The Syrian Jabhat al-Nusra group’s public pledge of allegiance to al-Qaida last week has increased tensions with other predominantly Sunni Muslim rebel forces seeking more military support from the West which, particularly in the form of lethal weapons, it has so far denied.
While the militant group is credited with winning many rebel battles and gaining important ground from President Bashar Assad’s forces in the north and south, the al-Qaida link plays into Assad’s claims that terrorists, backed by foreign fighters, are seeking to topple his regime. It also makes the West, seeking to support democratic change in Syria, extremely uneasy.
The Assad regime, too, is employing numerous Shiite fighters from Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard units, Iraq and Lebanon’s Hezbollah organization in its bid to maintain control.
As the battle for Syria rages, foreign fighters from both sides of the sectarian divide are assuming higher profiles in the two-year civil war, leaving questions about who will ultimately decide the country’s future course. Many also fear the conflict will broaden sectarian tensions and inflame the entire Middle East.
The conflict is exacerbating regional sectarian tensions in “very dangerous ways,” according to Julien Barnes-Dacey, the European Council on Foreign Relations specialist on Syria.
“Although the struggle is predominantly one of power, regional actors have largely lined up in support of the two sides along sectarian lines, reinforcing broader communal tensions, particularly in Syria’s immediate neighbors where political grievances fall along similar sectarian lines,” he said of bloody struggles for power between Shiites and Sunni Muslims in Lebanon and Iraq.
“In effect, the conflict in Syria is reinforcing the sectarian edge to other regional struggles for power,” Barnes-Dacey said.
Signs of a broader conflict
Saudi Arabia and Qatar supply finances and weapons to the rebels seeking Sunni Muslim control in Damascus, while Iran and Hezbollah are propping up Assad’s regime, dominated by minority Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Jordan has helped ferry arms to rebels and also provides facilities to U.S., Britain and French military experts training them, although its government denies such involvement.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II warned in 2004 that the new Shiite-led Iraq, along with Lebanon’s Hezbollah and their patron, Iran, would form a “Shiite crescent” that will be “very destabilizing for Gulf Arab countries and the whole region.”
The moderate U.S. ally and peace partner with Israel is just as concerned by the rise of Jabhat al-Nusra and salafist jihadist groups in Syria, fearful they could turn on the Western-backed kingdom afterward. Jordan does not want to see Dara`a province in the south along its northern border become a base for extremists in a similar way the area around Aleppo has developed.
Meanwhile, Israel has feared rebel advancement in Quneitra province, adjoining the disengagement lines along the Golan Heights.
Joshua Landis, who directs the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, sees Syria turning into an arena for a ‘Sunni-Shiite showdown,’ of potentially ‘apocalyptic’ proportions.
“Syria means a lot to Islamists [salafists],” Landis said. “Iraq for them has not been successful. The U.S. is still hunting and killing militants in Afghanistan and Yemen, but Syria presents a completely different possibility where the potential gains for them are real.”
They have their sights set on removing Syria from Iran’s orb of Shiite influence and reasserting Sunni Muslim control over the country.
Moreover, the salafists and the West are seeking the same initial objective in Syria: the fall of the Assad regime. But what is hoped for afterward is radically different. Some believe the West and secular rebels want to see democracy flourish after decades of dictatorial rule, while militants say they will fight for the establishment of an Islamic state governed by ‘sharia’ or Islamic law.
“The fall of Assad would be a tremendous blow to Hezbollah, Iraq and Iran. The stakes are high even for the Sunni Muslims and jihadists,” Landis said.
He said jihadists from Sunni areas of Iraq and as far afield as Chechnya are flocking to Syria to fight. The same can be said for Shiites. Landis points to the upsurge in funerals of Hezbollah, Iraqi and Iranian fighters as one indication of the numbers of foreign Shiite fighters involved in the conflict. “It’s gaining pace,” he said.
A spokesman for the Free Syrian Army rebels, Loay al-Mikdad, claims that Hezbollah has expanded its operations over the past two months, mostly in central Homs province near the Lebanese border, and in Damascus, where Assad’s grip on the capital is weakening and more military defections are feared.
Hezbollah’s role in Syria is crucial, said Torbjorn Soltvedt, at the British risk analysis firm, Maplecroft, because it is more adept at fighting an irregular conflict than the Syrian regime troops trained for conventional warfare.
A Shiite awakening
Landis said the apex of Shiite power in the region was the Israel-Hezbollah war in July 2006 in which the Lebanese Shiite militant group claimed victory. Then, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was lauded even in Sunni Muslim capitals at the time. Shiites had also consolidated their political hold over Iraq, while Iran faced off with its Gulf Arab neighbors. A “Shiite awakening” was breaking out.
Shiites believed they lived under the heel of Sunni Muslims for far too long — the past 1,400 years — and were marginalized during the Ottoman Empire. But then the 1979 Islamic Revolution erupted in Iran, witnessing Shiite ascent to power.
“They don’t want to go back to the dark corner of the political halls of power, Landis said.
“But now, Sunni Muslims are on the march. They see the potential to compensate for Iraq in a big way,” he said of the Syrian conflict.
Landis also said that Syria’s Alawites and Shiites fear ethnic cleansing, seeing Iraqi Christians and minorities in Eastern Europe suffer that fate. “It’s a battle for survival,” he said.
He believes that we are witnessing a “big sorting out along ethnic and religious lines” in Syria, which could be part of the “painful process of nation-building.”
But Barnes-Dacey warned that while the civil war still has a “long way to run yet,” it is clear that “extremist forces ideologically linked to al-Qaida are gaining in prominence and emerging as powerful players that will be hard to dislodge once the conflict ends.”
Although most Syrians are intent on resisting radicalization, “the deepening violence and sectarian tensions, situated alongside the collapse of the Syrian state, is providing fertile ground for radical groups to entrench their influence,” Barnes-Dacey said.
The militant Jabhat al-Nusra presents a “dangerous precedent,” said Shiraz Maher of King’s College London, by working hard to win over Syria’s civilian population with its military victories while providing staples, like bread and water. Al-Qaida in Iraq never did that.
Barnes-Dacey said the U.S. and Western allies will become more wary about funneling military aid into the conflict, if extremist groups among the rebel forces grow in prominence. They fear the weapons supplied will “eventually be turned against them or regional allies,” such as Israel and Jordan.
“Having spent much of the last decade fighting forces linked to al-Qaida, the West is now concerned that it could actually end up reviving them by channeling weapons into Syria,” he said.
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