I keep saying it, this is one fight we in the West should stay far from, and hope that each side depletes each others members with gusto and vigor.
Not long after a friend called from Damascus to tell him one of the holiest shrines in Shia Islam had been damaged by Syrian rebels, Baghdad student Ammar Sadiq was on the move.
Raging with a desire for vengeance, the 21-year-old set off for the border, a six-hour drive through Iraq’s western deserts. He was one more jihadist on a road to war, a well-trodden path through lands that not long ago were used by jihadists coming the other way. When he got to Syria, however, he did not plan to join the Sunni insurgents now blazing through the north, but the equally vehement Shia groups defending the capital.
“It was like a thunderbolt hit me,” said Sadiq. “My friend was telling me that wahhabis from Saudi and Afghanis were trying to destroy the [Shia] shrine of Sayyida Zeinab. I did not wait even to tell my parents. All I was thinking of is to go to Syria and protect the shrine, though I have not used a weapon in my life.”
Sadiq was trying to join a group named Abu Fadl al-Abbas, which over the past 14 months has emerged as one of the most powerful in Syria.
Interviews with serving and former members of Abu Fadl al-Abbas suggest that upwards of 10,000 volunteers – all of them Shia Muslims, and many from outside Syria – have joined their ranks in the past year alone. The group’s raison d’etre is to be custodian of Shia holy sites, especially Sayyida Zeinab, a golden-domed Damascus landmark, but its role has taken it to most corners of Syria’s war. It is now a direct battlefield rival, both in numbers and power, for Jabhat al-Nusra, the jihadist group that takes a prominent role among opposition fighting groups.