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A Shadow of Iraq’s Sectarian War in Damascus’ Suburbs

Recent reports of Iraqi Shi’a militias operating in the Damascus suburbs indicate the inflammation of yet another firing line in the Syrian Civil War. This article combines current events, analysis, and the field experience of Nicholas A. Heras in Sayyida Zainab.

A recent and important article, entitled “Iraqi Shi’ite Militias Fight Syria’s Assad,” published by the Reuters news agency, indicates that Iraqi Shi’a militias are beginning to operate openly in Syria. Their mission is described in part as protecting the large Iraqi refugee community that is still resident in the country, particularly in the southern suburbs of Damascus. According to the article, some of these militias are also acting as an auxiliary force for the military effort of  Bashar al-Assad’s government out of a sense of Shi'a solidarity and in loyalty to the Iranian government’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.

Sayyida Zainab

A focal point for the efforts of these groups is the important Shi’a Muslim Shrine of Sayyida Zainab and its surrounding neighborhood of the same name. The neighborhood of Sayyida Zainab is sectarian and ethnically mixed and located amidst the restive, southern suburbs of Damascus. It is reported, that in the neighborhood, there are mixed nationality Shi'a militias working to secure and protect the shrine and its surrounding area. The concern is from attacks launched by fighters aligned with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and independent militant Sunni groups. Some of these Sunni groups are militant Salafists that are believed to be funded and armed by Iran’s regional rivals including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait.   

The area of Sayyida Zainab is new to sectarian conflict and the combat of the Syrian Civil War. On September 27, 2008, a car bomb was detonated outside of a Syrian police station which was close to the shrine, killing 14 and wounding 17 people. The attack is suspected to have been carried out by Syrian Sunni militants that fought with al-Qaeda in Iraq, and which was targeting Shi’a Muslims in the area. A final determination of the exact perpetrator of the bombing still remains unknown, however.     

In the context of the Syrian Civil War, there have been periods of combat between Sunni and Shi’a residents of Sayyida Zainab, and neighboring areas under the control of the FSA, such as Hajar al-Aswad. According to reports from the neighborhood's residents, there was a slow escalation of armed conflict between Sunni and Shi’a residents of Sayyida Zainab from April through July 2012. On June 14, 2012, a suicide car bomb attack directed at a purported Syrian military intelligence base near the Shrine of Sayyida Zainab injured fourteen residents of the neighborhood and damaged the main structure of the shrine. Reports indicate that the Syrian military may have used the Shi’a areas of the Sayyida Zainab neighborhood as a base of operations to launch raids against neighboring Sunni areas of the southern suburbs of Damascus, including Hajar al-Aswad.

As a result of the escalating tension in the area, armed fighters claiming affiliation with the FSA launched a series of raids from July 18-24 into the Sayyida Zainab neighborhood. The fighters attacked Iranian government-financed Shi’a cultural centers and the Iranian-funded Imam Khamenei Hospital, an important local medical center. The attacks are believed to have displaced tens of thousands of Shi’a and Sunni residents from the area. A counter-attack launched against the FSA by the Syrian military, its Alawite paramilitary forces, and Shi’a fighters from Sayyida Zainab forced the FSA fighters from the area.

Since then, low-level combat is reported to have pertained in the areas surrounding the Shrine of Sayyida Zainab. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that thousands of Iraqi refugees, the majority of them Shi’a, fled the July violence. Some of these displaced Iraqis returned to Iraq, while others have settled amidst Syrian Shi’a Muslims, closer to central Damascus in the al-Amara district.

A Cultural Cosmopolitan Core of Damascus

The Shrine of Sayyida Zainab is a marvel of artistic architectural accomplishment. It features graceful calligraphy, an exquisite, azure dome, well-crafted marble pillars, and a gleaming golden mausoleum erected to honor Sayyida Zainab. It is one of the most oft-visited and emotionally-important sites of worship for the global Shi’a community, regardless of the particular doctrinal affiliation of a Shi’a adherent. Shi’a pilgrims from locales as far away as the United States, United Kingdom, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, and from nations surrounding Syria such as Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, and Bahrain, are drawn to the shrine and its attendant mosque.

The shrine is said to be the final resting place of Zainab, the daughter of the Imam Ali, grand-daughter of the Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatima. Zainab is also the sister of the important Shi’a martyr Hussein.

Following the disastrous Battle of Karbala, near present-day Kufa in Iraq in 680 AD, Hussein and many of his followers were slain by the forces of the Ummayad ruler Yazid. Zainab and the surviving members of Hussein’s household, many of them women, are said to have been dragged by chain from Karbala to Damascus, the seat of power for the nascent Ummayad Empire.  

Paraded before the Caliph Yazid, Fatima is believed by the Shi’a to have defiantly spoken against his rule and what the Shi’a perceive to have been the injustices he perpetrated against the Muslim community. Eventually released by Yazid, Fatima is thought to have retired to Mecca for much of the rest of her life, and to have died there. Her body is believed to have been brought to Damascus and buried in the place where the shrine now stands.

Sayyida Zainab’s shrine in the vicinity of Damascus’ southern suburbs is a vital religious center for Shi’a Muslims. Syria is home to several important Shi’a religious sites, including the Shrine of Sayyida Ruqayya, the sister of Fatima, which is located within a half kilometer of the Shrine of Sayyida Zainab. The Sayyida Zainab shrine, however, is the most important and significant Shi’a religious site in Syria.    

For several decades the immediate and adjacent area surrounding the Shrine of Sayyida Zainab was inhabited by a majority Sunni Palestinian population, who found affordable housing and built a dynamic community in close proximity to the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk. In recent decades, however, the neighborhoods around the shrine have demographically diversified, including its emergence as an important meeting point for Shi’a worshippers, pilgrims, and students of theology representing the many denominations of Shi’a Islam from around the world.  

Many prominent Shi’a religious scholars have satellite offices and schools in the neighborhood around the shrines, and their classes are attended by an international student body. A flourishing tourist-oriented service economy developed in the area, catering to the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims that ventured to the shrines every year. Iranian investment, whether from the Islamic Republic itself or from private donations and chartered pilgrimage tours (organized by companies owned by Iranian investors), has been one of the major developmental factors behind the rise of the neighborhood’s tourist industry and the maintenance and upkeep of the Shrine of Sayyida Zainab.

This investment was spurred originally by the strategic alliance between the former President of Syria, the late Hafez al-Assad, and the Islamic Republic of Iran during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1989. Hafez al-Assad provided key moral and logistical support to the Iranian government’s war effort against their mutual enemy, Saddam Hussein. The partnership between the two countries, including in the cultural and tourist industries, deepened in the years that followed.

A Home for the Homeless

Iraqis, mainly Shi’a political refugees from Saddam Hussein’s government, had been present in the Sayyida Zainab neighborhood as students or business owners for decades. During the height of sectarian conflict in Iraq from 2006-2008, the suburb became a haven for Shi’a Iraqi refugee families seeking to live in the then peace and stability of Bashar al-Assad’s Syria.. Other Iraqi Shi’a migrants fled to the Sayyida Zainab neighborhood; either as outlaws from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s newly-elected Iraqi government, or because of prices placed on their heads by rival Shi’a militia leaders or Sunni Muslim insurgent groups. These migrants included members of militant Shi’a groups such as the Iranian-linked Badr Brigade (connected to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq); the Da’was Party-descended Fadhila in the southern city of Basra (defeated by the Iraqi army in 2007); and the infamous Mehdi Army under the nominal command of the important Iraqi religious leader and politician Muqtada al-Sadr.

Although the exact population figure of Iraqi refugees in the neighborhood have yet to be officially determined, by the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War perhaps almost a hundred thousand Iraqi refugees were believed to be living in or near Sayyida Zainab, the majority of them Shi’a Muslims. Most of these refugees came from formerly sectarian-mixed neighborhoods of the Iraqi cities of Baghdad, Samarra, and Baquba. Others came to Syria from cities in the Shi’a-majority southern governorates of Iraq that saw intense violence between rival Shi’a militias, such as Najaf and Basra.     

In spite of formidable financial challenges, and the psychological trauma of the war they had witnessed in Iraq, many of the Shi’a immigrants to Syria created a semblance of a normal life for themselves.

The Shi’a Iraqi refugees built a vibrant community in the Sayyida Zainab area. Middle-class and wealthy Iraqi refugees frequently pooled their money together and rented large storefronts from Syrian and Palestinian property owners. These Iraqi business owners opened Iraqi restaurants and operated souvenir and convenience stores intended to serve the large tourist and pilgrim populations in the neighborhood.   

The Iraqis mingled, sometimes uneasily, with the already resident Palestinian refugee community. Poorer Iraqis and Palestinians faced severe competition in Damascus’ stagnant labor market from internally displaced Syrian migrants; many of them families. These Syrians had begun to relocate to the suburbs of Damascus such as Sayyida Zainab, from rural regions of southern and eastern Syria, due to the collapse of the dominant agricultural economy in these regions.

Underlying sectarian sentiment against the Shi’a, broadly by Sunni Syrians and to a lesser extent Palestinians, was repressed and constrained by the Syrian government. These feelings were exacerbated by the social and economic competition that the large influx of Iraqi refugees brought into the area. The cost of rent, basic staples such as bread, and state-provided services such as water, electricity, and heating and cooking oil increased dramatically in neighborhoods such as Sayyida Zainab.

Competition and resentment between the communities built, as a result of this economic and social preferences practiced by many Iraqi business owners and operators. These businesses contributed to the local economic development of the area but also, in many instances, actively sought out Iraqi labor over their Palestinian and Syrian competitors. This further added to the pressure of resentment towards Iraqis by non-Iraqis in the neighborhood and its surrounding areas.  

Another Firing Line in the Syrian Civil War

The localized conflict in the poverty-stricken and sectarian diverse southern suburbs surrounding Damascus, including Sayyida Zainab, indicates an inflammation of another firing line in the Syrian Civil War. This is more than just a proxy war between Iran and its Gulf Arab competitors. In the background of this intense geo-political rivalry between the major Sunni and Shi'a governments, dueling for the control of the political destiny of the Middle East, the communal conflict at work in Sayyida Zainab is a reminder that the civil war is increasingly devolving in many places throughout Syria. In turn this is resulting in a localized socio-cultural conflagration.     

The battle-lines of this war are often measured by city-blocks and meters and exacerbated by poverty and economic rivalry. Conflict in these areas are exaggerated, and instead drawn from the historical grievances and the long-simmering ill-will between sectarian communities. Economically depressed neighborhoods bordering Sayyida Zainab, including Hajar al-Aswad and al-Midan, are ongoing battlegrounds that are seeing ferocious combat between Syrian rebels and the Syrian military and its auxiliary paramilitary forces, including, according to reports, neighborhood security committees that were raised in the Shi’a majority-areas of Sayyida Zainab.   

A pattern of combat is emerging between neighborhoods in the southern suburbs of Damascus, including Sayyida Zainab and Hajar al-Aswad. This pattern resembles the static sectarian and ethnic firing-lines that characterized the urban combat in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-1990, and ongoing in Tripoli and to a lesser extent Beirut at present; and even in several Iraqi cities during the Iraqi Civil War of 2006-2008, and currently ongoing in Mosul and Kirkuk. Psychologically, there is strong evidence that the mental dividing-line between those who were “anti-Assad” against those who were “pro-Assad” is rapidly developing into those who are “Sunni” versus those who are “Shi’a” over the course of the Syrian Civil War. As a result, sectarian and socio-communal militias, such as those developing in Sayyida Zainab, will become an intractable and potentially insurmountable obstacle to sustained peace in Syria.   
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.