As Washington and its allies continue to debate the scope of a possible intervention in Syria, Shiite and Sunni extremists have entered into battle. Through that sectarian lens, the Sunni–Shiite rivalry has escalated to resemble the apocalyptic prophesies that have been relayed for centuries on the fringes of Islam.
Al-Qaida, through its affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, has been active for over a year, carrying out the suicide bombings that have become the calling card of Sunni terrorists. Its fight against the West has been raging for decades and its enmity to Shiites and non-Salafi Sunnis has been just as heated, as demonstrated during the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
But in recent weeks it has been Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militant group in Lebanon (designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization), which has been making its high-profile mark. Military analysts attribute the Assad regime’s surge in Homs and areas of Damascus to the increased presence of Hezbollah fighters in Syria.
The confirmation from Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, that the group is fighting in Syria and plans to use Homs as launching point to liberate the Golan Heights from Israeli control has removed any doubts of Hezbollah’s, and Iran’s, intention to physically fight opponents of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
In a recent speech, Nasrallah threatened rebels and said the current rulers of Damascus will never be toppled, which elicited positive reactions from Assad’s supporters (below). Omar Idlibi, a member of the opposition umbrella group the National Coalition, posted that Nasrallah’s sharp rhetoric was a direct challenge to the so-called “Friends of Syria,” and that Hezbollah sees these “allies of the revolution” as dishonest and cowardly.
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Another Iranian proxy, Hezbollah in Iraq, is also sending fighters to Syria under the pretense of defending a shrine in Damascus that’s revered by most Muslims and has been protected for more than 1,000 years by Sunni empires. The other reason for fighting in Syria, according to a YouTube clip of the leader of Iraq’s Hezbollah, is to crush the apostate Free Syrian Army, which is a precursor to a prophesied Sunni army led by the mythical Sufyani who will slaughter the Shiites and then battle against the Mahdi, the Shiites’ awaited messiah.
The Salafis in Lebanon, who practice a conservative brand of Sunni Islam, have also become increasingly agitated about the dominance of Hezbollah in Lebanon and its presence in Syria, and one of the top Salafi clerics from Sidon, Ahmed Al Assir, has declared jihad in Qusayr, a border town between Homs and Lebanon.
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Assir matched his rhetoric with action. As Nasrallah explained that Hezbollah is now defending Shiites in Syria, delivering a speech from an undisclosed location (he has been in hiding since the 2006 war with Israel), Assir popped into social media feeds, posing with a rifle in the trenches of Qusayr (left). Assir has since been injured in Syria, according to some reports, and returned to Lebanon for treatment.
Fighting inevitably leads to death and funerals, and Middle East researcher Phillip Smith has been mining the pictures and videos of funerals to establish an archive of Hezbollah’s casualties in Syria. Using a Twitter hashtag to compile the data, #HizballahCavalcade is fast becoming a go- to source for Shiite casualties.
For our video this week, we will keep with the regional character of the Syrian conflict. More than a half million Palestinians have lived in Syria for decades, and like all Syrians, they are made up of loyalists and opponents of the Assad regime. Their most prominent camp, in a neighborhood of Damascus called Yarmouk, has been the scene of clashes between rebels and Syrian soldiers, and has been targeted in airstrikes in recent months.
In the video below, viewed more than 19,000 times, a Palestinian filmmaker tells the story of one of those airstrikes, and the broader context of Palestinian life in diaspora.