Looking At Syria Through The Lens Of Schism

August 7, 2012

A reader recently asked why I focused on Hezbollah last week in posts about the Syrian civil war, so today I’d like to provide some additional context.

First, there are many ways to analyze the ongoing conflict in Syria. It can be seen as a revolution against an authoritarian regime, or as a proxy war between Sunnis and Shi’a, or as means for al-Qaeda and similar organizations to find new relevance. All of these approaches are helpful in understanding the nuances of actors and motivations in the war.

Second, Hezbollah has undeniably been an instrument of the Syrian government. Syria has helped to fund and train Hezbollah militants since the group’s inception. If the government has used Hezbollah to attack groups outside of Syria in the past, there is no reason to think it won’t use them to attack groups inside of Syria now. Furthermore, there is premature speculation in the media that the fall of the Syrian regime could spell the end of Hezbollah.

Personally, I am particularly interested in how a Shi’ite group like Hezbollah may try to counter the growing Sunni presence of al-Qaeda. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was not inaccurate when he characterized the opposition as “al-Qaeda terrorists” during the early days of the war. Many within the Western news media balked at that suggestion, but al-Qaeda was among the hundreds of opposition groups in Syria at that time and their numbers have only grown since.

The al-Qaeda fighters pouring into Syria from Iraq promote a jihadist vision that is global in scope, intolerant of other Sunni doctrines, and fanatically anti-Shi’a. Al-Qaeda’s main grievance with the Syrian regime is that it is run by Alawites, people who belong to a branch of Shi’a Islam. Syria’s population is over 70% Sunni, yet the country is run by minority Shi’ites who make up only around 12% of the population.  Al-Qaeda wants to change that.

The Shi’a were an early Islamic political faction (Party of Ali) that supported the power of Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and the fourth caliph (ruler) of the Muslim community. Ali was murdered in 661CE, and his chief rival, Muawiya, became the new caliph. It was Ali’s death that led to the great schism between Sunni and Shi’ite.

Caliph Muawiya was succeeded by his son Yazid, but Ali’s son Hussein refused to accept Yazid’s legitimacy. Fighting between the two denominations resulted. Hussein and his followers were massacred in battle near Karbala in 680CE,  and the deaths of Ali and Hussein gave rise to the Shi’a sect of martyrdom and a sense of betrayal.

The Shi’ite faith has always appealed to the poor and oppressed waiting for salvation. It is a messianic tradition in that it awaits the coming of the “Hidden Imam” (Allah’s messenger) who will reverse the fortunes of sect members and herald the end of the world.

Shi’ites  currently make up about 15% of the Muslim population worldwide. Al-Qaeda has vowed to wipe the Shi’ites from the face of the earth. The only way that the Alawite population can survive in the current Syrian climate is to use their own groups such as Hezbollah to push back against the al-Qaeda machine.

To sum up, I have focused on Hezbollah because that organization is a significant- and significantly underreported- player in the Syrian conflict.

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