Monday 18 Jan 2021 | 10:03 | SYDNEY
Monday 18 Jan 2021 | 10:03 | SYDNEY

Syria and the sectarian question


Rodger Shanahan


15 June 2012 10:23

I'm in Beirut on a research trip and, despite all of the turmoil surrounding it, Lebanon remains an island of relative calm. I was last here a year ago, when Syria was grappling with the emerging insurgency. And whereas much of the Lebanese Shi'a community then saw the fall of the Assad regime as a disaster for their interests, the community appears to be more sanguine now. After so long battling the opposition, people realise that, even if Assad wins, the Syrian state is unlikely to be as it was before the fighting. 

Those able to cope with the new realities will fare the best, and Hizbullah appears to be juggling adroitly its contradictory personalities as a Lebanese nationalist movement which also has close relations with Syria and Iran. 

Certainly there are those across the border seeking to turn the Syrian insurgency into another chapter of the broader Sunni-Shi'a conflict seen in Iraq, Bahrain and in the Iranian nuclear standoff. While the Syrian Alawites have common ancestry with mainstream Shi'ism it has developed to such a point where it really has nothing to do with Shi'ism. Hence support for Assad from Iran and Hizbullah has everything to do with politics; religion matters only in so far as each have cause to dislike Salafists.   

In order to make Syria part of this intra-religious conflict, there have been disjointed, but nevertheless targeted attempts by some actors to try to drag Lebanese Shi'a (read Hizbullah) into the conflict. In May there was the kidnapping of 11 Lebanese Shi'a pilgrims, who remain missing. And today came news that the a suicide car bomb had exploded next to a police station less than 50m from Sayyida Zeinab, the Damascene mosque and most significant Shi'a shrine outside of Iraq and Iran. Hizbullah understands the consequences of reacting publicly to such provocations and Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has urged calm.

If the sectarian nature of the conflict wasn't bad enough, evidence is emerging of Syria being seen as the next phase of 'jihadist international'. No wonder Lebanese authorities are trying to ring-fence themselves from consequences of the Syrian fighting. More on that in my next post.

Photo by Flickr user manolivio1.