(CNSNews.com) – Russia’s military intervention in Syria appears to be fueling sectarian animosity in the region, as Sunni clerics and organizations react with anger to the perception that Moscow is siding with a reviled Shi’ite front rather than targeting terrorists as it claims.
Dozens of Saudi clerics, the International Union of Muslim Scholars, and the Muslim Brotherhood have slammed Russia for launching airstrikes last week in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Anti-Shi’ite language emerged in some of that Sunni reaction to the Russian decision to fight in support of what many Assad opponents view as a Shi’ite alliance.
The Syrian conflict has long been characterized by sectarian divisions: Assad belongs to the minority Alawite sect of Shia Islam, and is supported militarily by Shi’ite Iran, the Shi’ite Hezbollah militia from Lebanon, and pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias from Iraq.
The disparate anti-Assad opposition, which ranges from the Free Syrian Army to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) and al-Qaeda-linked groups, is primarily Sunni. Some rebel factions are backed by leading Sunni countries, including Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Russia, Iran, the Assad regime and Iraq – whose government is Shi’ite-led and close to Iran’s – recently set up an intelligence-sharing center in Baghdad. While Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has rejected suggestions this is a new alliance, Iranian state media have already begun to call the new four-way arrangement a “quadripartite coalition.”
On Monday, 52 Saudi clerics in a statement urged Sunni Muslims to provide “moral, material, political and military” support to the jihad against Assad and his Iranian and Russian allies.
It called those fighting against Assad “holy warriors” and said they must be supported because if they were defeated, “it will be the turn of one Sunni country after another.”
The statement used sectarian epithets for the Iranians and the Alawite regime in Damascus that have seen increasingly common use during the conflict – and are incidentally the same derogatory terms that Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) uses in its propaganda.
The clerics said the Russians, “Safawis” (Iranians) and “Nusayris” (Alawites) were warring against Sunnis and Sunni countries.
(Safawi refers to the Persian 16th century Safavid dynasty; Nusayri was an early leader of the Alawite sect.)
They also called on all Arab and Islamic countries to withdraw their ambassadors from Iran and Russia in protest.
According to Al-Arabiya, some of the signatories to the statement are members of the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS), a Qatar-based organization headed by prominent Sunni cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi.
Separately, the IUMS issued a statement condemning Russia’s airstrikes in Syria, and calling on Arab and Islamic nations to reject the Russian intervention.
It called for international support for anti-Assad groups, including “money and prayers,” adding that there was no viable resolution to the civil war without Assad’s departure.
Meanwhile the Muslim Brotherhood, also a Sunni organization, issued a statement lumping together Russia and Iran with the Brotherhood’s more customary enemies, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – who supports Russia’s action in Syria – and Israel.
Claiming an international conspiracy against Sunni Muslims, the Brotherhood accused the “mullahs of Iran,” the “czars of Russia,” the “criminal Zionists” and “the heinous al-Sisi” of trying to divide Syria.
“The Muslim Brotherhood calls on the free world to support Syria so it would not become another Iraq, Afghanistan or Chechnya,” it said. “The group warns that this occupation by Russia, Iran and their allies is bound to create a hostile environment along sectarian lines that will plague the whole world.”
The Muslim Brotherhood also berated the United States for what it described as “exceedingly soft criticism” of the Russian airstrikes.
The Sunni-Shi’ite rift dates back to a succession dispute after the death of Mohammed in the seventh century. Shi’ites comprise between 10 and 15 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.