A Hezbollah parade in the Lebanese capital Beirut. Nov, 2014. AFP
The Islamic State (ISIS) has once again proudly announced that it was behind the devastating bombing of the Shiite shrine of Sayyida Zeinab south of the Syrian capital Damascus last weekend. This time they killed at least 83 at the site in four bomb blasts, an increase from the 71 in their previous bombing of the shrine last month.
As was the case with the last bombing the targeting of this shrine ups-the-ante of sectarian warfare and raises worrying questions about the Shiites of both Syria and Lebanon.
In Syria the Shiites are a minority. And a scattered tiny minority to boot. In recent weeks the Syrian Army and its militia allies, including Hezbollah and Iranian paramilitaries, broke the siege of two Shiite-majority towns near Aleppo: Nubul and Zahraa. Which were under siege by Jabhat al-Nusra who, like (ISIS), see the Shiites as heretics.
As with the Christians, Druze and Alawites most Shiites in Syria have given their de-facto support to Assad, fearing the consequences of his fall for their communities. Given how they are scattered across Syria safeguarding Shiite communities has proven difficult. Nubul and Zahraa was an apt case in point. The Syrian regime even agreed to give safe-passage to Free Syrian Army (FSA) opposition fighters from Homs in mid-2014 provided the FSA in Aleppo cease their attempts to overrun those two towns. Fearing what would happen if the Shiites there were disarmed. And for good reason too.
Jump from Nubul and Zahraa to Fuah and Kefraya. Two other Shiite towns in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib. When an Islamist coalition, which includes the Nusra, overran that province in May of last year they besieged those two towns and in one instance even fired 1,000 rockets into them. Here again the regime negotiated over those isolated towns in a bid to ensure the Shiites weren’t overrun and potentially subjected to a sectarian massacre. They proposed a population swap, allowing the Shiites of those towns safe-passage in return for allowing Nusra forces they were besieging further south in Zabadani safe-passage also. A deal reminiscent of the Homs/Nubul-Zahra tradeoff.
These two tradeoffs and the deadly bombings in the Zeinab shrine aptly illustrate just how threatened the Shiite minority is in a Syria where Salafi fanatics are rampaging across large parts of the country. As a community they have to be eternally on guard against the growing number of potential threats they are faced with. And being so conspicuously behind Assad, whose regime has slaughtered tens-of-thousands of Syria’s Sunni-majority, they have been made implicit in the eyes of many much more moderate Syrian Sunnis with his crimes.
Which brings us to Lebanon. The Shiite Hezbollah militia was one of the first external powers to make a conspicuous entry into Syria in mid-2013. Since then it has delegated men and arms to fight the enemies of the Assad regime. A decision which hasn’t been very popular among its own constituents in Lebanon’s Shiite-majority south and even less popular in the wider Sunni Arab world, many parts of which revered Hezbollah for its fight against Israel in the summer 2006 Second Lebanon War. In the ten years since then the militia is clearly a shadow of its former self and is seen by Sunni Arabs as a servant of Shiite Iran’s interests in the region. Which include propping-up Assad.
The refugee crisis caused by the Syrian war has potentially planted the seeds for a future conflict in Lebanon. A country which hasn’t had a census since 1932 given fears that one communal sect in the country could think it could dominate/subdue another by numbers alone and become emboldened by that fact. This has led many to guesstimate that Lebanon’s population is roughly one-third Christian, one-third Shiite and one-third Sunni. That was until the war in Syria. Today given the mass influx of predominantly Sunni Arab Syrian refugees the Sunnis are much more likely than not in the majority in Lebanon.
Many of the Sunni Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf region who have been funneling arms and finances to some quite ruthless jihadis in Syria are also exerting increasing pressure on Lebanon in an attempt to further corner Hezbollah. They cut off billions worth of aid in arms at a time when the Lebanese government is trying to cope with the refugee crisis and a plethora of other issues. Mere days later the Lebanese Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi resigned declaring the government to be a mere rubber stamp for Hezbollah in that country, something which is seeing it becoming alienated from the Sunni Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf.
Hezbollah’s former chief, Subhi al-Tufayli, also bitterly condemned the group’s intervention in Syria recently, saying it should protect the Lebanese home-front warning that its involvement in Syria’s destruction would increase the likelihood of more spillover. Something which could well in the future endanger or even imperil Lebanon’s own historic Shiite community.
Additionally the perception in the Middle East of Shiites being either pawns of the Persians (Salafi propaganda invariably refers to Shiites as ‘Safavids’ in reference to the 16th Century Persian leader who spread Shiism throughout Iran) or the Russians, whom al-Tufayli condemned as a “conqueror” on par with the Americans or Israelis in the region, further incriminates them in the eyes of many Sunni Arabs in that region who have become radicalized by years of war in Syria.
All of this doesn’t bode well for the Shiites of the Fertile Crescent who find themselves increasingly restricted to enclaves where they have to constantly watch their backs.
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.