proximity fuze (qusayr, syria, and the potential for a new fitna)

Woody Allen on proxies:

ANTON LEBEDOKOV: Shall we say pistols at dawn?
BORIS GRUSHENKO: Well, we can say it. I don’t know what it means, but we can say it.
ANTON: You have insulted the honor of Countess Alexandrovna!
BORIS: Why? I let her finish first?
ANTON: Her seconds will call on you.
BORIS: Seconds? I never gave her seconds!
ANTON: As her fiancee, my seconds will call on your seconds.
BORIS: Well, my seconds will be out. Have ’em call on my thirds. If my thirds are out, go directly to my fourths.

–Allen’s Love and Death, 1975

If you think that what’s happening in Syria hasn’t already become a proxy fight between Sunni and Shi’ite interests throughout the Middle East, consider that even last month was able to run a story like this:

Two men dressed in camouflage stand on a patch of dirt amid rubble, Kalashnikov rifles at their sides, at the entrance to a dark hole in the dirt. The wooden screens often found in mosques lay on the ground, cast aside. The hole was the burial place of Hujr bin Uday al-Kindi, one of the prophet Mohammad’s companions, widely revered by Muslims, Shiites in particular.

The men standing on top of it are members of Jabhat al-Nusra, a Sunni Muslim extremist rebel group trying to topple the regime of President Bashar al-Assad that recently swore fealty to al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The desecration of the shrine – and the removal of the remains – drew condemnation from the highest levels of Shiite Islam. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei called it “bitter and sad,” while the militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon issued a statement stark warning that it “foretells a large conflict and gloomy evil.”

If a story of Salafi extremists destroying tombs and shrines sounds familiar, maybe you’ve been paying attention to what’s been happening in Egypt, Libya, and the rest of North Africa in recent months. It’s long been known that the Syrian civil war has been drawing in external supporters on both sides, Iran backing the Shi’ite/Alawi Assad and Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf emirs backing the Sunni rebels. But in recent weeks the nature of this outside involvement has shifted from financial and material support to outright front-line fighting, led by the involvement of Hizbullah, the Lebanese Shi’ite group closely tied to Assad and Iran. Their fighters have been streaming over the border from Lebanon, most conspicuously in the recently ended siege of Qusayr, a formerly rebel-held town that sits on a supply route from Shi’ite dominated northern Lebanon into Alawi strongholds in Syria.

Map showing Qusayr’s strategic location

Qusayr’s strategic importance cannot be underestimated; taking the town not only gives Assad’s allies a clean resupply route back to their base in northern Lebanon, but it also puts the entirety of Syria’s western Homs province in government hands, which cuts the rebels in the north off from Damascus to the south. Hizbullah’s presence in the Assad government’s efforts to retake the city loomed so large that The Guardian’s article about the fall of the town is headlined “Syrian town of Qusair falls to Hezbollah in breakthrough for Assad.”

Qusayr falls to Hizbullah. Not to Assad, or the Syrians. To Hizbullah.

The unsuccessful rebel defenders of Qusayr shouldn’t go unmentioned here either, because for the most part they’ve been made up of the al-Qaeda-affiliated elements of the rebel coalition. These jihadi fighters have been moving into Syria, mostly from Iraq but also from elsewhere in the region, since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011, but didn’t receive a great deal of attention in western media until recently. The fact of the matter is that, John McCain’s hackish assertions to the contrary, there is no “moderate” Syrian rebellion for the US to support, because these extremists are the only folks in the rebel network that have approached this conflict like a national struggle rather than a local one. The Free Syrian Army can’t muster supporters in one town to go fight the government in another one, because as The War Nerd says:

The title of the [French] documentary [on the “Free Syrian Army”] tells you a lot about what’s wrong with the way we report on Syria, because if you watch this thing it’s obvious these fighters aren’t the FSA, or “Free Syrian Army.” They’re the neighborhood, and they think in terms of corners and streets. Their military horizon is the effective range of a Dragunov — about half a kilometer. They’re good guys, seems like, but they have zero interest in leaving their homes to go expel the heretics from other towns. With neighborhoods like this walling themselves off in every Syrian town, you get something that’s not really one war but hundreds of neighborhood stalemates. If Syria was in a world of its own, the war might freeze like that, into a thousand Free Derrys.

But these jihadi fighters, mostly foreign to Syria and committed to the long conflict for Sunni supremacy in the region and the extirpation of apostates (i.e., Shi’ites) from Islam, are willing and able to fight Assad’s forces anywhere they can. And now that “Assad’s forces” include Hizbullah, this fight is less about the future of Syria and more about the history of Islam every day. We’re already seeing the fight expand beyond Syria’s borders: Syrian rebels are attacking Hizbullah inside Lebanon, and there are rumors that Shi’ite Hizbullah has “expelled” Sunni Hamas from Lebanon, and that Hamas’ leadership may be fracturing over the decision to throw in with their fellow Sunnis and lose their Lebanese/Iranian allies or maintain their ties to Hizbullah and Iran and turn their backs on Syria’s Sunnis (which also means turning their backs on the very rich Sunnis in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf).

Also, don’t look now, but sectarian violence in Iraq is reportedly at its highest level in five years. We already know that the Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi government has earned America’s anger by allowing Iran to send war materiel to Assad through Iraqi airspace, and Iraq’s Sunni tribes, who have close historical and ethnic ties to Syria’s Sunni population, are undoubtedly watching what happens in Syria closely. Even in Turkey, one of the complaints that seems to be fueling the protests against the Erdoğan government is its pro-rebel policy on Syria, with 70.8 percent of respondents to a recent opinion poll registering disapproval of that policy.

I used the word fitna (an Arabic word that means “chaos” or “discord”) in the title of this post in reference to two crucial events in Islamic history: the First (656-661) and Second (680-692) Civil Wars, which are called fitna by our historical sources and by scholars today. The First Fitna took place as a series of rebellions to Ali’s succession as caliph and ended when he was assassinated in 661. The Second Fitna was an attempted do over, with the same groups that came out losers in the First Fitna giving it another go; among these groups were Ali’s supporters, who rallied under his son Husayn but were massacred, Husayn among them, at Karbala in 680. These two wars are foundational events in the formation of the Shi’ite sect. The Third Fitna (744–750) saw a rebel movement, with Shi’ite support, actually topple the dynasty that had emerged victorious from the First and Second Fitnas, but the victors revealed themselves to be Sunni and cast the Shi’a off soon after using their support to win the war. The Fourth Fitna (809–827) was an inter-Sunni conflict involving a younger brother toppling his older brother, who had inherited the caliphate from their father.

What’s happening right now in Syria could be lighting the fuze for a new fitna. It’s already stopped being a civil war and is instead a regional proxy fight, with Iran via Hizbullah backing Assad, and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates via al-Qaeda jihadis (though I’m sure Saudi Arabia and the various emirs would deny any involvement with al-Qaeda because they would never do such a thing) backing the rebels. As much as I hate war, hate seeing lives lost, and empathize with the idea that we should Do Something about this conflict, I don’t see what America could do at this point that would make things better. Even if Russia dropped its opposition to UN involvement and a real international coalition could be brought to bear on the situation, I don’t know how that helps either.


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