ISIS Attack on Damascus Shia Shrine Opens Deep Wounds

Briefing Note

ISIS Attack on Damascus Shia Shrine Opens Deep Wounds

01 Feb 2016

The triple blast at the shrine of Sayyida Zaynab in the Syrian capital has a deeper significance within a history dating back much further than the five-year conflict.

Among the 71 casualties of a triple blast outside the shrine of Sayyida Zaynab in Damascus were irregular international fighters. This protection force saw itself as on a divine mission: To guard one of Syria's most revered Shia sites. Its presence, and the targeting of the location, hint towards the strategic prominence of such shrines in the conflict.

In their claim of responsibility, ISIS said it was targeting a "a den of the Rafidha polytheists," a derogatory term for Shia. The bombings, the group said, were a reminder that "there is no safety for them from the strikes of the mujahideen." The attack was intended to cause maximum casualties, with one blast delayed to trigger as rescuers rushed to attend to the hundreds of wounded.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the attacks were "clearly aimed to disrupt the attempts to start a political process," including ongoing peace talks between Syrian factions in Geneva. However, the target of the bombing has a deeper significance within a history that dates back much further than the five-year Syrian conflict.

Zaynab is significant for Sunni and Shia Muslims.

The shrine of Sayyida Zaynab, the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammed, is widely associated with Shia religious practice, but she is a significant figure for both Sunni and Shia Muslims. Zaynab, who died in 682 CE, is revered not only for her own characteristics but also for her lineage as the daughter of Ali, the first Imam in Shia thought, and the divinely guided successor to the Prophet.

Zaynab was the sister of Husayn, the third Shia Imam who led the opposition against the oppressive Umayyad caliph, Yazid I. By standing alongside her brother against the nepotism and corruption of Yazid I, Zaynab is viewed as a powerful, guiding figure in Shia thought.

Zaynab is particularly important to Shia Muslims because of her role following a defining moment in Shia tradition, the events of Karbala. For many she is a symbol of outspoken defiance against oppression and persecution, a sentiment that holds contemporary resonance in the current Syrian conflict.

Defence against aggression lies at the heart of Shia understanding of jihad, with violent struggle presented as defence, not aggression. As such, the Shia 'jihad' in Syria is viewed as a defensive endeavour to protect Shia communities and historic Shia sites from violence perpetrated by Sunni militant groups.

This duty has made its way into regional geopolitical rhetoric. Iran has long used the protection of vulnerable Shia shrines as its justification for action in Syria. Last week, General Mohsen Kazemeini, a senior commander in Iran's Revolutionary Guard, said Tehran felt an "obligation" to send "military advisers" to Syria to protect shrines at the request of the Assad government. The Lebanese Shia movement Hizbullah has cited this as a key reason it chose to fight on President Bashar al-Assad's side in 2013.

Shia fighters add another dimension to Syrian conflict.

Although headlines on foreign fighters travelling to Syria tend to focus on Salafi-jihadi groups such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the protection of Shia shrines there has added another transnational dimension to the conflict. A 'foreign legion' of tens of thousands of fighters from across the Shia world has joined the conflict to protect holy sites from attack. They have travelled from as far afield as Pakistan and Afghanistan, often facilitated by Iranian recruiters. Pakistani recruits formed a 'Zeinabiyoun' unit to protect the Zaynab shrine.

This latest attack may trigger memories of the bombing of Iraq's thousand-year-old sacred Shia site, the al-Askari mosque, in Samarra in 2006, which was eventually claimed by al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Though the bombing saw no casualties, ensuing Shia-Sunni violence sparked Iraq's bloody sectarian conflict between 2006 and 2007. AQI's leader at the time, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, frequently boasted of using sectarian tactics to mobilise recruits for the group in Iraq, and his legacy permeates ISIS today. The explicit sectarianism of ISIS is a product of experiences from AQI days in Iraq. Its top command operatives will no doubt have learned from what happened in Samarra.

Deliberate attempts to stoke sectarian tensions in Syria, a country that before the conflict was known for religious pluralism, come amid an increase in ISIS propaganda that plays upon a general growth in regional sectarian tension. Targeting Shia shrines galvanises support for a Shia defensive presence in Syria and validates the claims of Sunni and Shia actors who frame the conflict along religious, and therefore transnational, lines. This will only complicate attempts to reach a political solution for Syria in Geneva.

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