The rise of Shia jihadism in Syria will fuel sectarian fires

What does the rise of Shia jihadism in Syria mean for the region at large?

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Amid Syria's worsening crisis, there is another unprecedented, yet overlooked phenomenon that bodes ill for the entire region: the rise of global Shia jihadism. The number of foreign Shia jihadists in Syria is arguably greater than Sunni ones. So what will this new trend mean?

To be sure, foreign jihadists on both sides are destroying Syria. But the rise of Shia jihadis is adding a toxic mix to the already combustible sectarian tensions.

Shia and Sunni differ on the concept of jihad. According to both Sunni and western scholarship, jihad in Shia theology is seen as of a lesser priority. Some claim that Shia theology emphasises the suspension of jihad until the emergence of the Hidden Imam, a reading disputed by Shia scholars. In any case, Shia's armed activism has historically been limited to a person's immediate geography.

But that has changed dramatically during the Syrian uprising. While the trend is rooted in the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and more loosely in the Islamic revolution in Iran, now, for the first time in the history of Shia Islam, adherents are seeping into another country to fight in a holy war to defend their doctrine.

Aaron Y Zelin, an expert on jihadi groups at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a US think tank, estimates that between 2,500 and 7,000 foreign Sunni fighters have participated in the conflict - some 500 to 600 of them have died, returned home or been arrested. Conservative estimates for Shia fighters put their numbers at double that of Sunni jihadi fighters.

Shia jihadism - fighting a holy war in the name of religion to expand territorially or defend co-religionists - has hitherto been almost unheard of. Additionally, the fact that the new phenomenon conveys pan-Shia sentiments distinguishes it from previous trends. Hizbollah's ideology cannot be considered jihad and is rather one that defines a sectarian militant party.

The phenomenon, which had been largely peculiar to Sunnis, marks a shift in Shia theology akin to the idea of vilayat e faghih - advanced by the founder of Iran's modern Islamist state, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who argued that a cleric can legitimately rule the Muslim community (unlike previously when that task was left till the coming of the Hidden Imam).

Ayatollah Khomeini advanced a novel idea that gave rise to active political Shiism. Similarly, the flow of Shia jihadists into Syria and the rhetoric behind it will change Shia Islam as we know it.

One only needs to consider how Sunni jihadism came to life after the Afghanistan war against the Soviets in the 1978s to conclude that the idea of exported Shia jihadism is here to stay. And we are likely to see it developing to engulf the region if the factors behind its rise are not addressed.

In Syria, this trend has been in the making since the early days of the anti-regime uprising. Videos emerged from the conflict showing Alawite militia leaders portraying the conflict as a cosmic war between Shia and Sunni, one that dates back to the 7th century. One Alawite militia leader said that the "battles you are fighting now are 1,400 years old" and "you are fighting on the side of Imam" Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet who was killed by the Umayyads' army, based in Damascus.

In Damascus the shrine of Sayyida Zainab, Hussain's sister, has been used as a recruitment tool. Shia fighters have come from Iraq, Yemen, Iran and Lebanon to defend the shrine from being attacked. Hizbollah's involvement has also been incremental, first by claiming it was defending Lebanese Shia villages, then defending Shia villages on the Syrian side of the border, and then by announcing recently it is fighting on the side of the regime. Hizbollah has described the death of its fighters as "martyrs [who died] while performing jihadi duties".

The fear is that the incremental escalation will potentially include, as some informed sources say, the demolition of holy shrines to galvanise reluctant Shia fighters. Religious sentiments among Shia are steadily building and, with time, these sentiments may be entrenched. The symbolism of the Zainab shrine, for example, is increasingly becoming an esoteric concept that does not need to be expounded.

Syria is significant in the conscience of both Shia and Sunni adherents. It is the land of the Umayyads, which can invoke memories of victory and defeat and images of the persecution of the Prophet's family. For Sunnis, Syria is associated with sayings of the Prophet suggesting it is a blessed land. Syria is also the land of resurrection of the saviour.

And yet, politics plays an instrumental role in stoking these tensions. There is a deep distrust between Shia and Sunni, with each side labelling the other as the "near enemy" for "stabbing Islam in the back". Politicians exploit these sentiments to divert attention from being themselves labelled as the near enemy, an idea adopted by many Salafi-jihadists.

Influential clerics who spew sectarian venom, like Egypt's Youssef Qardawi and Syria's Adnan Arour, should be stopped before it is too late. These clerics and their backers are playing with fire. Also, Arab states that disenfranchise their Shia citizens must take measures to prevent them from drifting towards the extreme.

Politicians who see the rising sectarian tensions and violent ideologies as politically expedient will find that these trends cannot be contained or managed.

On Twitter: @hhassan140