The civil war in Syria appears to be getting even more messy, if that’s possible to believe.
Reuters news agency reported that volunteers from Iraq and Lebanon have formed a militia brigade and are fighting to protect a Shi’ite holy place near Damascus, the Sayyida Zaynab Shrine.
That’s pitting them against Syria’s predominantly Sunni rebels.
The sectarian fighting has echoes of the Sunni-Shi’ite violence that dominated the middle years of the war in Iraq.
And it comes at a time when Shi’ites are feeling under siege from Lebanon to Pakistan.
Vali Nasr believes these volunteers are sincere in wanting to protect the Shrine.
Nasr is dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
“Other shrines have been attacked in the past, notably in Samarra, Iraq, in 2006,” says Nasr. That attack triggered a horrific sectarian war, with US troops caught in the middle.
However he adds that Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the government of Iraq, could well be sending in proxies to support the Syrian government directly.
Sunni jihadis are already fighting to support the rebels.
“It’s an international conflict,” says Nasr. “The outcome will change the balance of power between Sunnis and Shi’ites regionally. … This conflict is about their own sets of issues and was never just about Syria. … As the stakes have gotten higher, (regional powers) are investing more and more in trying to protect their interests and trying to decide the outcome.”
Nasr also criticizes US policy for failing to appreciate this regional dimension.
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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World, a coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH in Boston. If you can believe it, the civil war in Syria appears to be getting messier. According to the Reuters news agency, volunteers from Iraq and Lebanon have formed a militia brigade and are fighting to protect a Shiite holy place near Damascus, the Syrian capital. That’s pitting them against Syria’s predominantly Sunni rebels, so now the Sectarian fighting in Syria has echoes of the Sunni-Shiite violence that dominated the middle years of the war in Iraq and it comes at a time when Shiites from Lebanon to Pakistan are feeling under siege. Vali Nasr wrote the book on the Shia revival. He’s dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. At first, Vali Nasr, is this call to defend the shrine for real or is it just a symbol to rally opinion in the Shiite world and to maybe attract more volunteers?
Vali Nasr: No, it is for real. There have been attacks on Shiite shrines, the most famous being on the shrine in Samara in Iraq, which caused the Sectarian war in that country. There have been attacks on other Shiite shrines and mosques in Pakistan and in other locations as well. And therefore, the Shiites believe that that shrine is actually endangered.
Werman: Now, these Iraqi and Lebanese fighters seem to be siding with the government of Syria, with President Bashar al-Assad. Why would they do that?
Nasr: It was largely the Iraqis and [inaudible 1:23] that if there’s a change in the dynamics of power in Syria, it would impact their own struggles in their own home countries. So in Lebanon the Hezbollah and the Shiites are in a struggle for power with the Sunnis, and in Iraq, the Sectarian competition for power has never ended. So a Sunni dominated Syria will change the balance of power in Iraq and it will change the balance of power in Lebanon. It would be a blow to the major supporter of the Shiites in the region, Iran, and also it would give rise to particularly harder line militant brand of Sunnis, which they’ve seen in their own countries to be much more sharply anti Shiite. So they’re really in Syria fighting to protect their own interests rather than really defend the Assad government for the sake of defending the Assad government.
Werman: And given how much is at stake for other countries in the region, how convinced are you that these men are real volunteers? I mean couldn’t they be proxies sent by Hezbollah and the government of Iraq?
Nasr: It’s quite possible. The proxies are sent actually into the battlefield to fight, but proxies are not necessarily sent to protect the shrines. The shrines really matter to Shiites in their everyday faith. And that’s what attaches them in a very passionate way to their faiths. So it’s quite likely that if there’s a call to defend the shrine, there would be plenty of volunteers who are willing to do so. Governments are probably going to be sending their proxies into the battlefield in the various towns and villages of Syria to fight the opposition.
Werman: I mean it’s already been well reported how there are numerous foreigners fighting alongside the rebels, mostly Jihadi sympathetic to al-Qaeda. Now this news of Iraqi and Lebanese Shiites defending this holy shrine outside Damascus, is it bad news in your view that the conflict in Syria seems to be getting more internationalized?
Nasr: I think it was international to begin with, it’s just that we didn’t recognize that this conflict had immediate regional ramifications because the outcome would change the balance of power between the Shiites and Sunnis regionally. So even from the get-go everybody understood that this conflict was about their own sets of issues and was never limited to Syria. And as the stakes have go higher the people are investing more and more in trying to protect their interests and trying to decide the outcome.
Werman: You’ve also just written a fairly damning article on foreign policy in Obama’s handling of Afghanistan and Pakistan. What’s wrong with the way the administration is tackling foreign policy and does your prognosis kind of also have something to say about what’s happening in Syria?
Nasr: Well, I think generally our approach to the Middle East has been rather disengaged and hands off. We’ve only reacted when there has been an eminent crisis and we haven’t clearly articulated what our national security interests are in the region. And we have not been sufficiently alert to try to get ahead of the events as they unfold, understand where they’re going and try to push them in the direction that will protect our interests and be beneficial to the region itself. In the case of Syria I think we allowed the conflict to just continue to a point where it now very clearly has regional dimensions and it’s much more difficult to bring to some kind of a peaceful conclusion. And that would in some ways not only put the stability at danger, but also would pose certain risks for the United States in the coming years.
Werman: Vali Nasr, author of the Shia Revival and the upcoming Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat. Thank you for your time.
Nasr: Thank you.
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