Despite the presence of thousands of non-Syrians fighting on both sides of that country’s civil war – and increasing rhetoric about a regional conflagration – the now contiguous conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon each arise from specific local grievances.
And as those local grievances grow more intense, the international presence inside Syria shows signs of getting smaller.
Syrian rebel groups report that as the violence grows worse in Iraq, the flow of both weapons and fighters from Iraq to Syria has dropped dramatically. And while the involvement of Lebanese fighters from the Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah has received much attention, conversations in Lebanon often fall back on internal Lebanese issues to discuss the outbreak of violence there.
“There are no more Iraqis fighting, there are no more Iraqis going there,” said an Iraqi Shiite who recently returned to Baghdad after 45 days of fighting in Damascus on the Syrian government’s front lines. The man, fearing reprisals, asked that he be identified only his nom de guerre, Abu Ridha Mousawi.
Mousawi said he had traveled to Damascus, the Syrian capital, to defend the shrine of Sayeda Zeinab, which Shiite Muslims believe to be the burial place of a granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammad, and that he had taken part with other Iraqis to clear the area surrounding the shrine of encroaching rebel forces. The fighting, he said, was intense. “When we returned to Iraq, we brought two martyrs with us,” he said.
Shiites, who make up a majority of Iraq’s population, view descendants of Mohammad as sacred religious figures. Conservative Sunni Muslims consider worship of the prophet’s family an act of apostasy, and some among the rebels, who are made up almost exclusively from Syria’s Sunni majority, have threatened to destroy the shrine – recalling the 2006 bombing that destroyed much of the shrine of another Shiite saint in the city of Samara, Iraq, an act of destruction that ushered in a round of violence that nearly drove Sunnis entirely from Baghdad.
“They tried to use the religious and psychological tactics to provoke people to go,” Mousawi said. “The (Syrian) government needs fighters.”
But that rhetoric is no longer enough to draw Iraqis to the fighting in Syria. Instead, Iraqis are returning to Iraq and staying there, as a Sunni uprising against what it says is dictatorial rule by the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki leads to growing violence. More than 500 people have died so far this month in Iraq, and hundreds more have been wounded. This week alone, car bombings in Baghdad have claimed at least 100 lives.
“Even Asaib are not sending people anymore,” said a friend of Mousawi’s who is familiar with Iraq’s Shiite militias and referred to Asaib al Haq, a Shiite militia that has sent Iraqis to fight in Syria and who many accuse of having close links to Iraq’s government. “Now they are busy with the Iraq situation.” The friend asked not to be identified because he feared he would face retribution.
Sunni Iraqis have a similar perspective.
“It’s not the Syrian situation that is affecting us, it’s that the people that we used to chase have come back,” said Salih Fadhil, a former adviser to the Iraqi government in Fallujah who said that local grievances against the Shiite-led central government were to blame for the unrest, rather than the uprising in Syria. “One week ago al Qaida had a parade in Fallujah – they were not holding names and flags, but they were carrying weapons and RPGs. They have lots of support.”
Both sides employ the rhetoric of victimhood, and both accuse the international community of conspiring to support their enemies. Shiites accuse the United States and its allies in Sunni Arab Persian Gulf countries of supporting al Qaida, and Sunnis frequently claim al Qaida takes direction from Iran and is a false flag movement intended to discredit them.
America’s invasion of Iraq, which empowered Iran’s allies in Baghdad, is their proof that the U.S. stands against Sunnis.
Lebanon, which was occupied by Syria for three decades, is harder to disentangle from the events occurring in its larger neighbor. But again the causes of violence predate the Syrian civil war by years.
Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group that has helped the Syrian government try to capture the town of Qusayr from rebel forces, has been sending fighters to Syria for months and also has helped train pro-government militia that are now supplementing the Syrian army’s depleted ranks.
But while Hezbollah now controls much of the Lebanese government, its constituency, Lebanon’s Shiites, traditionally had been an underclass that lacked much influence until the end of Lebanon’s civil war in 1991. They are loath to give up the power they’ve gained, and for the moment at least, there is little sign of dissent within the Shiite community toward the decision of Hezbollah’s leadership to send fighters to Syria.
Sunni Muslims in Lebanon have long chafed under the rising Hezbollah influence in their country. And Lebanese Shiites also have been fighting in Syria, on behalf of the rebels, for more than a year.
In Tripoli, in northern Lebanon, fighting between Sunnis and Alawites, a religious sect whose practices are often linked to Shiite Islam, has flared in the last year. The Lebanese army keeps the two sides, which occupy adjacent neighborhoods, apart.
“We would go into Jebal Mohsen if the army weren’t there,” said Omar Arish, who leads a group of Sunni fighters in Bab al Tabbeneh, the Sunni neighborhood, referring to the Alawite neighborhood up the hill.
Randa Slim, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, a think tank based in Washington, says the violence taking place in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon must be seen in a broader context than the Syrian conflict spreading elsewhere.
“We have to think of a two-level analysis. I think the leaders are manipulating the regional sectarian dimension of the war, which definitely exists,” she said. “In Iraq, it’s a lack of a national reconciliation process, and it’s the same thing in Lebanon.”
In both those countries, “there is not a national identity that transcends sect or ethnicity,” Slim said. “It has roots in the historical conflict between Shiites and Sunnis, whether it is feelings of marginalization in Tripoli or Iraq.”
That point is clear in the home of Rifat Eid, an Alawite political leader in Jebel Mohsen, where the talk is not about Syria, but about Lebanon – and the poverty that affects Tripoli, including both his neighborhood and Sunni Bab al Tabbeneh.
He, too, predicts more violence.
“The situation is very bad,” Eid said. “Everyone is going to pay for what’s happening in Tripoli.”