Since late May, pictures of Hezbollah militants standing amid the ruins of al-Qusayr, the former Syrian rebel stronghold, have offered dramatic evidence of the extent to which foreign Shia fighters are shifting the course of the Syrian war. To many observers, the Lebanese militia’s entry into the conflict has shown definitively that it has been a sectarian war from the outset. According to this view, Syria’s Alawite sect, to which the Assad clan and its security forces belong, is “quasi Shiite,” a fact which accounts for the government’s alliances to Iran and Hezbollah; while Syrian rebel forces are overwhelmingly dominated by the country’s aggrieved Sunni majority, now backed by the Sunni governments of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, along with various foreign Sunni jihadis.
But Bashar al-Assad is head of an ostensibly secular Baathist regime and many Shia think that Alawites are heretics. Why exactly is Hezbollah getting involved, and is this conflict really rooted in religion? The answer to both these questions may lie in a suburb of Damascus called Sayyida Zainab, the site of an important Shia shrine and since the 1970s a haven for foreign Shia activists and migrants in Syria. Today, Hezbollah forces, along with Iraqi Shia fighters, defend the suburb. Though the story of Sayyida Zainab is little known in the West, it may help explain why what began as a peaceful uprising against secular authoritarian rule in 2011 has increasingly become a war between Shia and Sunni that has engulfed much of the surrounding region.
Sayyida Zainab—located some six miles to the southeast of central Damascus—is named after the daughter of the first Shia Imam, Ali Ibn Abi Talib. While Zainab is allegedly buried there (Sunnis believe she is buried in the large Sayyida Zainab mosque in Cairo), the site is less important in the Shia tradition than the shrines in Iraq and Iran. In fact Sayyida Zainab only became a site of mass pilgrimage in the 1980s and 1990s, when a large shrine was built around the tomb with Iranian support.
By the time I did fieldwork there in 2008, however, the suburb of around 150,000 people had become a meeting ground for Shia from around the world. During the summer months, the foreign Shia population would reach tens of thousands, with up to one million pilgrims visiting Sayyida Zainab every year. There were clerics and students from the Gulf, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Africa, and South-East Asia, among other places. Publishers of cultural and religious magazines from Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula were having late-night discussions in the bookshops opposite the shrine. Young religious students were sitting in the Hawza Zainabiyya, a large center for Shia religious study there, or in one of the other smaller religious schools reading and discussing with their mentors. Iranian pilgrims could pay with Iranian currency, their thousand-tuman notes with the iconic picture of Khomeini bundled in the hands of the street vendors.
It was a world apart from the coffee houses and government buildings of central Damascus, where the old rhetoric of secular Arab nationalism still dominated, and at the time, I found it difficult to fathom the government’s reasons for allowing a suburb full of foreign religious students and clerics to flourish. Most Syrians I met had never been to Sayyida Zainab, and whenever I told people I was going there, they advised me not to go, complaining about the Iranians and Iraqis living there and arguing that it didn’t belong to the Syria they knew. Only after the Syrian uprising began in 2011 did it become clear to me that Sayyida Zainab was a crucial part of the alliance with Iran and Arab Shia militias that has until now allowed the Assad regime to keep the upper hand in the civil war.