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Sunni Cleric Calls for Jihad As Hezbollah Moves Against Rebel Stronghold Aleppo

The Middle East, model 2013, is returning with surprising speed to its old habits.

Sunnis and Shiites are again at war in three Arab states. In Iraq, a thousand people were killed in sectarian fighting last month. In Syria, Shiite Hezbollah is fighting in the Alawite regime’s war of survival against a Sunni opposition. In Lebanon, Sunni extremists fired missiles at the Shiite area of Baalbek. Intercommunal fighting there killed dozens.

The real war, however, is behind the scenes: between Iran and its proxies on one side and the Sunni states of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and Egypt.

The romance of the Arab Spring has faded, replaced by Sunni-Shiite holy war. This old-new struggle for the fate of the Middle East comes amid the dissolution of the region’s nation-state structure in favor of political Sunni Islam of the kind now dominant in Egypt, Tunisia, and to a certain extent Turkey.

The transformation is now particularly apparent in Syria. There Hezbollah’s involvement is growing fast – it sent thousands of fighters to conquer the flashpoint border town of Qusayr – and is now headed to Syria’s largest city Aleppo.

The strident statements by the Sunni religious leader Yousef al-Qaradawi at a summit in Qatar this weekend upped the ante further still. Qaradawi called the Iranians who are supporting Syria “fanatics” and “liars.” He dubbed Hezbollah – the “Party of God” in Arabic – the Party of Satan, and called on all able-bodied Sunnis to join the “jihad” against the group.

At a summit in Qatar, Qaradawi lamented that Iranians had “deceived [him] and deceived many others like [him] by saying that they too want to bridge the differences” between Sunnis and Shiites. He continued “years ago, I defended Hassan Nasrallah, who has named his party Hezbollah, although it is indeed a party of idols and party of devils who are defending Assad.”

The Alawites, he added for good measure, are a sect “worse infidels than Christians and Jews,” and have “nothing to do” with Islam.

Yet the momentum appears to be with the Syrian army and Hezbollah. This morning reports emerged that thousands of residents had fled the northern environs of Aleppo after 3,500 to 5,000 Syrian troops arrived on the city’s outskirts in what looks like an attempt to retake the city from the rebels.

With the conflict’s momentum reversed, and barring foreign intervention, even Qaradawi’s call for jihad may not be enough to save the Syrian opposition.

[Photo: FreedomHouse / Flickr]