Sunni-Shiite Conflict Spikes as al-Qaeda Massacres 60 Shiites, Gulf States Sanction Hizbullah

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.

31 Responses

  1. Fair, insightful and balanced. Thank you. But 3 points quickly:
    1. the idea that there is a number of secular-minded rebels is by now questionable. If there ever were any (and there were), they have certainly dramatically decreased almost to insignificance.
    2. Even more ridiculous (sorry) is the assumption that there are sufi mystics. This one is just made up out of thin air, and is being repeated by commentators with no proof.
    3. The label “nusayri” is actually a derogatory term for shiites, and is used specifically by wahhabis. It’s like “wops” or “niggers.”

    • Hi, friend. Thanks for writing and I don’t mean to discourage people from commenting. But this is an academic site devoted to argument and evidence, and none of your three objections is valid.

      I have spent a fair amount of time with Syrian oppositionists, in Istanbul and Paris, and there are lots of secular-minded ones. Syria under the Baath educated students to be secular, and it is the Muslim conservatives who are the minority in the country.

      The big surprise of anthropological work in Sunni Islam in Syria is the continued importance of Rifa’i, Naqshbandi and other Sufi shaikhs. The Salafis are tiny in comparison.

      The term Nusayri may be derogatory from a Sunni point of view, but it is a historically more accurate way of describing Alawites than Alawites. They trace themselves to a companion of Imam Hasan al-Askari named Nusayr. All Shiites are Alawites, after all, and the term creates confusions with totally unrelated movements like the Turkish Alevis.

      • “….the idea that there is a number of secular-minded rebels is by now questionable….”

        The Free Syrian Army (FSA)has been led by former senior army officers of the Assad regime who opposed atrocities against Syrian protestors.The FSA has previously given its allegiance to the Qatar-based 64-member Syrian National Coalition (SNC) as the government-in-exile .

        The SNC has George Sabra, an Orthodox Christian as its Acting President; Sabra was named to the central committee of the Syrian Communist Party in 1985 and produced the Syrian version of “Sesame Street”. He also heads the Syrian National Council, the Istanbul-based longtime group of Syrian exiles.

        The SNC also has Suheir Atassi, an attorney and prominent feminist, serving as an influential vice-president.

        The SNC as well as the Free Syrian Army have had a broad cross-section of Syrian society among their respective ranks. This includes the business sectors, in addition to those identifying with Islamic goals.

        The truly extremist Islamic elements among the rebels have fought separate from the FSA in such groups as Jabhat al-Nusra – many of these are foreign fighters, primarily Iraqi, who are responsible for many of the terror attacks similar to the one described above.

        • I hope that you are correct, but it seems the longer and more fierce these wars are, the better a show the most extreme faction makes. Whatever happened to that broad coalition who joined Castro’s tiny band in overthrowing Batista? They went back to their bourgeoise jobs, and he held on to the only thing he had. It was good for Libya that so many soldiers turned on Gaddafi, and thus could counterbalance other fighters in postwar politics, but that war was a lot more about resenting someone else’s cut of the oil revenues than it was about wanting someone else to be eternally expunged from existence.

      • Professor Cole,
        Thanks for the response. Of course, it does not discourage. I appreciate the analysis and the info on this site. I’ve been visiting it with quite some regularity over the past several years. So maybe it’s a bit late, but congratulations and kudos for the work you’re doing here. I don’t dispute the point about the existence of secular-minded individuals in Paris, London or Berlin. My comment was about the rebels, because you started your assessment of the forces saying “The rebels are …” And please correct me if I am wrong, but by “rebels” I understand fighters, people on the ground with arms, not civil society or activists or bloggers or intellectuals in Paris .. etc. If my understanding of the word “rebel” is correct, then the people on the ground right now fighting the regime are not secular-minded or mystics. Of course there are mystics and secular intellectuals opposing the regime, but sadly they are individuals, not movements. The regime is to blame for this obviously, but that’s the situation. I think the bunch of secular-minded Syrians in Paris or elsewhere do not amount to a movement the way it does in Tunisia, or I would even venture, in Egypt. As to Mark Koroi’s point about the SNC, we all know that the MB are kind of dominating there. And many, including SNC leaders complained about that. The fact that a Kurd or a Christian heads the SNC doesn’t mean anything. It is just PR. It’s a good thing, but it’s just PR. Let’s see when the MB rules Syria if they let a Christian be the president. NO WAY. Finally, thank you for the clarification about the word “nusayri.” I didn’t know that. I guess my point is only valid semantically (is that the word?). I am a sunni and I know that when someone says nusayri, they express an anti-shia or anti-alawi bias, which makes it kind of like “rafidi” or “rawafid,” meant in the pejorative sense that is. And one last point if I may, and this is not related directly to your post, but I think there is a problem with the use of the word “secular” by western commentators when it comes to the middle east. Some are so desperate to find someone who is not bearded or drinks alcohol or has a girlfriend to call him or her secular. It’s silly. By that account, some 9/11 hijackers are secular. I mean seriously. The west in its zeal to support the rebels is so obsessed with finding someone to their liking to call them secular. I just read couple of days ago a piece in the NYT about Moroccan politics and it called “hizb alistiqlal” (independence party) secular (maybe just because it is creating trouble for the islamist part in power now). But anyone who knows something about morocco knows that the indep. Party is one the most reactionary, read fascist, forces in the country.

  2. I have to disagree, Juan. I lived in Syria for some time, and while the roots of he conflict are many, sectarianism plays no small role. Even years ago, the complaint amongst many Syrian Sunnis was, “We are being ruled over by someone who is not from us.” The vocalized sentiment that Shias deserved to be killed grew in the wake of the sectarian conflict in Iraq. Numerous clearly sectarian attacks have taken place, and the Gulf media are promoting this war as a sectarian conflict. Qaradhawi was just spouting last week about the need to counter the Shia threat, and called for more Sunnis from around the region to join the conflict.

    One could argue of course that this is all about regional hegemony and it is merely incidental that Iran happens to be Shia and the Gulf monarchies Sunni, and you can point out the fact that Alawites are to be distinguished from orthodox 12ers. But the Sunnis on the ground, and increasing numbers of Shias, are not making those fine distinctions. This is being billed as, and is taking the shape of, a sectarian conflict, however much I wish that we’re not the case.

  3. Also, a point of clarification: I personally doubt that it was Alawites who were killed in this reported attack. It is more likely 12ers as there are small numbers of them in Syria, with a few tribal groupings of them in the east.

    • I thought the same thing – there are only a few non-Alawite Shi’ite Muslims within Syria when contrasted with the rest of the Syrian populace – and when the article did not mention the victms were Alawite, I assumed they were not.

  4. Looks like “Syria” is getting to the point that some “conservatives” in the US seem to long for: Armed bands, under battle leaders, shouting the Arabic equivalent of “In The Name Of The Lord!” as they dance and prance over the carcasses of other formerly fellow humans. There’s lots of the kind of warporn on Youtube, and a concentrated load of it on the video archives over at Syria Comment – link to syriavideo.net

    All this high-falutin’ palaver about Great Issues and the Great Game and how to “manage conflict.” Like any of that reaches down to the combat level where the massacres ‘n stuff go on. How can you beat the EXCITEMENT? The seduction of the WEAPONS, and the SLOGANS? Oh, the delicious anticipation as the young fella in this video lines up on a “state helicopter” with his Russian-made MANPAD! link to theaviationist.com Then whooshBOOM! “Allahu Akbar!” and somebody’s gotta put up $8 million for a replacement chopper for the “state’s” inventory, and go to IDELF for another couple of SA-16s… for fun and profit. Talk about “gun shows…”

    But Hey, it’s just business, right?! “Companies need to focus their Export strategy on Growth markets having a plan for the Bric’s is vital” (sic) link to bricpartner.com

  5. I always enjoy reading your articles Mr Cole yout always tell the people the objective truth

  6. In a world of difficult choices, it is not hard to choose between Hezbollah and al-Qaeda-types. Consider:
    - “When Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, it left behind thousands of collaborators, including men who had beaten and tortured Hezbollah fighters on behalf of the Israelis. Nasrallah ordered his followers to keep their hands off all collaborators, leaving their judgment to Lebanese courts. Nasrallah emphasized that there would be no retaliatory killings or revenge attacks….In fact, following the withdrawal, there was a remarkable degree of calm….Overall, that time will be remembered as a remarkably orderly and humane period, especially when measured against the history of internecine violence that scarred Lebanon for much of the preceding few decades.”
    - “Hezbollah engages in a vast range of public services and infrastructural projects — from which Christians and Sunnis, not just Shiites, often benefited — such as hospitals and schools, cut-price supermarkets and pharmacies, low-cost housing, land reclamation and irrigation. In some areas it has assumed responsibility for most of the water supply, electricity, refuse collection, sewage disposal and policing.”
    link to detailedpoliticalquizzes.wordpress.com

    • If I had the power to choose between a Middle East governed by Hezbollah and a Middle East governed by those medieval tyrants in Saudi Arabia, I would choose the former. We’ve been blinded by our love of the rich and our love of oil into loving only the Arabs rich enough to hate the real people they rule – just as we loved all the wrong people in Latin America and Vietnam.

      The problem is, the Saudis are required by their special relationship with the US to keep their hands off Israel, which threatens their legitimacy as Moslem monarchs. So they made up for it by bankrolling every Moslem extremist everywhere else who had US approval. Then it all ran aground in Iraq, where the Saudis had to watch helplessly while America’s quislings-du-jour ethnically cleansed the Sunnis from Iraqi cities.

      I suspect the Saudi inner circle decided at that time to take matters into their own hands and forestall American idiocy. But their desire to control every scrap of the Middle East, disguised as yet another capitulation to America’s wishes to screw Iran, is a far greater threat to America, freedom, women’s rights, the evolution of Islam, etc. than either Hezbollah or Iran.

      We Americans think we’ve won because we’ve put rich Saudi and Israeli oligarchs on top of hundreds of millions of icky Arabs. Most of us don’t know that Richard Clarke reported that he witnessed spy photos in 1986 showing the Saudis were trying to sneak in Chinese-made IRBMs and launchers. Reagan shut them down before they got the nukes to go with them. But the Israelis have hundreds of nukes; why shouldn’t the Saudis?

      We’ve put the worst people in the Middle East in charge. How long do you expect these super-villains to put up with each other?

  7. It is hard to see how the outcome of this conflict is going to resolve itself except in terms of some recognition of each sects predominate distributions — Shiastan, Sunistan, and perhaps a defacto Kurdistan as well. Iraq has led the way in that model, like it or not.

    The map on this link shows some sense of how it might look, with Assad retaining full control of Damascus, the coastal regions (fate of Aleppo will be a tough one, as will the border regions with Iraq) and perhaps the south bordering Israel.

    link to foreignpolicyblogs.com

    • bujinin, the outcome is not going to resolve with some respectful redistribution of power. Assad has overwhelming military force through Russia, Iran and Hizbullah. Assad has clear path to crush the rebellion and institute an ever-more brutal police state.

      Really, where is the mystery?

      • The United States along with its western allies and regional partners have far too much ‘skin in the game’ to allow Assad to decisively “crush the rebellion”. The ‘proxy’ aspects of this war are just too large to allow for a Syrian/Iranian ‘victory’.

        The conflict will drag on, if for no other purpose than to drain Iran and preclude any further growth of its regional influence which would be the outcome of a complete Assad victory.

  8. The Syrian conflict is not about religion, even a little bit.

    It’s not about religion to whom? It seems to be clearly about religious conflict to the people in that video.

    It is certainly true that the Arab Spring protests-turned uprising-turned rebellion were not about religion, but what a war is about has a way of changing as the war goes on. The American Civil War was not about ridding the South of slavery, until it was. World War II was about protecting Poland from foreign domination, until it wasn’t.

  9. Have to agree with Kizilbash in that while religious rhetoric may be used just as a handle to grasp (Ataturk did so even as he built the secular Republic), these differences are lived very deeply by a lot of people. Fethullah Gulen’smost recent pronouncement, ecumenical as usual, didn’t resist a jab at the Shiites (at least as Today’s Zaman interpreted it, and they should know).

    Meanwhile, the scene in Turkey, where Erdogan has promised to use TERRORISM prosecutions:

    “We are scared now

    This morning they arrested 43 people leaving the park because they had helmets and gas masks — which protesters use to protect themselves from the police.

    If the streets are ‘quiet’ it’s simple repression.”

  10. A civil war is always about various different causes. The Spanish civil war was about law and order in a country on the brink of anarchy and being unrulable; about religion (oh YES, although noone called religious fundamentalists terrorists back then); about ethnic frictions; about loyalties to the ruling classes past and and present. What both wars, all civil wars, “REALLY” are about in the end is subject to the wording of the local or global winner. I suspect, from the personal eyewitness reports of the civil wars I got, for most people, finally going to war themselves was a desperate act of self-defence, as silly as it might sound from afar (enter a war in order to end it).

  11. 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.

    Assume I’m semi-literate about Islam (which is not far from the truth). What is meant by “folk Shiites” and how are they different from non-folk Shiites?

    • If I might, I believe what Professor Cole is referring to is the fact that Alawism, formerly known as Nusayrism, developed without a strong orthodoxy as the sect was disenfranchised from any kind of political or economic power for centuries. There are very few standardized beliefs, and shared texts are interpreted in significantly different ways. Forced into secrecy because of extreme persecution, many, perhaps most, Alawites do not know the “official” doctrines or rituals of the faith. So consequently many popular and even non-”Islamic” traditions were borrowed. Syncretism is very widespread.

      This is in contrast to the Sunni or 12er Shia sects, which both developed bases of political/social/economic power which then patronized an erudite clerical class. This causes both those sects to have a much stronger sense of orthodoxy and doctrinal purity, the “official version” which is widely disseminated amongst their adherents.

      This distinction is actually germaine to the discussion and goes some way towards explaining the iron-fistedness of the Assads as well as the loyalty the government has maintained throughout this conflict amongst minorities and especially Alawites. Their doctrines, along with those of the Druze, the Ismailis, and others, were formed in the cauldron of intense centuries-long genocidal policies of the majority sect.

  12. Prof Cole–You did not really mean, above “all Shiites are Alawites” in your response to Cheers from Morocco.
    But I’m not sure what you indeed meant, since you already had delineated a distinction between Shiiism and “folk Shiism.”

    However, though probably not relevant to the current conflict, I have read of an “orthodox Alawite” leader
    currently motivated to reinvigorate the orthodox Alawite
    doctrine, perhaps shied away from in the late 20th century-that Ali is God the Creator.

  13. Well, good to know we’re upping our support for the slaughtering Sunnis. I suspect the timing of this announcement is related to Tayyip’s keeping the dogs kenneled tonight — not that Americans or Turks want this escalation that I doubt will end well or quickly.

  14. A report on the Syrian Islamist Front by the Swedish Institute of International Affairs appears to contradict this narrative about it not being about religion even a little bit. This paragraph in particular jumped out at me:

    “The fsa had been catering to Western sensitivities
    by trying to appear secular and anti-jihadi, but the slf
    instead cast its lot with local fighters and pronounced
    itself in favor of an islamic state.”

    then….

    “each of these (FSA) groups receive some
    level of foreign support and media attention, and they
    remain active as minor political figures, but none of
    them controls a serious military force inside syria”

    • The reasons for which the civil war broke out had nothing or almost nothing to do with religion per se, and there are people of lots of religious persuasions on both sides. Nusra bulks large as a fighting force but is very atypical of Syrian Sunnis.

      • That may have been true when it broke out but not now. quote from the International Crisis Group:

        “To varying degrees, each developed a distinctive Salafi perspective, depicting their fight as an inherently religious struggle against a sectarian Alawite
        regime.”

        if you combine the reports this wasn’t a major deal in January 2012 but became a major one in jan 2013.

      • It would be difficult to accurately gauge the sectarian sentiment before the war as public discussion of religion was basically illegal. I can tell you unreservedly that my anecdotal experience was that sectarian sentiment was high, and there was precedent for internecine conflict. Hama of course being a prime example, coupled with a muscular Alawite chauvinism at the same time. I don’t think one can overestimate the impact of the Iraq debacle especially post ’06 in fueling sectarian hatred across the border.

        • I think another observation that can be made here is that in any social system when authority at the top loses its legitimacy and power that vacuum is filled at the ground and must be rebuilt, however haltingly, from the ground up.

          The question of ‘who do you believe?’ devolves to where you live, who you live among, and who among those you trust.

          Religion and ethnicity with its own traditions, sacred practices, beliefs and relationships, increasingly fill the void.

  15. Horrific video. It undermines the Syrian opposition’s standing. What started off as a generational uprising, morphed along religious sectarian lines. This is why some here are finding the assessment lacking when you say its not about religion.

    Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, other Sunni-led states, including Turkey, armed not only the Sunni-led FSA, but local and foreign Sunni extremist jihadist militants. It became religious and sectarian to many Shiites and other non-Sunnis around the region, whose fears and paranoia grew.

    Hizbullah insiders stated long ago that they despised the Assad regime, but needed guns to stave off Israel. But why only the mixed Alawite coalition govt out of a sea of Sunni-led govts favours the Shia Hizbullah and vice-versa? Its exactly due to its different sectarian make-up. Its why they didn’t support Saddam to attack Shia Iran, unlike other Arab Sunni states. Hizbullah and Iran knew there’d be no favourable govt if Assad fell, as they felt their Islamist solidarity with Sunni Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood conservatives, in power with Salafists, turn cold after Mubarak’s fall well before the Syrian debacle.

    A huge omission was the holy shrines which were attacked by radical Sunni opposition fighters and became a rallying point for Iraqi Shia Muslim fighters. Syrian Sunnis in the FSA tried to appeal to the Shiite fighters to agree to a buffer zone. But other Sunni Salafi rebels outright announced they would raze those shrines to the ground. The Shia fighters simply do not trust FSA to protect them.

    And now the US announced they’ll arm the rebels, that could potentially fall into Wahhabi/Salafi/Sunni extremist Al Qaeda types hands, and some officials cite payback to Iran for what it did earlier in Iraq and Afghanistan, apart from the pro-Israel and Saudi alliance. Its Deja Vu of the 80′s in Afghanistan.

  16. I have two questions about this: is Hatla a Sunni or Shia majority village? Juan says the latter but the original sources (including SOHR) say the former (AP even gives a breakdown – 30% Shia)If its Shia why has the Syrian army been shelling it with some regularity?
    2. was there a “massacre”? There’s plenty of violent sectarian talk and claims in the videos – but the reported deaths range from 30 (SANA) to 60 (SOHR) and its clear there was a fierce firefight in the village between rebel forces and regime militia(10 rebels reported killed plus wounded); so some proportion of the deaths must have been regime combatants, killed in combat. There is no attempt in the reporting to distinguish combatant and civilian casualities, so we have little evidence as to the number of civilian deaths – two bodies shown in the videos (one of whom could have been a fighter); and cross-reports suggesting 3 Shia clerics and one of their children killed.

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