For Iran’s Sunnis, the war to save Assad is not theirs

Sunday 08/05/2016

Washington - On the surface, there was nothing unusual about the funeral procession carrying the bodies of “martyred guardians of the shrine” Hossein-Ali Kiani and Aqil Shibak to their final resting place in Zahedan, capital of Sistan- Baluchestan province in south-eastern Iran.

As befits the martyred “volun­teers” for Iran’s war effort in Syria to support the regime of President Bashar Assad, the procession on April 16th was led by local gran­dees, such as Ayatollah Abbas Ali Suleimani, representative of Su­preme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khame­nei in the Sunni majority province; and Ali Owsat Hashemi, the gover­nor-general.

But all is not what it seems.

The day before the funerals, Za­hedan Press, the main local news agency, complained of the cold reception the bodies of the two re­turning Shia martyrs received when the plane carrying them landed at the city’s airport. There was no military guard of honour and only a few close relatives of the deceased were present to carry the coffins.

Kaghaz-e Akhbar, a local news­paper, complained about the non-participation of the province’s Sunni population in the funeral procession and expressed the hope that “God willing, we shall witness the presence of these dear ones (the Sunnis) in the forthcoming commemoration series so that we can demonstrate our unity to the world”.

In Sistan-Baluchestan, the bla­tant Sunni boycott of the funerals was seen as a humiliating embar­rassment. After all, Khamenei, per­haps in an attempt to play down the sectarian aspect of the Syrian war and appeal to Iran’s Sunnis, con­sistently calls the conflict a “strug­gle between Islam and heresy”.

But that is a narrative that clear­ly does not resonate with Iran’s Sunni population, particularly in Sistan-Baluchistan, where regime forces have been battling separatist groups for years in a low-intensity, but frequently brutal, insurgency.

In an attempt to give credence to the supreme leader’s narrative of sacrifice against Sunni jihadists, the government’s propaganda machine had previously pulled out all the stops to provide extensive cover­age of the November 2015 burials of Salman Barjesteh, Morad Abdollahi and Omar Molla-Zehi, three Sun­ni natives of Sistan-Baluchestan killed in the Syrian conflict.

Esmaeel Molla-Zehi, the father of Omar, was granted a meeting with Khamenei on March 10th at which the supreme leader said: “Today, we have among us Sunni breth­ren who are fighting in defence of the ahl-e beyt (household of the Prophet, a reference to Shia imams) and are being killed as martyrs… And when they visit us, instead of displaying sorrow, sadness or com­plaint, their families express pride in their sons being martyred in this path.”

More recently, the regime’s prop­agandists have been aggrandising a hitherto little heard of military unit, the Nabavioun Brigade, which is allegedly composed of Iranian Sunnis who “volunteer” for the war in Syria to keep the Assad regime in power.

While the existence of such a mil­itary unit is, at the very least, ques­tionable, it seems to have propa­ganda value that Tehran is eager to exploit to demonstrate sectarian unity behind the war effort.

However, even tales of the mys­tery unit’s merits further reflect Sunni unhappiness with the re­gime’s conduct in Syria. Raja News, one of the mouthpieces of the Is­lamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), disclosed in a December 28th, 2015, report on the Nabav­ioun Brigade that the Sunni popula­tion in Sistan-Baluchestan consid­ered the war in Syria a “slaughter of fellow Muslims”.

That opinion, said Raja News, changed after the “martyrdom” of the three Sunni Iranian volunteers to Syria. But the Sunni boycott of “martyr” burials in Sistan-Bal­uchestan suggests otherwise.

Supporting the Syrian dictator has never been a popular cause in Iran but the savagery of the Islamic State (ISIS) and the IRGC’s warn­ings that Iranians will eventually have to fight the group on Iranian soil if it is not defeated in Syria and Iraq has to some degree persuaded Iran’s Shia-majority public to sup­port the military engagement in Syria.

That does not extend to Iran’s Sunni minority, which draws par­allels between the Assad regime’s suppression of their co-religionists in Syria and the Tehran regime’s suppression of the Islamic Repub­lic’s Sunnis.

In the end, Tehran’s propaganda effort seems to have further alien­ated Iran’s Sunni population rather than persuaded its members to support military intervention in Syria morally or materially.