NAJAF, Iraq — When the rebellious Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called on the Syrian president to step down from power, many were taken by surprise. The prevailing belief is that Shiites all back the Syrian regime and support its rule, and that what is happening in Syria is a sectarian war between Shiites and Sunnis.
On April 8, Sadr called on Assad to relinquish power, saying, “It would be fair for President Bashar al-Assad to resign and step down in love for Syria, to spare it the woes of war and terrorism. The rule would thus be handed over to influential popular parties capable of taking a stand against terrorism and preserving Syria’s sovereignty as soon as possible. This would constitute a historic, heroic decision before it’s too late.”
In fact, Sadr’s stance on the Syrian regime is not new, as other clerics have criticized the Syrian regime for its atrocities against its own people. They have also criticized Shiite militias for backing Assad in the fight against the Syrian opposition.
After the popular uprising against Assad when it broke out in March 2011, Sadr expressed his support in a November statement. Despite accusations that the Sadrist Movement, which is highly influential among Iraqi Shiites, was taking part in the Syrian conflict, he has denied any involvement by members of his party. He has also voiced his disapproval of other Shiite militias going to Syria to fight for Assad.
Sadr has expelled a number of fighters from his armed factions for having fought in Syria. Most recently, Sa’ad Swar, a former leader in Jaish al-Mahdi, announced his defection and formed Jaish al-Mou’mal in 2016 to fight in Syria and Iraq. Iran has used the defections as leverage to persuade more members to leave the Sadrist Movement in an attempt to weaken the party, especially after Sadr had voiced opposition to Iran’s regional policy. Many factions have split from the Sadrist Movement, including Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the former Hezbollah al-Nujaba.