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Avoiding an Apocalyptic War in Syria

A probable United States military strike against Syria has raised serious concerns about its consequences on the political and religious hegemony of the Middle East.

As the Syrian Civil War continues, thousands of Salafi-Jihadists from all over the world have been rushing to Syria to establish an Islamic state as the first step to founding a universal caliphate. On the other hand, Alawites who are the ruling minority in Syria are a sect in Shia Islam, and the Syrian government is the closest Arab ally of Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Such political complications have led to a major conflict of interest in Syria between Shia and Sunni countries with their long history of sectarian conflict. However, unlike Shia-Sunni rivalry in Iraq, there are deeper apocalyptic motives behind the ongoing religious war in Syria that makes it more dangerous than any other war in which the US has ever been involved.

Jabhat al-Nusra or Nusra Front is the most popular and powerful militant group among the Syrian rebels. Driven by the Salafi-jihadist ideology of al-Qaeda, al-Nusra’s goal is the establishment of a caliphate in the Levant or Bilad as-Sham which consists of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank, Israel, Gaza, and even some parts of Iraq and Turkey. Such an ambitious plan to establish the caliphate in the whole region has attracted many Salafis from around the world, even from Western countries, to join jihad against the Syrian government as recently emphasized by retiring FBI Director, Robert Mueller. There is no doubt that any US military strike against the Assad regime will benefit al-Nusra Front who has proven to be the most brutal Islamist jihadist organization, and obviously, an enemy of the United States and its allies.

Consequently, even a few-hour-long missile strike on Syria will only empower the al-Nusra Front to overthrow the Syrian government in the future, leading to the genocide of Alawites and Christian minorities in Syria by Salafi-jihadists. On the other hand, Iran will not leave Assad alone, and may even deploy more Revolutionary Guard troops to protect the Syrian regime, in addition to asking Hezbollah in Lebanon to send more militants to Syria to support Assad.

Although it may seem to be a perfect outcome for the US to keep Iran, Hezbollah, and Salafi-jihadists busy fighting each other in Syria, this war will not remain inside Syrian borders, and will most probably reach Iraq and the whole region very soon. In fact, Syria has already been considered by many as the birthplace of an Islamic Armageddon. The official media outlet of al-Nusra Front is named al-Manarah al-Bayda or the White Minaret which has messianic references in Sunni tradition. This white minaret is reported in Islamic hadiths to be located to the East of Damascus which is the modern-day capital of Syria.

According to the Sunni tradition, Jesus will descend on this White Minaret in the Levant – Greater Syria – to fight ad-Dajjal or the Antichrist. It should be noticed that Jesus in Islamic teachings is believed to descend to help establish the universal caliphate of Islam before the end of time. Considering the religious intentions of Salafi-jihadist leaders of Al-Nusra to establish the caliphate in the Levant, such an apocalyptic reference cannot be just a coincidence. Therefore, Salafi-jihadists are not simply considering Syria only as a potential safe haven as al-Qaeda considered Afghanistan, but rather, ruling Syria based on strict sharia law is an essential part of their religious cause for which they do not hesitate in committing any terrorist atrocities. Strong faith in such religious prophesies can explain why many devoted adherents of radical Salafi Islam from different parts of the world will join the al-Nusra Front in Syria.

On the other hand, Shia Islam has its own religious prophesies about the Armageddon in which Syria is also reported to be the major battleground. According to Shia tradition, the Sufyani Uprising from Syria is a sign of the coming of the Messiah. As an ally to ad-Dajjal – the false prophet – As-Sufyani is believed to conquer Syria before invading Iraq. Shia hadiths state that a Sayyid from Khurasan in Iran gathers an army to defeat as-Sufyani to prepare for the reappearance of the Promised Mahdi, Shia’s twelfth Imam. Hundreds of thousands of devout Shias in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon strongly believe that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei is that Sayyid from Khurasan mentioned in detailed religious prophesies of Shia teachings. Although such superstitious beliefs may seem irrelevant to international politics in the real world, thousands of Shia civilians have already registered their names to be deployed to Syria to fight against the army of as-Sufyani whom they believe to be the Syrian rebels.

As Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei definitely resists losing Assad and Syria, a major confrontation between Iran and Hezbollah on one side and Salafi-Jihadists on the other side can inflame the whole region, including Israel. Ayatollah Khamenei has more than enough political reasons to use the apocalyptic beliefs of his followers for keeping Assad in power. On the other hand, since most of his supporters have been indoctrinated with such religious prophesies in schools and mosques, a regime change in Syria not only loses Iran’s hegemonic power in the region but also, Ayatollah Khamenei may lose his religious legitimacy among his supporters.

In addition, Sayyid Ali Khamenei, born in the city of Mashhad in Khorasan Province, may really believe himself to be the legendary Sayyid from Khurasan named in Shia apocalyptic tradition. Considering Iran’s nuclear ambitions, contradicting interpretations of messianic prophesies by Shias and Salafi-jihadists, and an ongoing religious war in Syria, the US should try to prevent such a devastating apocalyptic confrontation between Iranian and Syrian rebels.

Although the Syrian Civil War began as a political uprising, it has turned into a religious war in which US military involvement cannot serve Americans’ interests in the region. Any military strike against Syria by the US and its European allies should not lead to a regime change – as seen in Libya and Iraq – in the absence of a US-friendly alternative in Syria.

Also, any limited military strikes will definitely encourage Salafi-jihadi rebels which would lead to more religious tensions in Syria. The US must prevent Syria from turning into the battleground of an Islamic Armageddon at any cost, and an imminent hasty military involvement of the US in Syria does not meet this purpose at all, but rather inflames the situation. Due to apocalyptic references to Syria in Shia and Sunni teachings, any strategic mistake in US foreign policy can only fuel an ongoing religious war in Syria.

The best bad option available for the Obama administration in Syria is pursuing an aggressive policy of negative equilibrium to keep the balance of power between Assad and Salafi-jihadists while defusing tensions and providing an opportunity for a smooth transition of power to secular groups among Syrian rebels. Although humanitarian concerns can justify US military strike against the brutal government of Syria, such an attack will most probably inflame an apocalyptic war in Syria leading to more civilian casualties.