The Syrian conflict is sometimes seen by those in the West as simply the overthrow of a violent dictator. However, underlying the political battle is a centuries-old conflict between Shia and Sunni Muslims which is continuing to intensify in the war-torn country. The divide between the sects threatens to explode into an all-out religious war, with Syria as a central battlefield.
Al-Assad, the political leader of Syria, is part of the Alawite sect, which is Shia; the rebels, and the majority of Muslims worldwide, is Sunni. Recently, an influential Muslim cleric named Yusaf al Qaradawi called on Sunni Muslims worldwide to join the fight against al-Assad, calling his sect a group of infidels worse than Christians and Jews. Leaders of Hezbollah, meanwhile, have joined al-Assad’s forces and are using strong rhetoric to incite Shia groups to join the fray.
A key moment in this escalating conflict was the detonation of a car bomb near a Shia shrine in Damascus which killed 17 people, including pilgrims. This attack has prompted Shia Muslims from Iraq and other Middle Eastern nations to travel to Syria. Many are trying to join a group of 10,000 fighters called Abu Fadl al-Abbas, whose mission is to protect Shia holy sites in the midst of the Syrian conflict. However, when arriving, they are told that they must join al-Assad’s army and protect Syria, not just the shrines. They endure difficult training in Iran, and then are sent to join the army.
The rhetoric between Sunni and Shia Muslims is frightening, with Qaradawi saying to his fellow Sunnis that it is the duty of everyone who has training to kill has the duty to go.
The international community may desire peace in the region, but this will be hard to find in the midst of this theocratic war. Both sides are guilty of atrocities and terrorism, and the hatred between them runs deep. Overthrowing al-Assad may seem like a good thing, but what kind of sectarian violence will it leave behind? How will this affect other Muslim nations? How will the balance of religious and political power shift in the Middle East as a result? The problem is much deeper than the overthrow of a dictator. There is a divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims that crosses international borders, and throwing support behind one side or the other has the potential to cause incalculable problems in the region, pitting nations with Sunni or Shia majorities against one another.
Watching this conflict from a distance since it began, I wondered why the international community hesitated to get involved in the overthrow of al-Assad, who was obviously committing heinous crimes against his own people and violating human rights by killing protestors. I now see that their hesitance to join the fray was warranted. The unfortunate thing is that by doing nothing but talk while the violence continues, many innocent civilians and children are caught in the crossfire. Many people will die. The violence is not likely to stop, because the religious divide between Muslim sects runs much deeper than any political partisanship ever could. When the doctrine of jihad is added to the mix, with both sides using it as a call to holy war, it’s a toxic recipe.
I am a pacifist, by my pacifist philosophy doesn’t know what to do with this one.
May there be peace on earth.