Iraqi Shiite leader urges Syria to strike back at Israel

Muqtada al-Sadr, former head of uprising against US occupation, enjoins followers to defend Damascus’s prestige

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel.

Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr (photo credit: image capture from YouTube)
Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr (photo credit: image capture from YouTube)

Amid reports of a second Israeli airstrike on Syria over the weekend, an Iraqi Shiite leader on Sunday urged Damascus to retaliate against Israel and called on his followers to defend Syria’s prestige in the face of alleged Israeli aggression.

Analysts said the call by Muqtada al-Sadr was unlikely to translate into concrete action by Iraqis, but suggested that the reported Israeli strikes could provide the Shiite powers — Hezbollah and Iran in particular — with a means of turning attention away from their intervention in Syria.

“The illegal Zionist entity hasn’t ceased infringing on rights of the Arabs and Muslims in its illegal seizure of land of Palestine, nor has the Arab and Islamic stance ceased to be timid as a result of its illegal acts of aggression and crimes,” Sadr said in a statement translated by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi of the Middle East Forum.

A militia commander-turned-politician who led a guerrilla war against American and allied forces with his Mahdi Army, Sadr spent three years of self-imposed exile in Iran before returning to Iraq in 2011. His political party, the Sadr Movement, holds 40 seats in Iraq’s 325-seat parliament and is widely regarded as an Iranian client.

“We have to defend the prestige of Syria,” Sadr said, telling his followers that no one could prevent Syria from striking back at Israel for “its repeated acts of aggression against Syrian lands.”

According to the Iraqi newspaper Shafaaq, Sadr “ordered his resistance fighters to respond to the Israeli shelling [of] Syria.”

Foreign media, based on Syrian opposition reports, indicated that Israeli Air Force jets struck a Syrian military installation north of Damascus early Sunday morning, days after American news outlets cited US officials saying Israel had struck Syria late Thursday night.

Despite Sadr’s call to action, he officially disarmed his thousands-strong Mahdi Army following the American withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 and has asserted that his movement is now nonviolent. Iraqi MP Mohammed Redha al-Khafaji, a leader in the Sadr political movement, told London-based newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat in April that, contrary to reports, no members of the Mahdi Army were taking part in the Syrian civil war.

While the likelihood of an Arab world united against Israel is virtually nil, it could prompt the unification of Shiite Muslims against the Jewish State — Iran included, Professor Moshe Maoz of Hebrew University told The Times of Israel.

Sadr’s call joined a chorus of saber-rattling by the Shiite Muslim world against Israel over the reported strikes against Syrian targets.

Hezbollah political council leader Ibrahim Amin Sayed said Saturday that the Lebanese Shiite militia was “prepared to prevent the fall of Syria to the control of Tel Aviv and Washington.” He acknowledged that Hezbollah was operating in Syria in order to protect Lebanon from the “Israeli-American partnership.”

Iranian general Ahmad Reza Pourdastan said in remarks reported by the official IRNA news agency that Tehran backed Syria and that “if there is need for training we will provide them with the training, but won’t have any active involvement in the operations.”

“The Syrian army has accumulated experience during years of conflict with the Zionist regime [Israel] and is able to defend itself and doesn’t need foreign assistance,” Pourdastan added.

Maoz said Sadr’s rhetoric was not likely to translate into collective Iraqi action against Israel — even though the two countries have technically been at war since 1948. “The Sunni world is rejoicing that Israel struck Syria,” but Moaz puts little faith in the ability of Sadr — let alone the Arab world — to take real action against Israel.

Professor Uzi Rabi of Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies also noted that “neither Iran nor Syria has an interest in waging a war against Israel,” but said that Sadr and others would like to break the cycle of Shiite-Sunni conflict and redirect it at Israel.

Muqtada al-Sadr and some Shiites in Lebanon, Rabi said, “are criticizing [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah and Iran for getting into the mess in Syria instead of dealing with Israel.” Shiite leaders may try to use the alleged Israeli strikes on Syria as “a tool by which to shift from the problematic Sunni-Shiite divide… and to turn back to the simple beginning — Israel versus the others,” Rabi told The Times of Israel.

He emphasized that Sadr’s statements point to an escape route by which Iran and its clients could use Israel’s purported attack on Syria to backpedal on the “grave mistake” of intervening in the bloody quagmire in Syria.

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