While discussing the bloodshed in Syria at a September 7 conference held in Turkey, Prime Minister Erdogan drew a chilling parallel. “What happened in Karbala 1,332 years ago is what is happening in Syria today,” he said, comparing the Syrian revolution to the most divisive event in Islamic history, the Battle of Karbala.
Those in the West with any interests in the region have much to learn from Erdogan’s history lesson. What was originally depicted as a popular uprising against tyranny is now undeniably a war for religious supremacy in the Middle East. In this war, those Syrians who originally took to the streets in their aspirations for democracy have become the only guaranteed losers.
In the year 680 AD, Hussein Ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed and 70 of his followers confronted 1,500 fighters from the Umayyad Caliphate in present day Iraq. Hussein had embarked on a crusade to wrest control of the caliphate from his archrival Yazid I, only to be slaughtered along with his family. Hussein’s followers would eventually form the Shiite sect of Islam, and remain locked in a bitter rivalry with Yazid’s fellow Abu Bakr supporters, whose descendants comprise the Sunni sect.
Now, 1,332 years later, Hussein’s descendants are marching into Syria to fend off another onslaught in the historic territory of the Umayyad Dynasty. In recent months, Iran's elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has become an important gear in Assad’s ever-resilient fighting machine, while Iranian currency and equipment continue to flow across Iraq to into Assad’s coffers. Meanwhile, Tehran has also begun to send in hundreds, if not thousands, of rank and file Basij militiamen - the notorious henchmen responsible for crushing Iran’s Green Revolution - to intimidate the opposition. In addition, reports indicate that Iran is dispatching members of Iraq’s notorious “Mahdi Army” - the foot soldiers of firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr - to do battle in Syria at the ayatollah’s behest.
The alliance between the Assad dynasty and the region’s Shiites is a classic example of realpolitik - Middle East style. Assad’s secretive Alawite minority is by no means similar to Shiism, having been branded as an offshoot of Islam following a politically-motivated fatwa (religious decree) issued by a prominent Lebanese cleric named Musa Sadr in the 1970s.
Foreign policy swamp
The fatwa enabled the Assads to stave off accusations of heresy from Syria’s majority Sunni population. In return, the Assad regime agreed to bolster Lebanon’s previously impoverished Shiites and Syria’s Alawites into the formidable force they are today. Today, the Shiite Hezbollah faction continues to return the favor, funneling its members into Syria to participate in hostilities, while even firing rockets previously aimed at Israel into rebel strongholds across the border.
This strategic alliance, born out of mutual fears of domination by the region’s Sunni majority, has placed Syria at the heart of Iran’s Shiite axis. Losing Assad would ultimately put Shiite rule in Lebanon and Iraq in jeopardy, and Iran on the defensive against a Sunni-Islamist surge backed by petrodollars from the Gulf Arab states and diplomatic cover from the West.
The Iranians now unabashedly admit their support for the world’s most isolated regime. Iran’s defense minister, Ahmad Vahidi said, “Syria is managing this situation very well on its own, but if the government can’t resolve the crisis on its own, then based on their request, we will fulfill our mutual defense-security pact.” It is well known that Vahidi’s defense pact is already in play. Farsi is now a common dialect spoken in Assad’s command centers, while Shiite holy warriors dispatched by Iran are fighting alongside Alawite militiamen in the alleyways of Aleppo.
In their eyes, Iran’s ayatollahs and Shiites across the region are as outnumbered in today’s Middle East as when Hussein confronted Yazid 1’s army in the eighth century. Under the patronage of Sunni powerhouses in the Arabian Gulf, radical jihadists are making their presence felt, determined to establish a Sunni Islamist state in the Levant. The growing rate of suicide bombings, beheadings, and persecution of religious minorities across Syria are further indicative that these radicals have stolen the show from a secular opposition long-abandoned by so-called "Friends of Syria" coalition in the West.
The apocalyptic scenario unfolding in Syria combined with anti-American protests gripping the rest of region are enough to turn the deserts of the Middle East into a foreign policy swamp for decision makers on both sides of the Atlantic. Disengagement, however, will only bring the specter of terrorism and instability closer than ever to Europe’s soft underbelly. In an age where the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction threatens global security, Syria’s continued position as an Iranian outpost is as threatening to the region as the prospect of Syria becoming an assembly line for Sunni jihadists.
In a conflict which will ultimately be determined by foreign support, the United States and its NATO allies must be religiously devoted to bolstering Syrian moderates. Only by matching the resolve of Assad’s allies with a fanatical commitment to secular and rational elements in the Syrian opposition, can the United States and its allies finally re-establish themselves as a major influence in the Middle East, and stop the age old battle of Karbala from wreaking havoc on the region for years to come.
The authors are intelligence managers and senior analysts at Max Security Solutions, a geo-political risk consulting firm based in Tel Aviv, Israel. They specialize in Middle East and North African affairs.