Nearly three years of fighting have passed, accompanied with three years of speculation on whether the origin of the war in Syria has a sectarian basis. Now, the conflict indeed seems to incline towards an all out war between different Islamic creeds.
By now it seems a realistic option that the Assad regime is preserving its power,1 whether or not the Islamist factions maintain control over certain parts of Syria, and a cease-fire is suggested to be the best option.2 That is according to top-analysts like Ryan C. Crocker, the former ambassador of the United States to for example Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria; and Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies and associate professor at the University of Oklahoma. Meanwhile, in the Netherlands the public debate is still more focussed on possible consequences for our society if fighters return from Syria, and what can be done legally to prevent them from re-entering society.
Before laws are adapted to take away their Dutch citizenship, or to end their welfare, it is important to gain insight on the underlying motivations of the involved parties. Landis argues that the differences between the newer Islamic Front and al-Qaeda are merely “shades of grey“,3 and predicts a grim future for Syria. All the more considering his point of view on the segmentation of Syrian soil, between the jihadist factions on the one hand and the Assad regime on the other, after the war.4 He emphasizes that Zahran Alloush, leader of the Islamic Front, shows his – and with that that of his super militia – sectarian character in the anti Shiite and anti Alawite tirades on YouTube.5 This way of thinking combined with the willingness to cleanse the world of religious dissenters, points towards a type of ‘world-conqueror’ fundamentalism,6 rather than a so-called struggle of oppressed Sunnite majority or minority against an oppressing Alawite or Shiite dictator.
Often used by jihadist groupings to refer to Shiites and Alawites is the word ‘Majus’, as reference to the Three Wise Men from the Christmas message, derived from the Zoroastrian order of ‘Magicians’. The black and white world view of these groupings can be derived from this: they themselves are good, the ‘Light’, and anyone outside their group is in the ‘Dark’. The reference to a Persian order of priests is fairly ironic, considering the academic jargon for such a dichotomy being ‘moral Manicheism’ – after the Persian gnostic religion from Antiquity. Entirely by the book they base their ideology on both strong theological and nationalistic foundations, by identifying evil not only with gone astray teachings, but with the Persians as a people as well. Likewise, their eventual objective is to establish a theocracy based on a historically framed Umayyad Caliphate in the Shaam area that is guarded against Persian influence.
From the following quote from a recent article by Middle East correspondent for The Guardian Martin Chulov, we can conclude that not every fighting group wants a revival of the old caliphates: “Increasing numbers on both sides […] frame the war as a prelude to an apocalyptic showdown with a preordained foe.“7 For both Sunnites and Shiites, Shaam – the Arabic term for the greater Syria – plays an important role in the dawn of the end of times, be it that this scenario will take place in entirely different settings. Especially with Jabhat al-Nusra and like-minded groups, it seems they feel like they have to influence and/or enforce the circumstances to precipitate the end of times. For a moment it seemed like Shiites would join the conflict on a global scale as well, but the newspaper article ‘Prominent Shiite Cleric Backs Fighting in Syria’, that reported that the Qom based ayatollah al-Haeri issued a fatwa saying Shiites worldwide should get involved into the conflict, seems to have been removed from the initial source – Associated Press. It merely still shows up as title in Google’s cache, but provides dead links to AP and The New York Times. Nearly a year ago, we have as well heard one of the Dutch advocates of ‘jihad’ in Syria emphasize the importance of the Levant over, for example, Mali, because Shaam “there will Jesus return for example.”8 The final goal seems, like Chulov mentioned, to be the awakening of the Apocalypse. Characterizing is the general lacking of answers on questions many have asked like, why is Syria important and not for example Mali? Why is Saddam’s Baath acceptable while Assad’s Baath is not? The answers to these questions are not given univocally, but especially underlining the eschatological importance of the Levant over other hotbeds, point towards the will to pave the way for an expected Messiah figure.
Last week showed that the ‘holy war’ does not restrict itself to the borders of Syria, when a newspaper article appeared on Belgian fighters in Syria who had committed an attack on Iraqi soil.9 And two days ago in the article from Liz Sly in the Washington Post, in which she writes on the most recent feat of arms of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, who took control of the western part of Fallujah.10
Meanwhile all different jihadist factions, who have committed themselves to safeguard the entire Sunnite world against evil from outside and from within, battle each other as soon as their territories are approached.11 Preceding a possible victory, the conflict already lifted to an ethno-religious level, it is very much a question as to whether that provides a better situation for the Syrian people. It would be better to speak no longer of a general war between Sunnites and Shiites, but to emphasize the different fundamentalisms active in Syria, and (apart from returning PTSD suffering jihadists) the potential affliction beyond jihad that comes along with it …
Image courtesy of creativedoxfoto / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
- Ryan C. Crocker, “Assad is the Least Worst Option,” The New York Times, visited 22 Dec. 2013. ↩
- Joshua Landis, “A Cease-Fire is the Best Hope,” The New York Times, visited 22 Dec. 2013. ↩
- Joshua Landis, “Zahran Alloush: His Ideology and Beliefs,” Syria Comment, visited 19 Dec. 2013. ↩
- Landis, “A Cease-Fire is the Best Hope”. ↩
- Zahran Alloush, “Speach of the Mujahid Sheikh Zahran Alloush to the Ummah on the Challenge of the “Rafidis”,” YouTube, (25 Jul. 2013), visited 26 Dec. 2013. ↩
- Gabriel A. Almond, R. Scott Appleby, en Emmanuel Sivan, Strong religion: The rise of fundamentalisms around the world, (Univeristy of Chicago 2003), 151-168. ↩
- Martin Chulov, “Syria conflict pits Shia against Sunni as Hezbollah says this is ‘war we must win’,” The Guardian, visited 1 Jan. 2014. ↩
- EO, “Nederlandse Moslimstrijders in Syrië,” De Vijfde Dag, (27 Mar. 2013), visited 3 Jan. 2014. ↩
- Redactie, “‘Belgen plegen aanslag in Irak’ (Belgians Commit Attack in Iraq),” Algemeen Dagblad, visited 27 Dec. 2013. ↩
- Liz Sly, “Al-Qaeda-Linked Force Captures Fallujah Amid Rise in Violence in Iraq,” Washington Post, visited 4 Jan. 2014. ↩
- Martin Chulov, “Syrian Opposition Turns on Al-Qaida-affiliated ISIS Jihadists near Aleppo,” The Guardian, visited 4 Jan. 2014. ↩