Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 26 April 2018

Religious edicts broaden the scope of the Syrian conflict

With the increasing involvement of foreign Shiite militants fighting alongside the Syrian regime, the conflict takes on a sectarian hue

The 32-month-old Syrian civil war is publicly (and more conspicuously) turning into two concentric circles of tension – domestically and regionally. The mainstream media has more than adequately concentrated on the first dimension, linked to the geopolitical balance of power and military capabilities of the rebels.

The Syrian conflict has been subjected to a lot of political polemics, but little scholarly work has been done on the second crucial circle of tension, the religious edicts, with an increasing number of recruits in the Shia armed involvement that is primarily aimed at the determination to protect Shia principles.

While several religious edicts, or fatwas, were recently issued by some lesser-known sheikhs and imams who have some supporters in Shiite communities, a leading Shiite Muslim cleric, the Iran-based Grand Ayatollah Kazim Al-Haeri (who is followed by a considerable number of Iraqi, Lebanese and Iranian Shia militants) has issued the first public religious edict permitting Shiites to fight in Syria’s civil war alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces and against the “terrorists” or “takfiri” rebels aiming to desecrate Shiite values.

The fatwa by Grand Ayatollah Al Haeri sets a new dimension to the Syrian civil war. Based in the Iranian city of Qom, Al Haeri along with Ayatollah Ali Sistani were two key mentors of the radical Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr, who organised thousands of his Shiite supporters into a political movement including a military wing, known as the Jaysh al-Mahdi or Mahdi Army.

First of all, it is crucial to point out that these kinds of fatwas play an integral role in the ideological direction of the civil war and the involvement of thousands of Shiite fighters who come mostly from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon.

In addition, although it is difficult to obtain an exact number for Shiite Iraqi volunteers fighting in various parts of Syria, there are estimates starting from 3,500 up to about 5,500 volunteers assisting the Syrian regime apparatuses. It is believed that 14 Iraqi Shia factions are involved and co-operating with the Abu al-Fadl Al Abbas Brigade, the largest majority Shia Syrian militant group operating throughout the nation, primarily near Shiite religious sites.

The recent fatwas by other prominent Shiite clerics and imams indicate Shiite militant involvement is not solely due to the geopolitical, strategic or political purposes as the media suggests. For example, many of the Iraqi, Iranian, and Lebanese volunteer Shiite fighters who have joined the Abu al-Fadl Al Abbas Brigade have more likely joined the fighting in reaction to what they believe is the desecration of Shiite shrines, heritage sites and places of worship by the rebels.

Involvement can also stem from the Shiite militant feeling of duty to fulfil their ideological commitment of implementing the religious edicts of Shiite imams.

Some analysts might argue that the desecration of various Shiite shrines in Syria were deliberately conducted by the Syrian regime, and subsequently the Syrian army, to elicit such formidable ideological Shiite fatwas from ayatollahs and clerics, resulting in a stronger mobilisation of Shiites across the region around one cause.

More fundamentally, the Shiite ideological and regional proxy war operates not only domestically but regionally. With the increasing involvement of foreign Shiite militant forces fighting alongside the Syrian regime, and fighting predominatantly Sunni rebels, the conflict takes on a sectarian hue.

This will turn the current antagonism between the rebels and the Alawite Assad regime from a political conflict into a religious one.

During such conflicts when two concentric circles of tension merge, and particularly at a time when religious edicts are issued, the Shiite coalition across the region becomes more ideological and more organised. This inevitably creates a broader tension exceeding the borders of Syria, and will not only result in pitting the Sunnis against the Shiites of the region, but will also allow Iran to utilise the conflict to further its own agenda across the Middle East.

In such a febrile atmosphere, small fatwas can have great consequences.

Dr Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American scholar, is president of the International American Council on the Middle East

On Twitter: @majidrafizadeh