Sunday, January 20, 2013

Sunni - Shiite War?

The Times of Israel reports today on a new influx of Hezbollah fighters into Syria to support President Assad:
A-Sharq Al-Awsat leads its front-page news coverage with a report of Shia fighters in the vicinity of Damascus.

According to “media and intelligence reports,” the gunmen have entered Syria from Iraq and Lebanon and are succeeding in repelling the anti-Assad opposition.

The daily features a photo of a veiled Syrian women, decked out in military garb and carrying a sniper rifle, walking through a destroyed street in Aleppo.

According to the report, Hezbollah has established a major presence in Syria, comprising a significant force within the “Abul Fadhl Abbas Battalion.”

According to a spokesman for the battalion, its role is limited to protecting Shiite holy sites frequented by Shiite pilgrims, but other reports indicate that the battalion’s role “surpasses mere defense.”
The article links this with the overall spread of extremist ideology throughout the Muslim world. However, this has the hallmarks of being just a continued escalation of a spreading general conflict between Shiites and Sunnis.
For instance, on February 10, 2013, Fox News reported on a series of bombings across Pakistan targeting Shiite Muslims:
A series of bombings killed 115 people across Pakistan on Thursday, including 81 who died in twin blasts on a bustling billiards hall in a Shiite area of the southwestern city of Quetta.
Pakistan's minority Shiite Muslims have increasingly been targeted by radical Sunnis who consider them heretics, and a militant Sunni group claimed responsibility for Thursday's deadliest attack — sending a suicide bomber into the packed pool hall and then detonating a car bomb five minutes later.
It was one of the deadliest days in recent years for a country that is no stranger to violence from radical Islamists, militant separatists and criminal gangs.
Violence has been especially intense in southwest Baluchistan province, where Quetta is the capital and the country's largest concentration of Shiites live. Many are ethnic Hazara who migrated from neighboring Afghanistan.
The billiards hall targeted Thursday was located in an area dominated by the minority sect. In addition to the 81 dead, more than 120 people were wounded in the double bombing, said police officer Zubair Mehmood. The dead included police officers, journalists and rescue workers who responded to the initial explosion.
Ghulam Abbas, a Shiite who lives about 150 yard (meters) from the billiards hall, said he was at home with his family when the first blast occurred. He was trying to decide whether to head to the scene when the second bomb went off.
The issue of Sunni-Shiite conflicts is something to watch carefully. It is not just Pakistan experiencing Sunni-Shiite violence. Whatever other reason that the civil war started in Syria, it is ending in a Sunni-Shiite conflict. Assad (and many others in the Syrian military and government) are of the Alawite sect, which is recognized as part of the Shiite branch of Islam, whereas Al Qaeda is Sunni. The sectarian nature of the conflict threatens to spill over into Lebanon as well. (See here and here). The latter article, from the Global Post and dated Jan. 9, 2013, reports:
A few weeks ago, when the Syrian government returned the mutilated bodies of several Lebanese fighters who had crossed the border to fight with the rebels, a famous face was there to greet them.

It wasn't a senior member of the government who welcomed home the “martyrs,” as one might expect. The official line in Beirut is still one of “disassociation” from the Syrian conflict.

Instead it was an ultra-conservative Salafist Muslim leader who has gone from obscure preacher to household name in less than two years.

Sheik Ahmad Assir’s skyrocketing popularity is now threatening to turn a segment of Lebanon’s primarily moderate Sunni population more extreme, forcing the country’s long simmering sectarian tensions to a boil.

Assir is now the most high-profile of Lebanon's Salafists — an ultra-orthodox branch of Sunni Islam. His status is buoyed by the neighboring war in Syria, which has devolved into a mostly sectarian fight between Sunnis and Shiites.

The sheikh's core message resonates with a broadening segment of society, and though he is still considered an eccentric outsider by many, he is attracting increasingly mainstream followers.

Assir’s message is that Sunnis have suffered indignities — both at the hands of Syria as well as Hezbollah, the Shiite militia and political group based in southern Lebanon — for far too long, and that Lebanon's elected leaders are useless.

A recent clash here in the sheikh's hometown, on the southern coast of Lebanon, showed that his supporters are willing to confront Hezbollah on a level not previously seen before.

Residents of Sidon were shocked in November when their otherwise quiet town suddenly fell into sectarian bloodletting. It seemed a gloomy harbinger of things to come if even this obscure byway in the Middle East could be darkened by the Syrian conflict.

A gun battle between the sheikh's men in Sidon and Hezbollah militants claimed three lives. Two of Assir's closest bodyguards were killed. The local Hezbollah commander and his bodyguard were wounded. A 14-year old Egyptian boy was killed in the crossfire.
 (See also this article from Al Monitor that argues that Turkey's foreign policy is essentially Sunni).

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