But don’t call it a religious war. There’s absolutely no religion in it. It’s an “uprising against tyranny”. Also a civil war and a holy war.
Despite Hezbollah’s obscuring of facts surrounding their dead, it is clear their supporters know these men met their end in Syria. Chants of “Labayka ya Zaynab” (“We are here for you, O Zaynab”) are ubiquitous at funerals for Hezbollah’s martyrs. The highly sectarian and mantra-like chant references the Zaynab mosque in Damascus, an important Shia shrine near Damascus and a gathering point for pro-Iranian foreign fighters in Syria.
When a Hezbollah fighter is killed, the party often releases a photograph of the militiaman when he was still living. Their posters sometimes feature the Zaynab shrine’s golden dome in the background. Hezbollah’s semi-official Facebook announcements tend to offer the best information of the circumstances of a fighter’s death: Some photographs are posted with a caption reading “[Died while] defending Sayyida [Lady] Zaynab” or “martyred during the sacred defense.”
Who or what is Zaynab? The Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque is the burial place of Zaynab, Mohammed’s granddaughter. Since Sunni and Shiite Islam originally broke down as a dynastic struggle, Zaynab was the daughter of Caliph Ali, the pivotal figure in Shiite Islam, and came into play during the Islamic civil wars. Hezbollah is explicitly framing the conflict as a holy war between Shiites and Sunnis. The fact that the Salafis would invariably destroy the mosque gives their propaganda some basis in reality.
But it also reflects the fact that this isn’t about Assad anymore. The old Islamic civil wars were about dynasties that flowed into religion and then out into dynasties again. Family and religion brutally intersect in Islamic civil wars which are both tribal and religious because they are one and the same.
Hezbollah can’t fight for Assad, but it’s really not fighting for Assad. It’s fighting for Shiite Islam under the Iranian banner. And the Sunni war stopped being about Assad a while back. Assad wouldn’t attract nearly this much attention, especially when you consider that he had good relations and alliances with many of the groups coming after him now.
It’s a religious war now, which isn’t to say that it’s not still tribal, but it’s also about how religion represents tribal identity. That is why any plans to mainstream and moderate the Sunni side are doomed. You can’t moderate a religious war. It’s by definition immoderate. This isn’t about democracy and it’s time to stop pretending that it’s about some kind of popular resistance to tyranny. It’s a tribal religious war, like most of them are.