BY Stephen Schwartz
JUL 9, 2013
Arab and non-Arab commentators alike perceived a definitive regionalisation of the Syrian civil war last month, when Iranian regular troops and Tehran-backed Hezbollah forces helped the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad retake the strategic town of Qusayr, near the Lebanese border, from rebel fighters. Other incidents have pointed in the same direction. They include fighting in northern Lebanon between pro- and anti-Assad combatants, simultaneously with the battle for Qusayr, Syrian incursions into the Israel-administered Golan Heights, and threats to Jordan. At the end of June, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 100,000 people had been killed in the Syrian bloodshed.
Transformation of the Syrian conflict into a Shia vs. Sunni sectarian confrontation across the Middle East has been aggravated by extremists within both religious factions. The patron of Assad in Syria, Iran, and its Shia followers in numerous countries, have appealed insistently for support to the Damascus dictatorship, although the Alawite sect that rules Syria has only been considered within Shia ranks since the 1970s, and until the 20th century was viewed as outside Islam altogether.
At the same time, the Muslim Scholars Association of Lebanon, a Sunni group with a history of extremist sympathies, issued a fatwa soliciting contributions to the Syrian rebels “by words, money, medical aid and fighting.”
Other Sunni fundamentalist politicians with problems of their own have contributed to the rhetorical battle. The London Financial Times noted in its July 6/7 weekend edition that deposed Egyptian president Muhamed Morsi, while in office and as a Muslim Brotherhood adherent, had “endorsed the dispatch of pious young Egyptians to Syria to join the jihad against Bashar al-Assad.”
Nevertheless, some moderate Sunni Muslim leaders, at the state and clerical level, including some distant from the Middle East, have expressed alarm at the growing sectarian polarization in Syria, fearing its spread through all Muslim societies.
More consequentially than the Bahraini plea for a Hezbollah withdrawal from Syria, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have acted to suppress both Iranian-controlled Shia groups favoring Assad and local devotees of the Muslim Brotherhood. Measures to expose Iranian and Hezbollah activities, making assistance to Hezbollah illegal, and expelling its advocates were followed by a mass trial in Abu Dhabi which found 65 accused MB participants guilty, on July 1, of attempted subversion. They were sentenced to prison terms as long as 15 years.
Meanwhile, panic over the widening Shia-Sunni divide has reached the further limits of the Muslim territories, especially among Sunnis. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, Al-Qaradawi appeared at the end of June for a conference of the MB-affiliated “European Council for Fatwas and Research” where he delivered a defense of Wahhabism and strident denunciation of Shia Muslims in reaction to the Syrian horrors.
The office of the new head of Sunni Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Husein Kavazovic, however, responded to Al-Qaradawi’s bluster by ordering that a Friday sermon be read in all Bosnian mosques on June 28, denouncing “the large number of innocent people brutally murdered in Syria, which has assumed the character of sectarian combat and faith-inspired conflict.” But the Bosnian Muslim leaders also urged Islamic believers and clerics, in their home country and abroad, as well as Islamic authorities in the rest of the Muslim world, to exercise “full responsibility, extreme prudence, and caution in analyzing the conflict and violence in Syria.”
The Bosnian clerics warned their followers against “involvement in alien schemes and mercenary actions for the aims of others.” They asked the international powers to “help end the violence in Syria. . . . The killing of innocent people must end without hesitation.” The sermon condemned effectively any involvement of Bosnian Muslims in the Syrian war, and was interpreted by the Bosnian public as a repudiation of Al-Qaradawi’s incitement.
Kavazovic’s predecessor as head of the Bosnian Muslims, Mustafa Ceric, is a member of Al-Qaradawi’s “European Council for Fatwas and Research” and had welcomed the Arab cleric in his latest visit to Bosnia. The sermon composed by Kavazovic’s leadership group indicates, apparently, a distancing from the legacy of Ceric, including disavowal of his links with Al-Qaradawi and any inveiglement with the MB’s aggressive effort to seize the leadership of the Syrian uprising. Unfortunately, Bosnian arguments for outside intervention in Syria may be met by the same delays and disregard that allowed the atrocities in that Balkan territory to proceed unimpeded from 1992 to 1995.