As the war in Syria rages on, sectarian actors and their vitriolic rhetoric have emerged to engulf not only Syria but also Lebanon and the region.
The Doha-based Sunni cleric Youssef al-Qaradawi, who has supported all Arab uprisings bar the Bahraini uprising, has called for jihad in Syria against “the heretics” thereby echoing some extremist rebels. Qaradawi, whose sermon and statements, were greeted by Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz al-Asheikh, and reaffirmed by Sunni clerics in Egypt last week framed the conflict in Syria as a massacre against the Sunnis committed by Iran, and Hezbollah, which he renamed the party of Satan.
The calls for Jihad come months after Lebanese Sunni Salafist sheikhs called for a jihad in Syria in defence of the Sunnis. Meanwhile, a Sunni cleric in Kuwait hailed the massacre of 60 villagers last week in Hatla, a town near the eastern city of Deir al Zour.
On a different front, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), some of whose members are heavily involved in the Syrian conflict, has condemned Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria and threatened to take measures against its interests and loyalists in the GCC states. In a bid to stymie what could be vengeful policies against Lebanese expats in the GCC or even the Shiite minority in the Gulf, Hezbollah was quick to announce that it has neither members nor interests in the Gulf.
While some may attribute the rise in anti-Shiite rhetoric to the forceful intervention of Hezbollah in defence of what it sees as its “backbone”, the Assad regime, valid concerns regarding the extremist nature of some rebel groups fighting in Syria have been voiced repeatedly and cited as the reason that the US was reluctant to arm fighters.
Indeed, in a bid to match the regime’s atrocities, if not exceed them, the rebels have committed a series of sectarian transgressions including the kidnapping of two Christian Orthodox bishops and nine Lebanese Shiite pilgrims, the desecration of holy sites including the church of St. Elias in Qusair and a Huseiniya in Deir al-Zour, as well as the execution in Aleppo of a 14 year old boy for blasphemy.
Meanwhile in Lebanon, many have censured Hezbollah for its involvement in Syria, despite the involvement of Sunni Salafist and “moderate” groups on the side of the rebels. Verbal attacks against Hezbollah and its hubris in recent years, however, are also connected to justified grievances relating to the party and Syria’s possible involvement in the assassination of former anti-Syrian politicians and security officials, the May 2008 events and the ousting of former PM Saad al-Hariri from government in January 2011.
For his part, Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has come out strongly against the sectarian rhetoric, warning against fitna and calling for restraint in the country. Sadly, little restraint was shown by alleged Hezbollah members near the Iranian Embassy in Beirut last week who attacked and killed one Shiite protestor. Although Nasrallah has condemned the murder of the protestor, it remains to be seen if the perpetrator will be handed over.
Other spillover incidents, though thus far contained, have been frequent, with the latest incident resulting in the killing of four Shiite citizens in the East of Lebanon on Sunday.
As the sectarian hue of the Syrian conflict intensifies, fuelled by regional and historical antagonisms, it is important for the Lebanese to remember that despite it all, Hezbollah remains a key constituent of the weak and de-facto decentralised state - the legitimate representative of the overwhelming majority of Lebanese Shiites and the ally of the largest Christian Party in the country. Jumping on the sectarian bandwagon, can prove catastrophic for this small nation - as it is proving for Syria.