Sectarianism is often treated as the primary cause of conflict in states such as Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq where previously many political forces and tribes had their own loyalties to a particular affiliation. In Syria, the classic case is the present Assad Government which has the loyalty of the tribes of the Alawite sect, a large number of which originate from Syria’s Mediterranean coast—particularly Qardaha, the hometown of the Assad family. Now they provide highest number of recruits for Shia rule in Syria which is opposed by the Sunni Arabs. Now the Sunnis recruit sub tribes in Syria to fight the Syrian Government.
Sectarian militias are often formed in the lines of loyalty and political patronage. In Syria and Iraq, it is quite open now. In both countries, a security vacuum led to the formation of sectarian militias, such as the Mahdi Army among the Iraqi Shi‘a and Jabhat al-Nusra among the Sunnis in Syria. Intra-sectarianism is also part of the conflict in Syria. Not even the Islamist segment among Arab Sunni rebels could unite under a single sectarian agenda. Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS have fought against each other and clashed with Arab Sunnis who make up the Free Syrian Army.
But the Saudi government and its allies are gearing up to give Iran and its allies a befitting reply by mobilizing their own tribes to fight in Yemen and Lebanon. In both countries the Shia and Sunni extremist forces are going to be pitted more directly in coming months to fight for supremacy. Saudis are openly criticizing Assad Government for using chemical weapons against Saudi and US backed militias in Syria.
The Syrian Government is now accused of Idlib attack and a large number of Sunni extremists are joining Saudi sponsored outfits such as Syrian Military Council and Idlib Army camps. These two outfits are quite innovative in their attacks against Syrian Government. Saudis are currently recalculating their strategy against Iran which is supporting Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon also Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine. The Saudis are showing a renewed vigor to counter Iran in the aftermath of attack on Saudi oil fields last year.
In fact, Syria is the key point for Iran to supply weapons to Hezbollah which finally reaches Lebanon and Yemen. The Saudi support to Hariri family and 8 different sub tribes in Lebanon is going to witness more fighting in coming months as a cache consignment of arms have reached these rebels in August from a South African arms company which smuggled them using Egyptian border. The Sunni Hariri family is strongly against any growth of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Indeed, Hezbollah is now focusing on Yemen and Lebanon to hurt Saudi interests due to orders from Iran.
In Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq war theatre, at the moment Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran are heavily active to sponsor at least 32 different groups who will fight in these regions to protect their strategic interests. They have no concern for all these countries and their people. The fight is going to be intense as all have learnt from their past. The Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) backed by US and others are also lured by Saudis to secure some areas for their interests.
While Ahrar al-Sham, a Wahhabi jihadi group and part of Jabhat al-Nusra, is getting regrouped due to Saudi funding, Turkey is funding and arming United Syrian Army - a new jihadi group to fight Saudi interests to Kurds out of Syrian conflict. Now, Saudis are using more than 37 tribal networks to bolster their influence in the region.
The Bedwin networks of the Saudis for tribal links have strong ties all across the Arabian peninsula who are now getting active with the help Saudi intelligence officials to fund and arm these jihadi outfits. There are 45 tribal leaders from this region currently staying in Saudi Arabia who are being advised to fight Iran.
On the other hand, Iran is also pushing militias from Tay and the Sheitat tribes to fight alongside the Syrian regime forces. Iranian missionary groups have also been working to convert people from the Baggara tribe in Deir Ezzorfrom from Sunni to the Shia branch of Islam, in order to counterbalance the power of the Sunni Aqaydate tribe that has strong kinship ties to Saudi Arabia.
But Saudis are engaging tribes from Lebanon and Iraq to assist their outfits. Since Turkey is keen to use the Arab tribes along its border to defeat SDF in Syria, Saudis are ready to activate their loyal outfits in this game. Saudi Arabia is putting renewed pressure on its ties with tribal groups in Syria.
Since Saudi Arabia considers the area to the east of the Euphrates river in Syria to be within its sphere of influence and will do whatever is possible to prevent it from falling under Turkish control. Turkish President Erdogan who is trying to be leader of Muslim world and attempting to play a key role in post-Syrian conflict negotiations is being loathed by the Saudis who view this will marginalize Saudi influence in the region. In fact, Arab tribes represent 20 per cent of Syrian society and are particularly focused in the east of the country. But Saudis are keen to mobile cadres from elsewhere to strengthen their rebels.
The SDF which was created in 2015 active in north and east of Syria has fought ISIS strongly. Now after the defeat of ISIS it is regrouping for resources. The SDF is brining many splinter groups within its fold such as al-Sanadid Forces and DMC which had served under Army of Revolutionary in Syrian theatre.
The Saudis are also funding Free Idlib Army which has recruited more than 4000 cadres in July. The Free Idlib Army has been supplied with rockets, mortars, small arms and armored vehicles. In August, the meeting of Free Idlib Army had openly advocated for foreign help to fight Syrian forces. Most Salafist factions such as the Army of Conquest, including Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, al-Qaeda's offshoot al-Nusra Front and their leaders have visited Riyadh in September where they had extensive meetings with Saudi officials.
The funds and weapons are being transferred via Iraq and Jordan. At the same time, Saudi funding pattern is also changing. The Saudis are ready to work with outfits who are effective on battlefield and loyal to Saudi Arabia and its vision of Arab world ideology. This is pushing most of the Sunni outfits to recruit new and young cadres, while some of the flee away cadres from ISIS and other Arabs are also filling the ranks including foreigners who cannot return to their home country after the fall of ISIS.
The Free Idlib Army has appointed new commander in July to replace Lt Col Suhaib Leoush with Col Saad al Babbar. In May 2018, along with 10 other rebel groups in northwestern Syria, the Free Idlib Army formed the National Front for Liberation. But now the Saudis are asking them to act for a decisive battle.
The Army of Islam is also being supported and getting active in Syria and now spreading into Lebanon. It was once the largest Sunni rebel faction in Syria but now the splinters are being active to fight the Shia outfits. The Free Syrian Army's Supreme Military Council which started the Syrian Islamic Front and Ahrar ash-Sham are being backed by Saudis, Egypt and UAE to form a pro Arab network of Sunni rebel group to face Syrian Government in coming months.
The Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement which is a Sunni Islamist rebel group and part of the Syrian Revolutionary Command Council has received fresh Saudi funding in August 2019 under GCC cultural funds to spread Islam in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. This group is being backed to fight in Syria, Yemen and Lebanon where Shia groups are highly active and effective. The Saudi and UAE intelligence services have also propped rebels of Southern Front which had alliance factions of 58 Syrian opposition forces, affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, to regroup and get training in Yemen to cross over to Lebanon and Syria.
The Free Syrian Army groups (Southern Front and the Army of Free Tribes), Tahrir al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, Jabhat Ansar al-Islam and Alwiya al-Furqan are at the moment facing opposition among themselves since new cadres are opposed to confine to only Syria any more. The Saudis are also calling them to expand their base outside Syria and defend Sunni Arab legacy which is under threat from Shia Iran. This is at a time when the Iranian backed groups are rejoicing victory after the fall of ISIS.
According to UN reports, nearly 2 million refugees from Syria and Palestine are inside Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. The Lebanese government estimates that the country hosts 1.5 million refugees mostly from Syria, and an additional 280,000 refugees from the Palestinian territories. In fact, among Lebanon’s estimated 4.5 million people, refugees amount to nearly a third of the population. This is also contributing to reorganization of Sunni and Shia rebel groups in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon war theatre.
Iran is largely Shia Muslim, while Saudi Arabia sees itself as the leading Sunni Muslim power. Meanwhile in Lebanon, Iran's ally, Shia militia group Hezbollah, leads a politically powerful bloc and controls a huge, heavily armed fighting force. In the Iranian camp is Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, a member of a heterodox Shia sect, who has relied on pro-Iranian Shia militia groups, including the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, to fight predominantly Sunni rebel groups.
Saudi Arabia's vulnerability has been demonstrated by these latest attacks on its oil installations. If a war breaks out, it will be more perhaps by accident rather than design. For now, Lebanon is uncomfortably centre stage - it is after all where proxy wars have been fought in the past. The Americans, the Saudis, the Israelis are all trying to prevent Hezbollah from maximising its gains from the wars in Syria and Iraq.
What is happening in Yemen is also related to the Lebanon situation. Hezbollah and its allies have achieved enormous success. As the situation in Syria comes to an end the regime has the upper hand, Iran and Hezbollah are seeking dividends in Lebanon for the role they played in Syria. Lebanon’s Foreign Minister, Gebran Bassil, believes the Hezbollah role will be limited to governance in Lebanon at least for near future.
But Iran which is the main backer of Hezbollah is keen to fight Saudi influence in Lebanon and Yemen. Recently, Iran has transferred mass quantities of weapons, fighters, and other supplies to Hezbollah through its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, using Syria as a transfer point. It has been responsible for transferring thousands of rockets, which Hezbollah has used against Israeli civilians.
Further complicating Hezbollah’s status, the terror group has woven itself into Lebanon’s social fabric, setting up charities and providing services in the southern part of the country where government authority is weaker. These social services have boosted Hezbollah’s popularity enough to allow it to become part of the Lebanese political structure.
Iran thus viewed the rise of Hezbollah as an opportunity to extend its influence, cultivating Hezbollah as a proxy force, providing funding, training, and weaponry through Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). As an Iranian proxy, Hezbollah has taken up arms alongside Syrian and Iranian forces in defense of the Syrian regime in that country’s civil war.
As Saudi Arabia has engaged Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, Hezbollah has also stepped up its rhetoric against the Saudi monarchy. In September 2016, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah declared Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi ideology to be more evil than Israel. Thousands of Hezbollah supporters at an October 2016 rally reportedly chanted “Death to the Al Saud,” referring to Saudi Arabia’s ruling family. In Lebanon, the Hezbollah is gaining popularity due to Syrian success.