This was published at al-Araby al-Jadeed/ the New Arab.
I recently gave a talk in a radical bookshop in Scotland. The talk was about my and Leila al-Shami’s “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War”, a book which aims to amplify grassroots Syrian revolutionary voices and perspectives. My talk was of course critical of the Iranian and Russian interventions to rescue the Assad regime.
During the question and answer session afterwards, a young man declared: “You’ve spoken against Iran. You’ve made a good case. But the fact remains, Iran is the protector of Shia Muslims throughout the region.”
In reply I asked him to consider the Syrian town of al-Qusayr at two different moments: summer 2006 and summer 2013.
During the July 2006 war between Israel and Hizbullah, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese fled south Lebanon and south Beirut – the Hizbullah heartlands where Israeli strikes were fiercest – and sought refuge inside Syria. Syrians welcomed them into their homes, schools and mosques. Several thousand were sheltered in Qusayr, a Sunni agricultural town between Homs and the Lebanese border.
It made no difference that most of these refugees were Shia Muslims. They were just Muslims, and Arabs, and they were paying the price of a resistance war against Israeli occupation and assault. That’s how they were seen.
Their political leadership was also widely admired. The kind of people who would resist the pressure to pin up posters of Hafez or Bashaar al-Assad might still raise Hassan Nasrallah’s picture. During the 2006 war, very many Syrians of all backgrounds donated money to the refugees and to Hizbullah itself. The famous actress Mai Skaf was one such benefactor.
How quickly things changed. By 2012 Mai Skaf was embroiled in an online war with Hizbullah. “I collected 100,000 liras for our Lebanese brethren who fled the July 2006 war to Syria,” she posted on Facebook, “bought them TV sets and satellite dishes to follow what was happening in their countries, and bought their children shoes and pajamas. Now I am telling Hassan Nasrallah that I regret doing that and I want him to either withdraw his thugs from Syria or give me back my money.”
Which brings us to the second moment for comparison: summer 2013. Throughout May, hundreds of Hizbullah fighters led a devastating assault on Qusayr. Because they were local men defending their homes, the Free Syrian Army were able to resist the onslaught for weeks, but were finally defeated. A Shia flag was then hung over the town’s main Sunni mosque, a signal of sectarian conquest. Shortly afterwards the regime burnt the Homs Land Registry, and Alawi and Shia families were invited to occupy homes abandoned by the families of Qusayr.
So a militia designed to resist foreign occupation became an occupier itself. The supposed assistant of the oppressed became the fighting arm of the oppressor. In Shia symbology, Hizbullah, rather than defending Hussain, was serving Yazeed.
The backlash hit fast. Qusayr fell on June 5th. On June 11th 60 Shia, most civilians, were massacred at Hatla in Deir al-Zor.
Why did Hizbullah intervene against the Syrian revolution? Various excuses were offered up: to protect the Lebanese borders, or to protect the shrine of the Prophet’s grandaughter Zainab outside Damascus. None of them explained Hizbullah’s participation in battles as far afield as Hama or Aleppo. Why would Nasrallah choose to infuriate Lebanese Sunnis, to make Lebanese Shia targets of sectarian revenge attacks, to deplete and downgrade his anti-Zionist fighting force?
From a Lebanese perspective, it makes no sense. And as a community, the Lebanese Shia could have taken a very different line. In 2012, for instance, the respected Shia leader Sayyed Hani Fahs called on Lebanese Shia to “support the Arab uprisings… particularly the Syrian [one] which will triumph, God willing… Among the [factors] that guarantee a [good] future for us in Lebanon is for Syria to be stable, free, and ruled by a democratic, pluralist and modern state.”
But still Hizbullah steered its constituency away from revolutionary solidarity and into a deadly embrace with the Assad regime. Sheikh Subhi al-Tufayli, who led Hizbullah between 1989 and 1991, blamed Iran: “I was secretary general of the party,” he said, “and I know that the decision is Iranian, and the alternative would have been a confrontation with the Iranians. I know that the Lebanese in Hizbullah, and Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah more than anyone, are not convinced about this war. … Iran and Hizbullah bear responsibility for every Syrian killed, every tree felled, and every house destroyed.”
Iranian counter-revolutionary policy not only uses Arab Shia as cannon fodder, but bears huge responsibilty too for the anti-Shia backlash on the Syrian battlefield and in regional public opinion. The Iranian state, therefore, is not a protector of Arab Shia but a threat to their security and wellbeing.
Likewise in Iraq, where before the 2003 invasion and occupation a third of marriages were cross-sect Sunni Shia. Today, after the civil war’s ethnic cleansing, and with ISIS facing not a unified Iraqi army but a collection of Iran-backed Shia militias, it’s hard to see how the country’s sectarian relations can ever be healed. The Iranian state’s undue influence on Iraq’s military and political life has helped strangle both communal coexistence and the possibility of democracy. And Iranian officials openly boast their imperialism. “Three Arab capitals have today ended up in the hands of Iran and belong to the Islamic Iranian revolution,” Ali Reza Zakani, an MP close to Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei, said last year (he was referring to Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad).
Of course, more players than just Iran are responsible for Iraq’s dysfunction. The United States must be blamed for the occupation, and the Saddam Hussain regime which fanned sectarianism to divide and rule, specifically to put down the 1991 southern uprising. Sectarian TV channels from the Gulf don’t help. And historically, the British and French states did their fair share of damage (and sectarian engineering) during the post-Ottoman carve-up.
None of these states protected people. And this is because they are states.
The young man who spoke up for Iran wasn’t a Shia Muslim. He was a Catholic, he said, who’d grown up in the Gulf. And he was also a leftist.
But this is something that leftists, when they were internationalists, once understood: states are designed to protect the property, position and privilege of the various elites which run them, not to safeguard the interests of ordinary people. This means Iran is not the protector of the Shia, Saudi Arabia is not the protector of the Sunnis, and Israel is not the protector of the Jews. Need it be said that the Assad regime is the deadliest enemy of Alawis?