the West hesitant to fully support the opposition, rebels accepted help from Al Qaeda in Iraq, a Sunni militant group, and the reliable pipeline of weapons and cash flowing from extremist Sunni donors to jihadists, whose calls for an Islamic state found support among some Syrians influenced by hard-line clerics in Saudi Arabia.
On Friday, an influential Sunni Islamist cleric in Qatar, Sheik Yusef al-Qaradawi, called on Sunnis around the world to go to Syria to fight Hezbollah and Iran, calling them enemies of Islam.
Alawite militias in Syria have been accused of slaughtering Sunni families. Sunni rebels and gangs have been accused of kidnapping Shiites. Sunni fighters call Shiites “filth” and “dogs.” Rebel commanders have begun to refer to Hezbollah, whose name means party of God, as the “party of the devil.”
Government supporters call rebels “rats” and paint them with a broad brush as Bedouins and Wahhabis — a puritanical strain of Sunni Islam from Saudi Arabia. Fadil Mutar, an Iraqi Shiite, said at the funeral of his son, who was killed in Syria, that he died fighting Wahhabis, “those vile people.”
Rafiq Lotof, a Syrian-American Shiite who left his pizza business in New Jersey to help Syrian officials organize militias known as the National Defense Forces, said recently in Damascus that Shiite religious passions would help the government survive.
“If we start to lose control, you will see thousands of Iranians come to Syria, thousands of Lebanese, from Iraq also,” Mr. Lotof said. “They are going to fight, they are not going to watch. That’s part of their religion.”
In Beirut, Lebanon, Kamel Wazne, the founder of the Center for American Strategic Studies, said that fighters are inspired by religious passions rooted in the seventh-century battle in what is now Iraq over who would succeed the Prophet Muhammad.
After the bitter defeat of the faction that gave rise to the Shiites, the victors captured the prophet’s granddaughter Zeinab and took her to Damascus, where Shiites believe she is buried beneath the gold-domed shrine of Sayida Zeinab.
Today, Shiite fighters help the Syrian government to hold the area around Sayida Zeinab — a foothold that helps prevent rebels from fully encircling Mr. Assad’s seat of power in Damascus.
“Damascus did not fall because Sayida Zeinab is there,” Mr. Wazne said. “They will not allow Zeinab to be captured twice.”
Many devout Shiites have also come to view the Syrian civil war as the fulfillment of a Shiite prophecy that presages the end of time: a devil-like figure, Sufyani, raises an army in Syria and marches on Iraq to kill Shiites. Abu Ali, a student in Najaf, Iraq, said that his colleagues believe the leader of Qatar, a chief backer of Syria’s Sunni rebels, is Sufyani. They are flocking to Syria “to protect Islam,” he said.
Days after pro-government militias killed scores of civilians last month in the Sunni village of Bayda near the Syrian coast, one Sunni resident declared in an interview: “Starting today, I am sectarian. I am sectarian! I don’t want ‘peaceful’ anymore.” Composing himself, he added, “Sister, forgive me for talking this way.”
Syrian rebels threaten Hezbollah as sectarian conflict intensifies
REUTERS – Nadimeh, left, mother of Ali Mounzer, one of the three Lebanese soldiers who were killed at an army checkpoint, mourns his death in Riyaq village on May 28, 2013.
Sectarianism in Iraq stoked by Syrian war
Iraqi Shiites fight for Syrian government
Karim Kadim/AP – Iraqis walk past a poster of Ahmed Hassan, an Iraqi Shiite fighter who was killed in Syria as he was protecting Sayida Zeinab shrine. Some Iraqi Shiites fighters have traveled to Syria claiming that their aim is to defend the shrine, which marks what is believed to be the grave of the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammad. They say that they want to stop attacks by Sunni extremists on the shrine.
By Abigail Hauslohner, Published: May 26
BAGHDAD — The Iraqi fighters in the video shoulder assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades as they walk down a highway lined with cypress trees. Grinning, some hold up cellphones and camcorders to capture the moment — the aftermath of a victorious battle to secure the Aleppo airport from Syrian rebels who had attempted to take it.
“You are the sons of Iraq and the sons of Islam!” shouts one of their commanders. The men cheer.
Weeks later in Baghdad, Abu Sajad, the nom de guerre of an Iraqi militia commander who appears in the video, proudly displayed it as proof that Iraqi Shiites are playing a critical role supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in what has become an increasingly sectarian and regional war. It was impossible to verify the location in the video or the circumstances.
Until recently, the involvement of Iraqi Shiites in Syria’s war was cloaked in secrecy here in Iraq, whose Shiite-led government has denied any role in the conflict. But recent interviews with militants, analysts, Arab government officials and residents of Shiite cities across Iraq reveal a trend that is growing increasingly open as Iraqi fighters come to view their participation as part of a regional struggle to defeat al-Qaeda and what they say is a broad effort by the region’s dominant Sunnis to wipe out Shiites.
At the center of the Shiite mobilization is Iran, which analysts and intelligence officials say is seeking to preserve its regional influence by funding and supplying an expanding Shiite network of armed support for the Syrian government, which is dominated by Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. In addition to combatants from Iranian security forces and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, pro-Assad proxy fighters include Iraqis drawn largely from militant groups known to be backed by Iran.
The role of Iraqi Shiite fighters in Syria raises questions about the possible complicity of the
Iraqi government, which U.S. officials have recently criticized for allowing Iran to use Iraqi airspace for flights that allegedly transport weapons, troops and supplies to the Assad government. Iraqi officials say they have agreed to U.S. requests for inspections of the Iranian overflights. Eight recent random inspections have found “nothing illegal,” said Kareem Nouri, a Transportation Ministry spokesman.
“We support neither the opposition nor the regime in Syria, and we will not make Iraq a part of the fight in Syria,” he said.
But Iraqi officials have warned repeatedly that Assad’s fall would spell disaster for Iraq, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told the Associated Press in February that a rebel victory in Syria would revive Iraq’s sectarian war. In an interview, Sami al-Askari, a Shiite lawmaker close to Maliki, said the government “turns a blind eye” to the flow of Shiite fighters to Syria, as it does in the case of Iraqi Sunnis who help Syrian rebels.
Analysts and Shiite militia leaders say it is unclear how many Iraqi Shiites have gone to fight in Syria, but Abu Sajad put the number at about 200 and said the ranks were growing quickly. He said Shiite fighters had been particularly motivated by an April statement by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who glorified the Syrian opposition in what he depicted as its fight against Assad and Iran, and by the Syrian Islamist rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra’s recent pledge of fealty to al-Qaeda.
“Now it has become very common for people to say, ‘I’m going to Syria to fight,’ ” Abu Sajad said. “Why can Zawahiri say it publicly and we have to keep it a secret?”
Highly organized missions
In an interview in Baghdad, Abu Sajad and another Iraqi Shiite militia commander, Abu Aya, refused to say how they traveled to Syria or comment on Iran’s role in the process. But they said some of their operations helped tip the scale in favor of the Assad government, which has recently made gains against rebels.
Abu Sajad described his two-month mission this spring as extremely organized. He said that he took along 10 fighters, all highly skilled from years spent battling U.S. forces in Iraq, and that the Syrian army provided them with arms, vehicles and supplies.
“The Iraqi groups are only doing special missions,” he said. “We fight, and when we free a place . . . then the Syrian army comes in and sets up a base.”
The men said they were members of a Shiite militia but declined to say which one. Other Shiites who know them from Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood identified them as members of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a group responsible for most attacks against U.S. forces in the final years of the Iraq war.
Residents and journalists in Baghdad and several Shiite cities in Iraq’s south said the group is leading a shadowy effort to recruit and dispatch fighters to Syria.
Publicly, militia leaders, government officials and Shiite clerics in Baghdad and Tehran say Iraqi Shiites are going to Syria exclusively to protect the Shiite Sayeda Zeinab shrine south of Damascus. Massoud Jazayeri, a spokesman for Iran’s armed forces general staff, told the Lebanese al-Manar news channel last week that “many measures have taken place” to form forces to protect Syria’s Shiite shrines.
But a growing number of news media reports about bodies that have been returned to Iraq from Syria and funerals for fighters slain there indicate that Iraqi Shiites are active in battles far beyond the Sayeda Zeinab district, where the level of combat is low, said Will Fulton, an Iran analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington who co-authored a recent report on Iran’s strategy in Syria.
Abu Sajad and Abu Aya said there had been battles between Iraqi militants and anti-Assad rebels across Syria, including in Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and the strategic Qusair region along the border with Lebanon.
Iraqis, Hezbollah at the front
Residents of southern Iraqi Shiite cities said that fighters are mobilized in meetings with Shiite political parties and militias and that they often travel via Iran.
“Every day here, there are two or three funerals for martyrs killed in Syria,” said a journalist in Najaf who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid attracting the attention of the militias. He said about “90 percent” of the fighters had been mobilized by Asaib Ahl al-Haq and another-Iranian-funded militia, Kataib Hezbollah.
Abu Sajad and Abu Aya said that in many instances, specialized paramilitary units of well-trained Iraqi Shiites and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters led offensives against rebel forces because Syrian army regiments were too afraid to do so.
The two men showed more than a dozen cellphone videos that they said Abu Sajad and his fighters shot during battles in Syria. Several other videos that purportedly show Iraqis fighting in Syria have surfaced on the Internet in the past two months.
One of Abu Sajad’s videos purports to show Iraqi fighters in green fatigues preparing for an assault on rebel forces in the Damascus suburb of Jobar.
“Look, that’s the Syrian army doing nothing because they’re scared,” Abu Sajad proclaimed, pointing to a cluster of men in half the frame. “And there’s me.”
Abu Sajad said his unit had helped deliver crushing defeats to the Syrian rebels, capture suspected spies and “liberate” Aleppo’s strategic airport from the threat of shelling.
By the end of his first mission in Jobar, Abu Sajad said, his unit — with the help of regular radio communications with Hezbollah — had pushed deep into a rebel-held territory and killed “a lot” of people.
Before proceeding with the offensive, he recalled, he told a Syrian army commander: “Now you will see what the Iraqis can do.”
When they were done, he said, they handed the area over to the Syrian army and moved on to the next mission.
Assad’s Spillover Strategy