A massacre of Shiite militiamen and other villagers by al-Qaeda in Hatla, Deir al-Zor, Syria, is sending shock waves through the Middle East, which has already witnessed a sharpening of conflict between Sunni Muslims and their Shiite neighbors in recent years.
This video of the al-Qaeda types exulting over the cadavers of the dead Shiites [later reports made clear this was a Twelver village] and calling them pigs and dogs is sufficiently graphic and disturbing that I’m just linking to it for the strong of stomach, not embedding it here. In Arabic, the overwrought al-Qaeda fighter admonishes the Kuwaiti Sunnis to polish off their own Shiites (Shiites are 15-30% of the Kuwaiti population). He seems to imply that the Alawite rulers of Syria are getting support from Kuwaiti Shiites, which doesn’t strike me as very likely. That they are sending aid to Hizbullah would make more sense. The Nusayris or Alawis are folk Shiites who are not viewed as Shiites or even Muslims by many of the Twelver Shiites of Lebanon, Iraq and Iran. Hizbullah is not supporting Alawites because it thinks they are Shiites! It thinks Syria is useful the way it is, to Hizbullah.
The Syrian conflict is not about religion, even a little bit. Nor is the divide in Islam between Sunnis and Shiites always a salient determinant of politics or social action. But it is true that most Alawites, Christians, Druze and other small minorities either support the secular Baath government of Bashar al-Assad or at least are afraid of elements of the opposition. But so too do substantial numbers of Sunni Syrians support the government or decline to come out against it. The rebels are largely Sunni, but some of them are relatively secular-minded, or are Sufi mystics. A small number are radicals who have declared an affiliation with al-Qaeda, but this group has been disproportionately successful on the battlefield, in part because it receives money and weapons from private Gulf millionaires and billionaires who lean toward the hard line Salafi school.
The intervention of the Shiite militia, Hizbullah, in the recent battle for al-Qusayr, in which the rebels were defeated and expelled, inflamed Sunni-Shiite tensions. But note that Hizbullah is not fighting for Shiites and most of its members probably don’t consider the folk religion of the Nusayris (popularly called Alawites) to be true Islam. They are fighting to shore up al-Assad because he offers them Syria as a land bridge over which Iranian arms can flow. Without the Syrian land bridge, Hizbullah would be cut off and could easily fall to an Israeli invasion.
Still, politics are being reworked along sectarian lines. The Sunni-ruled Gulf Cooperation Council is imposing sanctions on Hizbullah and its followers in the Gulf.
And there has been fighting between Alawites and Sunnis in the northern Lebanese port of Tripoli. Radical Sunni Salafis have gone off from Sidon in Lebanon to fight in Syria on the rebel side, and therefore against Hizbullah. Lebanese are fighting Lebanese in Syria, on a small scale.
Let’s hope it doesn’t turn large scale.