SUNNI LAUNCH JIHAD AGAINST THE
Sunni feel they have the upper hand against their arch rivals the Shias in
Arab Spring of 2011 has boosted Salafists.
But the Saudi rulers still panic in fear of the Shia take over of the two holy cities.
18 August 2012
Syria conflict shifts Mideast sectarian scale, with surging Sunnis and blows to Shiite power
In 2010, Arabs everywhere listened when the leader of Hezbollah spoke. Sheik Hassan Nasrallah's prominence, bolstered by his Lebanese guerrilla force's battles against
, was a sign of the rising regional influence of Shiite Muslims and overwhelmingly Shiite Iran. Now, his speeches don't necessarily make front pages even in Israel . Lebanon
The change is emblematic of how the bloody conflict in
Syria, now in its 18th month, has brought a shift in the Middle East's sectarian power balance. For much of the past few years, Shiites were surging in power across the region, based on the central alliance between Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, with close relations to Shiites who took power in post-Saddam Hussein . Iraq
But now the region's Sunni-led powers are appearing more confident, encouraged by the prospect that the Sunni-led rebellion could bring down Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, dominated by members of the Shiite offshoot sect of Alawites. Assad's fall would cost
a priceless foothold in the heart of the Arab world. Hezbollah would lose a bastion of support and a conduit via Iran for vital Iranian weapon supplies. Syria
and Hezbollah have seen their reputations damaged by their support for Assad in the face of the uprising. Iran
Iran's influence in the Arab world has taken a big hit recently," said Alireza Nader, a Middle East expert from the Rand Corporation. 's and Hezbollah's support of the Assad regime, he said, contradicts their support for Arab Spring revolts elsewhere. "This policy makes Iran , and Hezbollah, appear cynical if not hypocritical." Iran
Further boosting the Sunnis, the wave of uprisings around the Middle East since early 2011 brought greater political influence to Sunni Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, in
Egypt and . Tunisia
The announcement Saturday that
Egypt's new, Muslim Brotherhood-rooted president, Mohammed Morsi, will visit Iran on Aug. 30 — the first such visit by an Egyptian leader since the mid-1970s — likely reflects the growing confidence that 's status is damaged and that Sunni Arab nations can steer the agenda. Iran
But at the same time, Morsi's Brotherhood has suggested it is aiming for a new policy of engaging with
and influencing it. During a recent visit to Iran Saudi Arabia, Morsi proposed the formation of a contact group of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey to mediate a solution in . The proposal may have been largely symbolic, but Brotherhood officials touted it as a return of Syria 's regional impact "that it had lost under Mubarak." Egypt
"Sunni Arab countries are pushing back to make up for the losses they suffered after 2003," said prominent Iraqi analyst Hadi Jalo. "With the civil war in
Syria and the isolation of the government in , the Shiite tide is retreating." Iraq
The "Shiite bloc" has suffered a number of reversals amid the
The Palestinian militant group Hamas moved its political leadership out of the Syrian capital
, costing Assad the leverage he had long enjoyed by hosting the group. Now Hamas, which had long received Iranian largesse, has shifted allegiances to energy-rich Damascus Qatar, which is also a backer of 's opposition. Syria
Iraq, where the Shiite majority rose to power following Saddam's 2003 ouster, is firmly in Iran's sphere of influence, but the Shiite-led government there is isolated, facing serious challenges to its authority from the Sunnis and Kurds, who between them combine for some 40 percent of the population.
Attacks blamed on Sunni militants there have further eroded the government's authority. Sunni-led Arab nations, particularly
Saudi Arabia and Qatar, continue to shun the Baghdad government because of its ties with Iran and its perceived marginalization of 's Sunnis. Iraq
Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies last year also banded together to help crush an uprising by Bahrain's Shiite majority demanding greater rights under the tiny Gulf island nation's Sunni leadership. The uprising — which threatened to turn into an Arab Spring-style revolt — raised Saudi fears of greater Iranian influence on the doorstep of eastern Saudi Arabia, site of much of its oil resources and the center for its Shiite minority.
The Shiite militant group Hezbollah, meanwhile, still holds a dominant position in
. But even that is being challenged. Lebanon
Only a few years ago, Hezbollah's leader Nasrallah had emerged as a hero even among many Sunnis across the Middle East after his fighters battled
Israel to a near stalemate in a destructive 2006 war in southern . But his backing for Assad has tainted him among many across the region, and among opponents at home. Regional news channels like Al-Jazeera no longer carry his speeches live and in full as they once did. Lebanon
Nasrallah, perhaps in search of relevance, warned on Friday in an 80-minute speech of a harsh and punishing response by
Iran if it were attacked by . He warned that if Israel Israel should attack Lebanon, his guerrilla group with its rocket arsenal could turn the lives of millions of to "real hell." Israel
Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs at the
American University of , says Hezbollah is no doubt making preparations for survival without Assad to support it. Beirut
"Hezbollah has to face a really huge challenge if the Syrian regime falls, but I cannot imagine a group like Hezbollah waiting for this to happen and not actively preparing itself for that eventuality," he said. "But it is clear that both Hezbollah and Nasrallah have lost some stature as a result of the Syrian conflict."
"They were told Salafists were coming to kill them” - Priest in Bab Touma
As the fighting in
Syria intensifies and grows more sectarian in nature, a journalist in tells how the country's many ethnic and religious minorities are being drawn into the conflict. Damascus
17 February 2012
Syrian conflict spills over border into Lebanon
Last weekend, fighting erupted between supporters of the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, and those who oppose his regime. Not on the streets of
Homs, Deraa or elsewhere in Syria, but in the northern Lebanese city of . Tripoli
Syria's sectarian violence would spill over into was perhaps inevitable. This is a country that has always been dominated by its more powerful neighbour. Lebanon
A single street in this rundown city divides the warring Alawite and Sunni communities.
For 24 hours last week, rival factions exchanged heavy gunfire, between districts only a few metres apart.
29 June 2012
The majority of
's inhabitants are Sunnis, who support the Syrian uprising Tripoli
Nowhere is the stress exerted on
Lebanon by the Syrian crisis more apparent than in , the country's second city. Tripoli
Syria's other neighbours - Turkey, Iraq and Jordan - has absorbed thousands of refugees fleeing from the conflict now raging on the other side of the border. Lebanon
But unlike the other countries,
risks being plunged into sectarian strife, possibly even civil war, by the strains inflicted on its own delicate internal situation by the Syrian crisis. Lebanon
If there is a spark that sets off a wider conflagration in the country, it is most likely to come from
, where blood has already been spilled. Tripoli
23 August 2012
Syria grips Lebanon
Twelve people are killed and at least 100 wounded after fighting in a north Lebanese city between two Muslim communities divided over
Deadly fighting over Syria grips north Lebanon
BBC: Permanent tensions between Sunni Muslims and Alawites in
were now particularly intense. Lebanon
At least 12 people have been killed and 100 wounded in the Lebanese city of
Tripoli in clashes between opponents and supporters of 's president. Syria
A group of tanks gathered in the central
on Wednesday before making their way into the combat zone. square of Tripoli
But it's just a show of force. The army has so far been unable to do anything more than create a buffer zone between the two neighbouring districts of Bab al-Tabbana and Jabal Mohsen.
It's not the first time that clashes have erupted between residents of the two districts over sectarian and political differences related to the events in
But this time there's a feeling that something is different. Residents here have been speaking of an intensity to the clashes that is unprecedented.
Political leaders have appealed for calm, but serious doubts have been raised about their willingness and ability to control the different factions amid a climate of sectarian radicalisation and a continuous flow of arms.
9 August 2012
Shias, Sunnis sectarianism turns into a nightmare for
As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces launch an offensive in the city of Aleppo, the bloodbath that seems imminent won't just push up the grisly figure of around 20,000 dead since the start of the uprising almost a year-and-a-half ago. It is the larger picture, the shape the civil war in
Syria is acquiring, that can have severe repercussions across West Asia and the rest of the world. And that is this battle being cast as the start of a war between Shias and Sunnis. Sectarianism could become a dominant theme for many decades in the wake of open and declared hostilities between the two main sects within Islam.
On the ground, the sectarian divide seems clear. The opposition or resistance, call it what you will, is centred in Sunni enclaves. The rhetoric of the fighters is directed against Assad's Alawite clan and those supporting him:
Iran and the Hezbollah in neighbouring . On its part, as it maintains official secular-speak, there is little doubt the Assad regime sees a threat to the very existence of the Alawites should it lose power. 'Plan B', as Jordanian King Abdullah recently said, might include forming, and retreating to, a de facto Alawite enclave/state. The break-up of united, pluralistic Lebanon is a real prospect. Syria
The intersecting lines of clan and sectarian identity and regional power-play are forgotten in the apparent Shia-Sunni strife. First, Alawite identity isn't monolithic - it has been evolving across decades. From its quasi-militaristic clan nature, largely suppressed during the years of Ottoman rule in the region, it accrued some esoteric rituals and beliefs, while gradually being fashioned into a Twelver Shia version.
Under Hafez al-Assad, whose military takeover in the largely Sunni country was once described as akin to 'an untouchable ruling India or a Jew becoming a czar in Russia', actually also presided over attempts to Sunni-fy Alawite identity so as to more legitimise his clan-rule. While the higher positions in the army have been occupied by Alawites, the administration was based on a broader network of allegiance from amongst Sunni clans and their participation in the bureaucracy.
war led to the formation of the second Shia-dominated state in the region. This exacerbated fears of the 'Iranian/Shia spectre' haunting states like Iraq . What followed was harsh repression of Shias seeking more rights in Saudi Arabia Saudi Arabia and savage action against the majority Shias seeking more democratic space in minority Sunni-ruled - a facet of the 'Arab Spring' western governments conveniently overlooked in their 'democracy' doublespeak. Bahrain
, the Arab Spring reinvigorated the prospects for more political freedom that had existed when the young Bashar assumed power. Gradually, as the hope that the young, educated President had promised evaporated, the clampdown on political opposition and groups attended general economic mismanagement. From peaceful demonstrations, the situation quickly spiralled into rival demonstrations and then violence. Syria
Regional equations added to the fighting quickly assuming sectarian overtones.
Iran, which has had its sole Arab ally in the Assad-led state, has been the most vocal supporter of the regime, seeking to avert a situation where it - and the Hezbollah in - loses one of its few allies. It fears Lebanon , if the FSA takes over, would turn decidedly pro-west, weakening its position further even as war threats are issued over its nuclear programme. Syria Turkey, which is assisting and arming the FSA, possibly sees its role in as historically determined, with Turkish statements about both countries being the descendants of the Seljuks and Ottomans having been heard. It also wants to maintain control on the Kurdish issue, what with the spectre of the de facto autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq making noises about militarily confronting Baghdad, raising the possibility of a more emboldened Kurdish enclave bordering Syria seeing itself as the beginning of an Syria
independent Kurdish state.
As of now, the Druze and Christian minorities in
are also fearful of a Sunni-dominated future dispensation, and thus supportive of the Alawites. On its part, the FSA has yet to make clear where it stands vis-a-vis the Islamist groups fighting alongside it. The region, and the world, seems to be waiting for the situation to be clear militarily. But as ancient Syria 's historic cities are destroyed, it seems most eventualities will only mean a prolonged state of acute strife, as the sectarian lines harden. Syria
BBC: 17 May 2012
The 'secretive sect' in charge of
Considered by some Muslims a heretic sect, this small Levantine minority have survived persecution and the Crusades to rise to the top and take over the Syrian establishment.
Alawite practices, which are said to include celebrating Christmas and the Zoroastrian new year, are little known even to most Muslims.
They account for 12% of
's population, or just under 3 million people, and yet have been in tight control of a Sunni-majority country, for more than 40 years. Syria
After a coup in 1970, led by President Bashar al-Assad's father Hafez, Alawites consolidated power over
's main institutions and security apparatus. Syria
Hafez's identity as an Alawite helped him gain the loyalty of other minority groups in
, to whom he promised rights and protection. Syria
Alawites are seen by other Muslims in the
Middle East as very liberal or even secular. In women are not encouraged to wear hejab and many choose not to fast or pray. Syria
Nusairism, as Alawism was originally called, emerged in the 9th and 10th Centuries in
The word Alawite, or Alawi means "follower of Ali", who was a cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad.
Shia Muslims also venerate Imam Ali and like the Alawis believe he was the true heir to the Prophet and should have succeeded him.
The perception that Alawis regard Ali as a deity or God in human form is what provokes disdain from some orthodox Sunni Muslims.
They regard the Alawite notion of Ali as heretical and a challenge to the fundamental belief that there is only one indisputable manifestation of God.
But some scholars argue this is a misinterpretation and Alawis actually believe Ali to be an essence or form, rather than a human being, through which followers can try to "grasp God".
In addition to the main tenets of Islam, Alawis observe two others, "jihad" or struggle and "waliya", the devotion to Imam Ali and his family.
Traditionally, many Alawi practices are carried out in secret, in line with the Shia custom of taqiyya, which is the practice of hiding one's beliefs in order to avoid persecution.
Alawites and the uprising
In recent weeks, sectarian tensions have spilled over into northern
, sparking fatal clashes between the Alawi minority there, and the surrounding Sunni population who are angered by Bashar al-Assad's brutal crackdown of the uprising. Lebanon
The Syrian government accuses Sunni Islamist groups in
Lebanon of supporting anti-government fighters and of planting a series of car bombs in . Damascus
21 August 2012
Eight Islamic Sects Meet in Saudi, Can They Make Amends?
During the Islamic Summit Conference that was held in
last week, King Abdullah called for a dialogue between different Islamic sects. The Shiite Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad officially attended the summit. The Saudi King invited eight sects to the dialogue: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi, Hanbali (i.e. the four Sunni schools) and the Shiite al-Jaafari, al-Zaidi, al-Abazi and al-Zahiri sects, which exist in the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, Yemen and . Two years ago, the Saudi King himself called for an interfaith dialogue at a conference, which was held in Iraq and was attended by Israeli figures. New York
Although many initiatives were previously launched to hold dialogues and bring together different Islamic sects, a special importance has been attached to the Islamic Conference as it has been sponsored by
at a time when the practice of Takfir [when a Muslim declares another Muslim a Kafir, or unbeliever] is on the rise. This practice is becoming more common than ever, even within political movements of the same sect. However, the Sunni-Shiite conflict is the main reason behind the rift in the Arab and Islamic world. Saudi Arabia
It is obvious that this initiative is not likely to bear immediate fruit. It needs an integrated project and mechanisms that would address the key issue, which is religious reform. Nevertheless, the conference holds significant importance at the political level, since it represents a positive step on the part of a hard-line religious Sunni authority towards another hard-line Shiite power, each leading a political camp.
Needless to say, we live in a world that has long overcome the issue of recognition of the other in terms of religion and culture. However, although Muslims have managed to integrate into this world, they have failed to reconcile with themselves, their history and their culture. They continue to dig up stories and dogmas from their religious history to further widen the gap of their conflict. Yet, this summit remains a very modest step in the right direction.
What about the social and political relations existing between these sects?
It is well known that before the Islamic revolution, the Gulf did not see
as its foe. Arabs used to deal with Iran on a political basis. Tehran , on the other hand, was also a cooperative country and a partner in the management of the Arab world and its affairs. However, the Shiite sect’s legitimacy was not acknowledged by the Saudi King. Shiites in the Kingdom are deprived of their rights. Syria
Shiites comprise the majority of the Bahraini people, a large proportion of the Iraqi people and one third of Lebanese society. Previously, the
did not deal with these people on a sectarian basis, except for its own [Shiite] citizens. However, today, the Kingdom looks at Saudi Kingdom Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria as well as from a sectarian perspective. In order to change this outlook, the Kingdom ought to put the Saudi Shiite groups on equal legal footing with other groups of different sects in the Gulf emirates. Iran
Recent Arab history has not been rife with religious conflicts. Since the first Arab revolution in 1916, the identity of the region’s peoples was characterized by nothing but Arabism. During the time of national renaissance and the struggle against European colonialism, it was difficult to categorize the history of Arab peoples based on their religions and sects.
Arabism, which is an organized intellectual movement, did not only appeal to Sunnis, who represented the broader public of the nationalist movement, but to “minorities” as well. Arabism attracted all of the elites in all Arab countries, including the
Arabian Gulf. Sectarian problems must be seen as receptacles for social and political effects caused by regimes that have used religious and cultural arsenal to support and justify religious and sectarian privileges among their peoples. Had Bahrain or been Shiite states, inter-Arab relations would not have changed to such an extent. Had Iraq Iran been a Sunni state for the past 400 years, positions would not have changed towards it, and the would have dealt with the Sunni-based Egyptian government according to its political choices rather than its religious sect. The same is true for Saudi Kingdom . Turkey
However, we do not deny the fact that
has stormed the Arab world and sought to export the revolution and thus its influence to Arab countries. Iran has become a partner in the Arab interests and managed to procure for itself geographic, political and sectarian regions. Today, Iran Iran is trying to take advantage of the Arab world crisis and invest in the Shiite environment to serve its interests in Iraq, Yemen, the Gulf, Syria and . While it has succeeded in justifying the overthrow of autocracy in Lebanon Iraq and thus reaping the fruits, cannot justify the killings of the majority of the Syrian people by relentlessly supporting the regime under the pretext of its political resistance. For the regime’s domestic policy is no longer voicing political resistance, which in turn is no longer viable unless Arab solidarity is renewed in order to formulate national, social and integrated policies. Iran
is seen as a force inhibiting the path of change in the Arab world, as this change will be done at the hands of Sunni political Islam. Iran
Here we are in
facing a contradictory Iranian position. Lebanon supports our national defense, as in the “resistance” and its arms and all relevant achievements in this regards. On the other hand, it tries to place Iran at the forefront of the Arab-Israeli conflict and inter-Arab conflict and therefore preventing the country from rising and from regaining its stability and unity. Lebanon
Today, the Sunni-Shiite conflict is likely to be affiliated with the Saudi-Iranian conflict and the interfaith dialogue has yet to put forth any viable solutions.
Lebanon falls under the responsibility of Iran and . The fragmentation witnessed over the past years reflects a joint trusteeship, aiming at exporting regional conflict to Saudi Arabia at the ideological and political levels. It would have been a dignified and viable step, had the Saudi King sought to establish a dialogue with Lebanon Iran in order to protect and distance it from the Syrian crisis. For Lebanon must not be subject to the hegemony of any doctrine or sect, whatever the aspirations of regional states. Lebanon
22 August 2012
It is not only those Syrians who demand democracy fighting against Bashar al-Assad. The number of foreign combatants [mujahideen] coming to
for jihad is rapidly increasing. Syria
When the first anti-Assad voices were heard in March 2011, there were already fears that this could turn into a sectarian war. This is what happened and the sectarian struggle that is forever ready to explode in the Middle East spread to
. Naturally, it didn’t take for the indispensable players of this war to show up in Syria : Foreign combatants that are the mujahedeen. They see themselves as martyrs of revolution. They are coming to Syria to be martyred. Their goal is to topple the regime of Assad. Syria
For a long time, Assad’s claims that there were jihadists in the opposition were ignored. Nobody discussed the fact that a large part of the Syrian opposition were Sunni Islamists and that they were against Assad because he was an Alawite [a sect of Shiite Islam]. The opposition that quickly became an armed force was seen not only by the Western press but also in
as a set of revolutionaries fighting for democracy. Turkey
Don’t Fear All Islamists, Fear Salafis
By ROBIN WRIGHT – The
Times - August 19, 2012 New York
Miss Wright is a fellow at the United States Institute of Peace and the
for Scholars. Woodrow Wilson International Center
THIS spring, I traveled to the cradle of the Arab uprisings — a forlorn street corner in
Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, where a street vendor, drenched in paint thinner, struck a match in December 2010 that ignited the entire Middle East. “We have far more freedoms,” one peddler hawking fruit in the same square lamented, “but far fewer jobs.” Another noted that Mohamed Bouazizi, the vendor who set himself on fire, did so not to vote in a democratic election but because harassment by local officials had cost him his livelihood.
As the peddlers vented, prayers ended at the whitewashed mosque across the street. Among the faithful were Salafis, ultraconservative Sunni Muslims vying to define the new order according to seventh-century religious traditions rather than earthly realities. For years, many Salafis — “salaf” means predecessors — had avoided politics and embraced autocrats as long as they were Muslims. But over the past eight months, clusters of worshipers across the Middle East have morphed into powerful Salafi movements that are tapping into the disillusionment and disorder of transitions.
A new Salafi Crescent, radiating from the Persian Gulf sheikdoms into the Levant and North Africa, is one of the most underappreciated and disturbing byproducts of the Arab revolts. In varying degrees, these populist puritans are moving into the political space once occupied by jihadi militants, who are now less in vogue. Both are fundamentalists who favor a new order modeled on early Islam. Salafis are not necessarily fighters, however. Many disavow violence.
In Tunisia, Salafis started the Reform Front party in May and led protests, including in Sidi Bouzid. This summer, they’ve repeatedly attacked symbols of the new freedom of speech, ransacking an art gallery and blocking Sufi musicians and political comedians from performing. In Egypt, Salafis emerged last year from obscurity, hastily formed parties, and in January won 25 percent of the seats in parliament — second only to the 84-year-old Muslim Brotherhood. Salafis are a growing influence in Syria’s rebellion. And they have parties or factions in Algeria, Bahrain, Kuwait, Libya, Yemen and among Palestinians.
Salafis are only one slice of a rapidly evolving Islamist spectrum. The variety of Islamists in the early 21st century recalls socialism’s many shades in the 20th. Now, as then, some Islamists are more hazardous to Western interests and values than others. The Salafis are most averse to minority and women’s rights.
A common denominator among disparate Salafi groups is inspiration and support from Wahhabis, a puritanical strain of Sunni Islam from Saudi Arabia. Not all Saudis are Wahhabis. Not all Salafis are Wahhabis, either. But Wahhabis are basically all Salafis. And many Arabs, particularly outside the sparsely populated Gulf, suspect that Wahhabis are trying to seize the future by aiding and abetting the region’s newly politicized Salafis — as they did 30 years ago by funding the South Asian madrassas that produced Afghanistan’s Taliban.
Salafis go much further in restricting political and personal life than the larger and more modern Islamist parties that have won electoral pluralities in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco since October. For most Arabs, the rallying cry is justice, both economic and political. For Salafis, it is also about a virtue that is inflexible and enforceable.
“You have two choices: heaven or hellfire,” Sheikh Muhammad el-Kurdi instructed me after his election to Egypt’s parliament as a member of Al Nour, a Salafi party. It favors gender segregation in schools and offices, he told me, so that men can concentrate. “It’s O.K. for you to be in the room,” he explained. “You are our guest, and we know why you’re here. But you are one woman and we are three men — and we all want to marry you.” Marriage may have been a euphemism.
Other more modern Islamists fear the Salafi factor. “The Salafis try to push us,” said Rachid al-Ghannouchi, founder of Ennahda, the ruling Islamist party in Tunisia. The two Islamist groups there are now rivals. “Salafis are against drafting a constitution. They think it is the Koran,” grumbled Merhézia Labidi, the vice chairwoman of Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly and a member of Ennahda.
Salafis are deepening the divide between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and challenging the “Shiite Crescent,” a term coined by Jordan’s King Abdullah in 2004, during the Iraq war, to describe an arc of influence from Shiite-dominated Iran to its allies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Today, these rival crescents risk turning countries in transition into battlefields over the region’s future.
The Salafis represent a painful long-term conundrum for the West. Their goals are the most anti-Western of any Islamist parties. They are trying to push both secularists and other Islamists into the not-always-virtuous past.
American policy recently had its own awakening after 60 years of support for autocratic rulers. The United States opted to embrace people power and electoral change in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Yemen. Yet Washington still embraces authoritarian Gulf monarchies like Saudi Arabia, tolerating their vague promises of reform and even pledging the United States’ might to protect them.
Foreign policy should be nuanced, whether because of oil needs or to counter threats from Iran. But there is something dreadfully wrong with tying America’s future position in the region to the birthplace and bastion of Salafism and its warped vision of a new order.
THE NEW YORK TIMES - July 29, 2012
As Syrian War Drags On, Jihadists Take Bigger Role
BEIRUT, Lebanon. As the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s government grinds on with no resolution in sight, Syrians involved in the armed struggle say it is becoming more radicalized: homegrown Muslim jihadists, as well as small groups of fighters from Al Qaeda, are taking a more prominent role and demanding a say in running the resistance.
The past few months have witnessed the emergence of larger, more organized and better armed Syrian militant organizations pushing an agenda based on jihad, the concept that they have a divine mandate to fight. Even less-zealous resistance groups are adopting a pronounced Islamic aura because it attracts more financing.
Idlib Province, the northern Syrian region where resistance fighters control the most territory, is the prime example. In one case there, after jihadists fighting under the black banner of the Prophet Muhammad staged significant attacks against Syrian government targets, the commander of one local rebel military council recently invited them to join. “They are everywhere in Idlib,” said a lean and sunburned commander with the Free Syrian Army council in Saraqib, a strategic town on the main highway southwest from Aleppo. “They are becoming stronger, so we didn’t want any hostility or tension in our area.”
Tension came anyway. The groups demanded to raise the prophet’s banner — solid black with “There is no god but God” written in flowing white Arabic calligraphy — during the weekly Friday demonstration. Saraqib prides itself in its newly democratic ways, electing a new town council roughly every two months, and residents put it to a vote — the answer was no. The jihadi fighters raised the flag anyway, until a formal compromise allowed for a 20-minute display.
In one sense, the changes on the ground have actually brought closer to reality the Syrian government’s early, and easily dismissible, claim that the opposition was being driven by foreign-financed jihadists.
A central reason cited by the Obama administration for limiting support to the resistance to things like communications equipment is that it did not want arms flowing to Islamic radicals. But the flip side is that Salafist groups, or Muslim puritans, now receive most foreign financing.
“A lot of the jihadi discourse has to do with funding,” noted Peter Harling, the Syria analyst with the International Crisis Group, adding that it was troubling all the same. “You have secular people and very moderate Islamists who join Salafi groups because they have the weapons and the money. There tends to be more Salafi guys in the way the groups portray themselves than in the groups on the ground.”
But jihad has become a distinctive rallying cry. The commander of the newly unified brigades of the Free Syrian Army fighting in Aleppo was shown in a YouTube video on Sunday exhorting men joining the rebellion there by telling them: “Those whose intentions are not for God, they had better stay home, whereas if your intention is for God, then you go for jihad and you gain an afterlife and heaven.”
What began as a largely peaceful, secular protest movement in March 2011 first took on a more religious tone late last summer as it shifted into an armed conflict waged by more conservative, more rural Sunni Muslims whose faith already formed an integral focus of their daily lives.
But greater attention has been focused on a Qaeda involvement in the uprising since mid-July, when fighters professing allegiance to the terrorist organization appeared during the opposition takeover of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey. In one video, five fighters declared their intention to create an Islamic state. (Mainline Qaeda ideology calls for a Pan-Islamic caliphate.)
Still, there is, as yet, no significant presence of foreign combatants of any stripe in Syria, fighters and others said. The Saraqib commander estimated there were maybe 50 Qaeda adherents in all of Idlib, a sprawling northwestern province that borders Turkey. The foreigners included Libyans, Algerians and one Spaniard, he said, adding that he much preferred them over homegrown jihadists. They were both less aggressive and less cagey than the locals, said the commander, interviewed in Turkey and via Skype and declining to be further identified.
An activist helping to organize the Syrian military councils said there were roughly 50,000 fighters in total, and far fewer than 1,000 were foreigners, who often have trouble gaining local support. “If there were 10,000, you would know, and less than 1,000 is nothing,” said the activist, Rami, declining for safety reasons to use more than one name.
Not all foreign fighters are jihadists, either. One Libyan-Irish fighter, Mahdi al-Harati, who helped lead the battle for Tripoli, Libya, organized a group of volunteers for Syria, noted Thomas Pierret, a lecturer in contemporary Syrian Islam at the University of Edinburgh. “He is not a jihadi; he sees himself as a Libyan revolutionary there to help the Syrian revolution,” Mr. Pierret said.
Fighters, activists and analysts say that jihadi groups are emerging now for several reasons. They generally stand apart from the Free Syrian Army, the loose national coalition of local militias made up of army defectors and civilian volunteers. Significantly, most of the money flowing to the Syrian opposition is coming from religious donors in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf region whose generosity hinges on Salafi teaching.
Further, as the sectarian flavor of the uprising deepened, pitting the majority Sunni Muslims against the ruling minority, the Alawites, it attracted fighters lured by a larger Muslim cause. Alawites, the president’s sect, dominate Syria, but many orthodox Muslims view them as a heretical offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Understanding the military players in the Syrian opposition has become remarkably more difficult in recent months through the proliferation of brigades, battalions and fronts, many bearing religious names. Plus they change all the time, and some have all but disappeared.
But there is a marked trend in videos not displaying the revolutionary banner — Syria’s independence flag with a green, white and black stripe and three red stars. “The issue of the flag really is key,” Mr. Pierret said, “They are on their way to a more Salafi, jihadi agenda and a rejection of the national framework.”
One recent such video, highlighting the storming of a police station hear Aleppo, featured a pistol, the Koran and a song about fighting. “The Koran in our hands, we defy our enemy, we sacrifice with our blood for religion” were some of the lyrics.
The commander in Saraqib said that when he invited jihadists into his military council, they rejected several proposed names for the expanded group that included references to Syria. “They consider the entire world the Muslim homeland, so they refused any national, Syrian name,” he said.
The attitude prompts grumbling from fighters used to the gentler Islam long prevalent in Syria. Adel, a media activist from Idlib interviewed in Antakya, Turkey, in June, complained that “the Islamic current has broken into the heart of this revolution.” When a Muslim Brotherhood member joined his group in Idlib, he said, inside of a week the man demanded that the slogans that they shouted all included, “There is no god but God.”
“Now there are more religious chants than secular ones,” Adel groused.
Behind the surface tussling over symbols lies a fight for power and influence. Those attacking the government in the name of religion want more say, while those who preceded them want to limit their role. As in Iraq, the longer the fight, the more extremists will likely emerge.
For now, both fighters and analysts said not all the jihadist symbols could be taken at face value. The scarcity of weapons and ammunition in the unbalanced fight with the government inspires much more tension than ideology.
Some Syrians who seek a more secular revolution blame the lack of Western support for driving the rebellion into the arms of the extremists, either by not supplying arms or by not forcing a solution. “The radicalism is the result of a loss of hope,” said Imad Hosary, a former member of the nonviolent, local coordination committees inside Syria who fled to Paris. “The jihadists are those that say heaven awaits us because that is all they have left; the international community is responsible for not finding a solution.”
The most prominent emerging homegrown groups include Ahrar al-Sham and Sukur al-Sham, which field various chapters in Idlib and elsewhere. Jibhat al-Nusra, an organization that has claimed several suicide bombings, is considered weak on the ground, the experts said.
Ahrar al-Sham in particular enjoys the support of Sheik Adnan al-Arour, a Sunni Muslim media star in exile, who blasts Shiites and Alawites on his television show and on what appears to be his authentic Twitter account. “We buy weapons from the donations and savings of the Wahhabi children,” said one recent Twitter posting, referring to the Islamic sect prominent in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, “and not from the Americans like the Shiites of Iraq did.”
He has also lashed out against Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the militant Shiite organization that backs President Assad. “I ask Hassan Nasrallah how many wounded Syrians has he healed? Because I know how many he and his party killed.”
Members of the main homegrown groups denied harboring extremist tendencies, like declaring other groups or individuals apostates. Abu al-Khatab, in his late 20s, said he was a former fighter for Al Qaeda in Iraq before he joined Ahrar al-Sham. “I agree with Al Qaeda on certain things and disagree on others,” he said. “Suicide bombings should only be against the security forces, not civilians, for example.”
Abu Zein, a spokesman for Sukur al-Sham, said the organization included Syrians plus other Arabs, French and Belgians. “The Qaeda ideology existed previously, but it was suppressed by the regime,” he said in a Skype interview.
“But after the uprising they found very fertile ground, plus the funders to support their existence,” he added. “The ideology was present, but the personnel were absent. Now we have both.”
Rami, the activist, thinks the jihadi tendencies mark both the length of the fight and the fact that society in many areas has become male-dominated and unstable, with the elderly, women and children having fled. Syrian Islam, he said, tends not to sympathize with extremism. A broad fatwa issued via Ahrar al-Sham against all Alawites was so widely condemned by other fighters that it was later diluted to focus on government figures.
Rami described one local leader in Binnish, a town near Saraqib, questioning the religion of Ahrar al-Sham members who he thought were kidnapping too many local Shiites.
“He told them, ‘Damn your religion — who is this God of yours you are bringing? I have been a Muslim for 40 years, and this is a God we don’t know,’ ” Rami said.
22 August 2012
Salafis in Lebanon look confidently ahead
DW - The situation in Lebanon is getting increasingly out of control as radical Sunnis openly challenge the dominant Shiite militant group Hezbollah. Many Lebanese sympathize with the Sunni hardliners.
Sheikh Ahmad Al-Assir, a Sunni cleric, has a clear goal. He does not just want to see the end of the Hezbollah militant group's supremacy in Lebanon. Al-Assir wants the Shiite group to completely lose power.
The sheikh isn't afraid of using drastic means to achieve his goal. For several weeks, he and his followers have blocked the main route to southern Lebanon, which goes directly to the city of Sidon.
"We need to finally move ahead and exert more pressure," he said. "Making claims and passing judgment won't change Hezbollah policy"
Al-Assir views his blockade as a success, claiming to have seriously disrupted the main route Shiite officials take to reach their southern spheres of influence for weeks. Security forces have held back from disbanding the blockade to avoid violent clashes.
Al-Assir, 44, is imam of a small mosque in Sidon's eastern Abra district. Black and white flags wave outside the mosque's entrance, where the Islamic creed can be read in flowing Arabic script.
Al-Assir dreams of mounting a protest like the one on March 14, 2005, when hundreds of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets demanding the withdrawal of Syrian troops from their country. Now he believes the Sunnis should force the disarmament of Hezbollah, which means the "Party of God" in Arabic.
Provocative and threatening
Disarmament is one of the Lebanese opposition's key demands. Sunni and Christian forces formed the opposition alliance on March 14. The group is pursuing a political path to achieve its goals.
Al-Assir, however, is challenging, provoking and threatening both leaders of Lebanon's Shiite parties - Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary-General of Hezbollah, and Nabih Berri, leader of the Amal Movement.
Some Sunnis support Al-Assir's populist, sensational approach. Mohammed, the owner of a laundry shop in Sidon, recalls how Hezbollah used the same method in 2007 while occupying the center of Beirut for several months. Back then, he says, no one dared voice a word of criticism.
"Why are they allowed to do this and we aren't?" he asked.
When using the word "we," Mohammed means Sunnis.
Lebanon's radical Sunni groups stand to the margins of the country's political scene. The majority of them are mainly focused on spreading their strict religious beliefs in mosques and schools. Even so, they draw plenty of attention in times of crisis.
Political tensions between the Shiite-dominated Lebanese government and the Sunni opposition are grist to the mill for radical groups in the country. For them, the uprising in Syria is a revolt of the entire Sunni Islamic world against the disbelieving regime in Damascus. At the same time, the growing self-consciousness of Islamist movements in Arab countries such as Egypt and Tunisia has given the Salafis a boost.
Several months ago, Al-Assir hardly knew anyone in Lebanon. Now he is the leading figure in the country's Islamist scene.
Mohamed Abi Samra, a journalist and expert on Sunnis in Lebanon, has studied the rise of the Salafis and the Al-Assir phenomenon.
"I would be careful to not view this phenomenon as part of a Shiite-Sunni conflict," Abi Samra said.
The journalist said in stark contrast to Hezbollah, Lebanese Sunnis have no armed organization and no clear political aims. He views Al-Assir and his supporters as a reactionaries against those that created the "Party of God," and not as a movement deeply anchored in society.
"There is certainly a yearning among many Sunnis - and not only them - for a figure like Nasrallah and for an organization like Hezbollah to be simply strong," Abi Samra said.
Meanwhile, in spite of Lebanon's extremely tense political situation, Al-Assir has announced more actions to come. Many Lebanese, like a physics teacher named Marwan, worry whether peace can last. He believes everyone should be able to voice their opinion, but is opposed to blockades.
"The sheikh is only increasing tension and hostility among people here," he said.
3 August 2012
US Holds Its Breath As Saudi Arabia’s Uprising
Surmounts Regime’s Impregnable Shield: Sectarian Divisions.
As popular uprisings swept the Arab world, many experts stressed that Saudi Arabia was incomparable to others. It was immune from turbulences, let alone, regime-ousting uprisings. Confident that its internal front was impeccably secure, the Saudi regime moved swiftly to achieve its external overarching goals, which ranged from holding at bay the spread of popular uprisings clamouring for democratic change and political reform, to severely undermining, if not, reversing what it perceives, as the mounting Iranian and Shia influence, and ensuring the survival of other monarchies.
The Saudi regime offered Ben Ali, Tunisia’s dictator, refuge and has steadfastly refused to hand him back to face trial. And the Saudi king gave, not just his emphatic support to Mubarek, Egypt’s tyrant, but also threatened the USA that he was ready to bankroll him. Saudi Arabia’s tireless effort to spearhead the counterrevolution suffered its first setback at the hands of its closest ally the USA, which encouraged the Egyptian army to turn against Mubarek. The Saudi regime has made concerted effort to make up for lost ground in Egypt. It has gained huge influence with the military council by providing it with $4 billion in aid, as well as, throwing its weight behind the extremist Salafi movement, which emerged second after the Muslim Brotherhood in the parliamentary elections. As for Yemen, the Saudi regime initially supported Saleh, Yemen’s dictator, but when his brutal crackdown spectacularly backfired, it launched its own initiative to ensure
that Saleh was replaced by another staunch ally, namely his deputy, Abd-Rabbu Mansour, through a cosmetic election. Just as important, however, was the Saudi regime’s clear message that uprisings were absolutely futile, since Saleh was ousted by its own initiative rather than an uprising.
For the Saudis, the Bahraini uprising was indisputably the nightmare scenario that sent shock waves right across Saudi Arabia. This was hardly surprising, since Bahrain was a brutal dictatorship governed by Al Khalifa family, from the Sunni minority, while the vast majority of Bahrainis were Shia. In Saudi eyes any concession, no matter how insignificant, let alone, a triumph by the Bahraini uprising would definitely inspire its own Shia to rebel against the regime. The Shia form the overwhelming majority in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, which is literally a stone-throw from Bahrain. Just like the Shia in Bahrain, they have constantly complained from being subjected to intolerable discrimination and marginalisation. Despite, the undeniable failure of a supposed day of rage, on March last year, it, nonetheless, unnerved the Saudi regime. Thus, the king announced some unprecedented measures which ranged from billions of dollars in benefits
and new jobs, to a stern warning that security forces would pull no punches in confronting protestors, to massive rewards for the Wahhabi Salafi religious establishment and, most ominously, giving the green light to the Saudi army to invade and occupy Bahrain. Within 24 hours of the occupation, the Bahraini forces backed by the Saudi forces unleashed a ferocious and murderous onslaught against the peaceful protesters in pearl-square. In another strenuous attempt to placate the dramatic escalation in exhortations for political reform, the king, suddenly declared on September last year, that the municipal elections, which were supposed to be held in 2008, will actually take place. Yet, not surprisingly the turn out was hugely disappointing, since it was abundantly clear that the council was a powerless body, where half its members were handpicked.
What is undoubtedly incontestable is the pivotal role played by the radical and regressive Wahhabi Salafi religious establishment in propping up and giving the religious legitimacy to the Saudi regime, which in turn provides it with the vital funding to propagate and export its violent and extremist ideology. According to the Wahhabi ideology it is strictly forbidden to oppose the ruler. And, far from questioning the highly contentious actions of the Saudi regime, the religious establishment has issued religious fatwas to back them up. These fatwas were utilised by the Interior ministry headed by Nayef, to declare, on February 2011, that these protests were the new terrorism and that it would confront them with an iron fist, just as it did with Al-Qaida, It also indirectly blamed Iran for the protests. The peaceful protests in the Eastern Province entered into a highly perilous phase in October 2011, when the savage crackdown turned into a campaign of
cold blooded murder. The dramatic escalation coincided with the death of Sultan, the heir to the throne and the appointment of Nayef, as a replacement.
The Saudi regime’s overriding priority that supersedes all other priorities has always been to establish and bolster its position and image as the indisputable guardian of Sunni Islam, even though it firmly endorses the Wahhabi ideology. Ever since 1979 – when the Iranian revolution toppled the Shah – the Saudi regime has vigorously endeavoured to portray and present all the major events and conflicts in the region as an integral part of an ongoing existential sectarian war waged against the Sunnis by the Shias, namely Iran in order to become the unrivalled power in the region. So, as the uprising began in Bahrain, the Saudi regime started deliberately ratcheting up the sectarian rhetoric in order to instigate sectarian strife, which would undoubtedly stave off any uprising by the Sunni majority.
As it becomes increasingly apparent that open dissent and protests have spread far beyond the Eastern Province to Sunni areas in Hejaz and even to the Saudi regime’s heartland and powerbase in the capital Riyadh, the USA, which considers Saudi Arabia as a central pillar of its policy, must be holding its breath as Saudi Arabia’s uprising surmounts the regime’s impregnable shield: sectarian divisions.
Among the principal reasons behind the increasingly deepening cracks in the Saudi regime’s internal front are: first, the inescapable reality that the regime has emphatically supported brutal dictators in crushing uprisings by the Sunnis in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. Second, the inconsistent position of the regime in unequivocally backing secular monarchies like Morocco, Jordan and secular establishments like the Egyptian military against Sunni Islamic movements. Third, the inexcusable failure by the king to activate the much-trumpeted allegiance council – set up by him as a showcase of reform – to select the heir to the throne twice within eight months, prompting senior figures from the royal family to bitterly criticise the lack of consultation. This, has evidently, not only consolidated the widespread perception that the royal family is in the midst of a vicious power struggle, but also added weight to the argument that this is a royal family
that marginalises its senior members, never mind, the ordinary citizens. Fourth, the undeniable success of people in other countries, such as Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Iraq, and to a lesser extent Yemen in ousting their dictators and democratically electing new leaders. Fifth, the sheer hypocrisy in the King’s call on the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, to implement genuine reform and halt the killing machine, while he has spectacularly failed to lead by example. Sixth, the failure of the authorities to tackle the chronic problems, such as unemployment, corruption and poor housing, despite the billions of dollars in oil revenue. Seventh, foreign educated Saudis are beginning to question the legitimacy of such a rigid dictatorship. Eighth, the mounting fears that the ruthless crackdown in the Eastern Province would dramatically intensify the increasingly vocal demands for secession. And finally, the death of Nayef and his replacement by Salman, who is
perceived as more sympathetic to reform have laid bare that, even though, Nayef was a hardliner, nonetheless, he was used by the regime as the perfect pretext for not undertaking meaningful reform. Although it has been more than a month since Salman took over, but there is absolutely no reforms in the pipeline. Even more revealing, however, has been the dramatic surge in the regime’s savagery, which has reached an unsurpassed level, especially with the arrest and even torture of the Shia religious leader Nimr Al Nimr.
The USA should be deeply concerned about the rapidly deteriorating situation in Saudi Arabia, not only because its implacable support to the Saudi regime has made a mockery of its pretention of defending democracy and human rights, but, more menacingly, Saudi Arabia was the country where the vast majority (15 out of 19) of the 9/11 suicide bombers, never mind, the mastermind, Osama Bin Laden, came from. It is also, where nearly all fatwas giving religious legitimacy to Al Qaida’s atrocities emanate from. Now is the time for the USA to stand on the right side of the present and future of Saudi Arabia, by extending the oil-for-protection deal to an (oil and concrete democratic reforms-for-protection deal).