Lunchtime Sunday February 1: despite being the start of the working week, crowds throng the main entrance to Souk Hamidiyyeh in central Damascus. Buses come and go from the central bus stop a few hundred metres away. They are same ones I developed a love hate relationship with while studying in Damascus.
There were the cheap, yet notoriously crowded, red public buses taking us to class every day as well as the colorful coaches with melodic horns that deposited exhausted hordes of Shi’a pilgrims outside my house at Bab al-Faradees (Gate of Paradise, one of the eight Roman gates of old Damascus) at 4 am. They were visiting the Iranian built mosque and shrine to Sayyida Ruqqaya, the Prophet Mohammad’s great granddaughter. Morning prayers there were usually followed by some vigorous souvenir shopping in the surrounding souks.
Despite mortars and rockets falling regularly on the city, Damascenes, Muslim and Christian, visit Souk Hamidiyyeh daily for their needs. The vast western arch of the souk opens onto a busy intersection, bringing an end to the romance of the walled old city. Watching over it all, sits a modern statue of Saladin, the Arab world’s most famous warrior during the Crusades.
As it rolls past the statue, one of the buses is torn apart by a bomb hidden on board, shattering windows a block away. The bus had come from the shrine of Sayyida Ruqqaya, full of Lebanese Shi’a. Bodies and bags hang out of the burnt shell of the bus as military men and emergency services rush to the scene. They find a second bomb and manage to disarm it. Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda in Syria, claims responsibility.
The mild irony of the location is lost in what little public comment the bombing receives; such atrocities are common in Syria’s 4th year of war. Saladin is celebrated for expelling the Franks from Egypt and the Levant, in the 12th century C.E. While his victories against the European Crusaders are well known, Saladin’s earlier efforts were directed against fellow Muslims, the Shi’a Fatimid Dynasty in Egypt. Representing an influential chapter in the centuries old Sunni-Shi’a conflict, Saladin consolidated Sunni rule from the Tigris to the Nile.
It is still the case that no matter how much of a threat to the west radical Sunni Islam has become, it will never rival the terror inflicted upon fellow Muslims and other Arab minorities – whether through direct violence, forced exile from their homelands or the deeper, less tangible effects of communal stigmatization domestically and internationally.
Over 800 years after Saladin, Sunni and Shi’a remain divided. In a globalised world of nation states, their conflict is now more complex than ever. Saladin’s homeland Syria has become a testing ground for blended and competing identities that further complicate the existing Sunni – Shi’a conflict. Yet beyond religion, Syrian communities are often also split along geographic and socio-economic lines. Neglecting these nuances of identity and motivations undermines attempts to understand the conflict.
Regionally, Shi’a Hezbollah and Iran have lined up beside Assad while the Sunni Gulf states heavily back the opposition. These regional backers share religious affiliations with their sides of the conflict, a fact often cited in describing Syria as a “sectarian conflict”. However, their sectarian affiliations are mostly ancillary to their geopolitical motivations, confirmed by the further alliances of Russia* and the US neither of which has a sectarian interest in their chosen side.
The emergence of Sunni Islamist groups such as JAN, Ahrar al-Sham and The Islamic State (IS) has sharpened the sectarian conflict in Syria. Any secular opposition to the Syrian leadership has comprehensively failed. We have learnt more about IS, and fear their threat to the west. Despite their rhetoric, like most of their predecessors, IS are far more of a worry to non-Sunni Arabs and other regional minorities (in 2014 this Palestinian TV clip made light of the tragic situation).
Expanding on Al-Qaeda’s ideological foundations, the new breed of Sunni Jihadists emphasise on ridding the world of all non-believers and heretics. They have been brutal and public in pursuing this goal. In Syria their message has been particularly attractive to Sunni Muslims in disaffected rural areas, who make up a majority of the population.
Bombing Shi’a pilgrims in the heart of Damascus seeks more than just physical damage. It is more powerful as a tool to divide the community. The desired ripple effect is to make others resent the violence that Shi’a attract, and distance themselves from fellow Syrians. However, if the attacks are viewed as targeting more than just Shi’a, perhaps the state as a whole, they can unite people within a national rather than religious identity.
The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and Syrian government are both heavily influenced by a large proportion of Alawites. But Alawites are not the only ones fighting for the survival of the regime. As a result of the existential threat facing their often-fragmented enclaves Kurds, Druze, Shia (including ‘Alawi and Ismailis), Christians and some Sunni Muslims are fighting side by side. Indeed Sunnis likely comprise the majority of SAA troops.
Minorities are well represented in the ranks of volunteer militia bolstering government forces throughout Syria. The most prominent is the National Defence Force (NDF). As the government seeks to highlight its pluralist credentials, it is advancing the role of the NDF in military operations.
Superficially the creation of the NDF has been seen as a case of arming minority sects against Sunni. However there are deeper levels to its appeal and success. The NDF reveals some of the mixed identities and motivations influencing the Syrian conflict.
The NDF has been established primarily as a formalized local militia under direction of the SAA. Using men with strong local knowledge and ties to the community improves the effectiveness of traditional government forces in guerrilla fighting dominating the conflict. Because of its localized recruitment and posting structure its ranks are unavoidably composed of clustered religious groups, scattered throughout Syria’s geography.
Some observers frame this as revealing the NDF merely as formalized ‘shabiha’ (ghosts), ’loyalists’ fighting either for their sect or money.
Focusing on Alawite and Shi’a towns near the Lebanese border they ignore Sunni regions in the North East, whose NDF groupings have faced the brunt of IS attacks alongside Kurdish forces.
The Syrian Government under the Ba’ath party has pushed a pluralistic national identity for many decades, often raising the ire of the country’s intolerant and uncompromising branch of the Muslim brotherhood. The current strength of Sunni jihadists in Syria and their desire for an ‘Islamic state’, threatens not only minority sects, but the Syrian nation itself. Creating a fear of becoming a poorer version of Saudi Arabia, this is galvanizing many Syrians, including urban Sunni, behind the government (see my previous post regarding the presidential elections).
In Homs, the location of some of the most vicious sectarian violence between Sunni, Alawi and Christians, the Syrian government has granted leadership of the militia to the militantly secular Syrian Socialist National Party. Contacts who visited both Homs and Saidnaya in February 2015 report that militiamen of Sunni, Shia and Christian faith have been proudly active in recent battles against groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Jaish al-Islam. Commonly they cite loyalty to both their villages and the state.
The NDF role in representing a pluralistic Syrian state also plays on the issue of women’s rights in the country. It boasts a female brigade guarding government checkpoints, while also providing self-defence training for women. Syria’s record as one of the most liberal countries in the region for women also contrasts sharply with Sunni Jihadist intentions.
As more in depth reportage has discussed, socio-economic, geographic and geopolitical forces run alongside sectarian factors in shaping the conflict in Syria. Superficially labelling all sides according to Sunni-Shi’a sectarian motivations simply deepens a problematic narrative of the Syrian conflict. Meanwhile, the region is seeing new alliances and actors emerge, reflecting the historical complexity of tribal, national, religious and ethnic identity in modern Syria.
*Russia has been pressured by the Russian Orthodox church to protect Christian communities in Syria. It also has its own security concerns over Sunni extremists in the Caucasus.