The agony of Aleppo continues. It will continue regardless of how many cease-fires are reached and then broken, regardless of how many times John Kerry meets with Russia’s Sergey Lavrov and no matter how loud United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pleads. It will continue because this battle has been raging for 1336 years.
October 10 marks the anniversary of the Battle of Karbala, which took place in 680 AD. This battle is to Islam what the East-West Schism of 1054 is to Christianity: It marked a permanent religious split. In 1054 the Western Church (today the Catholic Church) went one way and the Eastern Christian churches (today the Eastern Orthodox Church) went the other. So, too, Karbala created a permanent split in the Islamic world. One group became the Shia, the other the Sunni.
The Battle of Karbala was a brutal affair over the legitimate successor to the Prophet Muhammad. There were two contenders for the title of caliph: al-Husayn ibn Ali, grandson of the prophet, and Yazid I, caliph of the Umayyad dynasty. The battle was decisively won by Yazid and the Sunnis, but the Shia have never forgotten or forgiven. On this upcoming anniversary they will lament their loss because they believe the Sunni succession was illegitimate. Unsurprisingly, most Sunni Muslims believe Yazid was the rightful caliph, and many consider those who disagree to be kuffar (unbelievers) and not real Muslims.
Sometimes battles for cities are cataclysmic events. Think Stalingrad. Both Hitler and Stalin recognized that defeat in that strategic city would not just be a setback but a turning point in the war. They threw all available resources into it. Stalingrad was like Aleppo today: a city and its people destroyed in order for it to be conquered. The fighting devolved into a building-by-building orgy of destruction. Nothing that moved was spared. The intensity of the battle equaled the stakes each side had invested in it.
The same destructive firestorm of ideology is at work in Aleppo today. In the Financial Times, Richard Haass gives a very cogent analysis of the war’s participants, but he fails to identify their religious motivations. The New York Times recently published an article by Max Fisher trying to explain the entire Syrian conflict. Unfortunately, he too minimizes the religious aspect. His historical explanations only go back 100 years to the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
Although it started with the Free Syrian Army seeking to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s dynasty, their failure widened the violence. The war became about Iran wanting a corridor into Lebanon—creating a link to their Hezbollah allies—and ISIS and other jihadis wanting more territory.
Now it has become a religious war from which neither side can back down. For losing the Battle of Karbala 2.0 would be forsaking their prophet and God again.
The Sunnis are represented by the following major players: the Free Syrian Army, ISIS, al Qaeda and the Nusra Front. The Shia are mainly represented by the Syrian army loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, the Alawites, the Iranian Armed Forces, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. The puppeteers on the Shia side are Iran and Russia; on the Sunni side it’s Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Turkey. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are seeking broader regional support based on religious convictions. As each country is the standard bearer in the Sunni-Shia divide, the drive for influence beyond their borders is of paramount importance. To lose Aleppo, and thus Syria, would signal to the Arab and Muslim world that there was weakness at the top of the Sunni or Shia leadership and that they had forsaken their forefathers who fought the Battle of Karbala.
The Western world’s citizens have little understanding of just how visceral this religious divide is. The fallout from the East-West schism is mostly absent from the daily lives of the world’s Christians. Not so for the Battle of Karbala and the Middle East’s Muslims. The Sunni-Shia divide often directly dictates political policy. It would be as though the Netherlands and Spain were to base their political relations on the agony of their religious conflict almost five hundred years ago.
The Battle of Karbala is why the Arab and Muslim world is so willing to tolerate the mayhem of a six-year war that has killed about half a million people and has displaced or made refugees of about 11 million people. While the West agonizes over photos of dead Syrian children and videos of horribly wounded ones, the Arab world remains shockingly quiet. The slaughter is met with silence in Arab capitals. Each side in the Sunni-Shia divide wants to prevail in Syria. Each side has called up foreign reinforcements, the Shia relying on Russia and the Sunnis relying on the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. That bombs dropped by these proxies, particularly Russia, are slaughtering civilians (including relief workers) is an example of how this religious savagery has widened its sphere.
The Battle of Karbala ended in a truce with the victorious Umayyad (Sunni) dynasty promising safe passage and fair treatment to the vanquished followers of Ali (Shia). That truce was soon broken, and the Umayyads hunted down their opponents, slaughtered the men, and enslaved the women. Expect something similar in this war. Apocalyptic players like ISIS and Hezbollah are not nice people. They are religious fanatics with a messianic mission to avenge a 1336-year-old grudge.
Jonathan Russo has been observing and writing about the Mid-East, domestic politics, and China for decades. In the last 10 years his articles have been published in The Huffington Post, Times of Israel, and his own site. He’s been an executive in the NY media world for over 40 years and resides in Manhattan.