As urban warfare rages in Damascus and Aleppo, presumed rebel gunmen abducted 47 Iranian pilgrims just outside the capital on Aug. 4. The pilgrims were on a bus taking them from the Shi’ite shrine of Sayyida Zainab, about 10 miles south of Damascus, to the airport to return home when they were kidnapped, according to the Iranian state news agency IRNA. Dubai’s Al-Arabiya television aired footage it said it had obtained from Syrian rebels of the captive Iranians, in which the captors charge that they are not actually pilgrims, but members of the Revolutionary Guard.
There have been several such incidents during the Syrian revolt. In May, 11 Lebanese Shi’ite pilgrims on their way back from Iran were abducted in Syria. Though they have been declared released by the captors, their whereabouts remain in mystery. In January, gunman kidnapped 11 Iranian pilgrims driving from the Turkish border to Damascus. At least two were later freed with Turkish mediation. Seven Iranian engineers building a power plant in central Syria were kidnapped in December and the Free Syrian Army claimed responsibility, accusing them of aiding Bashar Assad’s regime. At least four have been released. (AP, IBT, NOW Lebanon, Haaretz, Aug. 5)
Syria’s sectarian tensions have spilled across borders into Lebanon and Turkey. On July 29, in the southeast Turkish town of Surgu (Malatya province), a mob attacked the home of a Alawite family, hurling rocks and shouting “Death to Alawites!” A gun was fired, and moved made to torch the house before authorities broke up the mob. The incident supposedly began when the family chased away a drummer who had been trying to rouse people to a pre-dawn Ramadan feast. (NYT, Aug. 5)
The Shi’ite Alawite sect, to which Syrian dictator Bashar Assad belongs, is portrayed as bulwark of support for his regime. Benjamin Jensen of the Marine Corps Command and Staff College in Quantico, Va., warned National Public Radio that a “rogue Alawite state” could emerge after Assad’s regime falls, with regime loyalists taking refuge in the sect’s heartland, the stretch of coast between Latakia and the port city of Tartous. (NPR, July 30)
But Jordan-based Palestinian commentator Rami G. Khouri wrote: “There is nothing new about individual Arab countries being susceptible to centrifugal forces that can lead to the collapse or adjustment of the central state, and the emergence of smaller entities based on ethnic, religious or tribal identities. We are likely to see healthier, more stable Arab countries if more decentralized systems of statehood are implemented. For these to have legitimacy and stability, however, they need to be defined by the will of their citizens rather than by foreign armies or retreating local warlords, as has been the case for the past century.” (Al-Arabiya, Aug. 4)