The Syrian Mire: Middle East Divisions Deepen amid Civil War
The civil war in Syria is increasingly dividing the Arab world along sectarian lines. The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah has now charged into the fray, joining predominantly Shiite government forces in an effort to dislodge Sunni rebels from the key city of Qusair.
There was an absurd moment in the battle for the small city of Qusair when, last Monday, an old Israeli military jeep was paraded before Syrian state television cameras. According to the state news agency SANA, the jeep, which the army had supposedly captured in Qusair, was clear proof of Israeli involvement in the Syrian civil war. In fact, it added: "This confirms that Israel, Turkey and Qatar are leading the aggression against Syria with a joint operations center."
The SANA report did not explain why they would do so with a vehicle model that was taken out of service 10 years ago. As it turned out, the jeep was from a museum's inventory. Before that, it had been used in the Khima military prison, in southern Lebanon, to transport prisoners until the Israeli army withdrew from the area in May 2000. After that, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah set up a memorial at the prison, and now it had apparently brought the vehicle to Qusair. This would explain why a tractor could be seen in front of the jeep in the photos.
But despite the propaganda, the bitter battle for Qusair could become a turning point in the Syrian civil war. For the first time, Hezbollah fighters are openly leading the ground war against the insurgents, while the Syrian army provides backup with tanks and, most of all, airstrikes.
Iran, an ally of the Syrian regime, has also sent troops to fight for President Bashar Assad. The rebellion threatens to expand into a sectarian conflict beyond the country's borders along the Middle East's most tension-filled divide: the one running between Sunnis and Shiites. The centers of conflict between the two major denominations of Islam, isolated until now in Lebanon, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, could be drawn into a wider conflict that would quickly engulf the entire region.
On April 30, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah dramatically announced a policy that would lead to the conflict now being waged in Qusair. After a visit to Tehran, he declared nothing less than a holy war, referring to the rebels in Syria as "Takfiris," or Sunni fanatics who view Shiites as heretics and aim to fight them and desecrate their shrines. For this reason, Nasrallah said, they must act preemptively and do everything in their power to support their fellow Shiites fighting for Assad.
After Nasrallah's speech, Hezbollah units streamed across the border for weeks, closing the ring of siege around Qusair. On Sunday, May 19, they launched an assault on the city, which has long since been bombed to bits. Last Monday, Syrian state media reported that government troops were on the verge of victory, even though rebels were still fighting in the ruins last Friday. In addition, more rebel units are on their way from Aleppo to Qusair, while more Hezbollah fighters continue to arrive from Lebanon.
About 100 rebels and 40 elite Hezbollah fighters were killed on the first two days of the battle alone. For Hezbollah, it was the largest casualty figure since the 2006 war with Israel.
Mounting Antagonism Between Sunnis and Shiites
In the past, Hezbollah buried its fighters killed in Syria discreetly, but now they are carried to their graves in ostentatious processions. The message seems to be that each dead fighter represents an obligation to continue fighting.
But the propagandistic act of desperation with the museum jeep also shows how uncomfortable it makes the "Party of God" to jeopardize its image, developed over the course of three decades, as Lebanon's defender against Israel. Hezbollah, which portrays itself as the Arab "David," repeatedly defying the Israeli "Goliath," has turned into a sectarian army in the fraternal struggle within Islam.
Rather than being a unified state, Lebanon has been held together for years primarily because of a standstill agreement among its religious groupings. But now it is being sucked into the war in neighboring Syria. Last week, the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli saw its worst fighting in years between Sunni radicals and militias made up of Alawites, whose faith is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Unrest also erupted at a Hezbollah funeral procession in the southern city of Sidon.
The numbers of Sunni jihadists coming to Syria from the entire Arab world is still low. Their old way of defining their enemy was shaped by al-Qaida, which champions the struggle against the West, the Jews and all infidels in general. But this image is changing, and the Sunnis are now opposed to those demonized as the betrayers of true Islam: the Shiites. Indeed, Nasrallah's call for holy war against the Sunnis is being met with a thundering echo.
The Key City of Qusair
Qusair lies about 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the Israeli border. The fact that Hezbollah is now fighting against the very people who sheltered Lebanese citizens fleeing from Israeli bombing in 2006 doesn't make their campaign any more popular in Lebanon. But Qusair is important because one of the routes the rebels use to reach the former industrial city of Homs passes through the town. More important than the city is the nearby highway. If the Syrian regime keeps it open, it can move troops between the territory it holds along the coast and Damascus, and it can move missiles and other military equipment arriving at the port of Tartus to the capital.
In the last two months, Assad's army has established a ring around the Damascus metropolitan area, thereby encircling thousands of rebels in the suburbs. The country could be divided into two parts. Assad's forces have been reduced in size but are still loyal to the president. They are made up of elite units, Alawite militias and Iranian troops and Hezbollah fighters. Together, they hold the western edge of the country, from Damascus to the northern coast, as well as the Druze province of Suwayda in the south and parts of the desert east of Damascus and Homs. Except for a few Syrian army bastions, the rebels hold the rest: Idlib in the north, large parts of Aleppo and the Kurdish regions, Dayr Az Zor in the east, and the southeastern part of the country.
Western news services have reported that the fall of Qusair would cut the rebels off from all weapons supplies. But these claims are incorrect because only one of several smuggling routes passes through Qusair. With the exception of one border crossing, rebels control the entire border with Turkey. A similar situation applies along the border with Jordan and even the border with Iraq, whose government tolerates Assad.
It isn't the transport routes that are blocked. The shipments of ammunition, AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, sanctioned by Turkey and Jordan, have been brought to a virtual standstill for weeks. Without American approval, Turkey and the Persian Gulf states are also unable to send weapons to the rebels. But now Washington wants to wait and see what comes of the international peace conference planned for June in Geneva.
- Part 1: Middle East Divisions Deepen amid Civil War
- Part 2: The Widening Sectarian Divide
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