Since spring 2013, a number of convergent signs indicate that a significant number of seasoned Shiite fighters from Iraq are crossing the borders into Syria to fight alongside the regime. This latest development comes in the context of mounting pressure on the capacity of the Syrian army (1), and limitations to the involvement of the Lebanese Hezbollah in Syria.
This article aims to shed light on this recent phenomenon, the corresponding realities on the ground as well as the religious and historical narratives underpinning it. It concludes by touching on the potential impacts of such a development and its significance for the future of the region.
1. Shiite foreign fighters in Syria: how many units?
Information on foreign Shiite volunteers and armed groups in Syria is scarce and difficult to assess, so any quantitative evaluation should be treated with the utmost caution. However, a variety of sources attest that the number of foreign Shiite fighters has exceeded the number of foreign Sunni fighters in Syria (2). In total, there could be up to 30,000 Shiite fighters, with a rotation of 8,000 on the ground at a time, while the number of Sunni fighters amounts to a total of 15,000, 6,000 of whom are present in the country at once.
Members of the Lebanese Hezbollah account for the majority (3,000) and the rest comes mainly from Iraq, with anecdotes suggesting a small presence of other nationalities (Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan and a handful from West Africa). Over the past few months, the various Shiite groups have proliferated and fragmented into smaller groupings (3). It is possible, however, to identify the following as the most important: Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq, Kata’ib Hizbullah, Harakat al-Nujaba’ and some militiamen affiliated to Muqtada al-Sadr’s former Army of the Mahdi (although al-Sadr claims to be neutral). Syria-based Shiite militia groups also exist, for instance al-Abbas Brigade and Liwa’ Zulfiqar (named after Ali’s two-bladed sword).
Most of these fighters seem to have been recruited in Iraq, trained in Iran and then sent to Syria either directly by plane from Tehran, or by bus, using the pretext of a pilgrimage with the complacency of Iraqi authorities (4). The majority (5) of foreign Shiite groups active in Syria follow Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary concept of ‘the Guardianship of the Jurist’ (wilayat al-faqih) that gives the supreme Islamic jurist custodianship over people . This concept is not recognized by the Najaf Seminary in Iraq.
Beyond the debatable issue of numbers, what actually makes the difference in the military context is the high level of training of these new recruits and the efficient coordination with the Syrian army on the ground. These highly trained, experienced and ideologically motivated recruits seem to be making a significant impact in battles against the less well-trained and divided rebel groups, both in urban and rural contexts (they are particularly active in Damascus and Aleppo). Furthermore, the mechanisms to incorporate new individuals and groups within existing Hezbollah and Syrian military planning appear to be working efficiently.
2. The political instrumentalisation of a religious narrative.
The growing number of Shiite ‘volunteers’ in Syria resonates with a symbolic religious and historical discourse that is being used to legitimate a “Shiite Jihad” in Syria.
The Shia have a distinctive eschatological belief in the return of the Mahdi, who will come on the eve of Judgment Day to defeat the army of the Antichrist. The return of the Hidden Imam will be preceded by a number of signs, including the emergence of a belligerent army from Damascus. This army will be led by the ‘Sufiyani’, a tyrant to come out of Damascus before being defeated by the Mahdi.
During the battles for Al Qusayr in Syria (in May-June 2013), some Shiite fighters and preachers started referring to the multiplication of these signs, announcing the End of Time and equating the battle against the Syrian rebels with the fight against the Sufiyanis. Behind the duty to protect Shiite shrines in Syria lies the belief that the Umayyads of Damascus are guilty of persecuting the family of the Prophet. In this context, protecting the Alawite regime against the Sunni rebels can be presented as a war to prevent the restoration of the reviled Umayyad caliphate in Damascus.
The first religious figure who called on the Shia to take up arms in Syria to defend their shrines and the “Shiite Umma” was Yasser Habib, an extremist preacher based in London who became famous for his radical anti-Sunni preaching on cable TV. In July 2012, he called on Hezbollah to intervene in Syria in order to protect the Shiite shrine of Sayyida Zeinab. Although Habib’s audience remains limited, protecting Zeinab’s shrine has de facto become the main rhetorical justification for the presence of Shiite foreign fighters in Syria.
So far, the religious Shiite authorities from Najaf have remained attached to their quietist tradition (6) and have not endorsed the concept of a military “Shiite Jihad” in Syria. On the fringes of a meeting with the Turkish Foreign Minister last November, Ayatollah Sistani even declared that Assad and Maliki should go to limit a growing sectarian conflict in the region. A clear statement from Najaf’s Ayatollah Sistani against going to fight in Syria could, while probably not reverse the flow of new recruits from Iraq, at least help to stem the tide.
Against this backdrop, Hezbollah’s narrative of resistance has evolved to adapt to the new strategic context. The first nuance appeared last summer, when Hezbollah articulated a justification of its involvement in Syria, basing this on the defense of Shiite villages at the border with Syria against radical Sunni groups or “takfiris”. This defensive narrative later expanded to include the protection of Shiite shrines in Damascus. The evolution was complete when Hezbollah fully acknowledged its offensive military role as a key ally to the Assad regime, and started paying tribute to the “martyrs” fallen in Syria while defending the resistance against the “takfiris”. This new focus on the fight against the takfiris appears to be appealing for a wider audience than the strict Resistance narrative.
3. Potential Regional Consequences
In the short term, the rise of well-trained Shiite foreign militias in Syria represents a precious boost to the regime’s efforts to win back lost territory. Coupled with the effects of Sunni rebels’ bloody infighting, it could end up tipping the overall balance in favor of Assad’s forces. Whatever the outcome of the conflict, the consolidation of Iran’s institutional and military footprint in Syria will ensure the preservation of Iran’s strategic interests in the Levant, which can be summed up as:
– the preservation of Teheran’s relationship with Hezbollah and its strategic arms delivery axis
– the suppression of radical Sunni groups
– the consolidation of Iran’s strategic influence at the border with Israel
– powerful leverage over any peace settlement deal in Syria; as things stand, a deal without Iranian endorsement would immediately be challenged by Iranian allies on the ground.
More generally, we are witnessing an ‘iraqization’ of the Syrian conflict – Sunni and Shiite militias fighting each other in a context tinged with religious fundamentalism and increasing use of terror tactics – with increasing spillover effects on Lebanon.
Beyond the immediate consequences in the Middle East, the emergence of a new type of Shiite Jihad raises a number of deeper questions, leading to two potential central scenarios:
Scenario 1: Will the region witness the advent of a radicalized, rogue Shiite fringe that will start implementing its own violent agenda? In other words, will Syria become for the Shia what Afghanistan was for the Sunna? In the fight against Soviet occupation, the political ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood met and merged with the fundamentalist religious creed of Wahhabism in the new movement of Al-Qaeda. The political ideology and expertise of Hezbollah could merge with the religious literalism of the Iraqi Shia dogma. In this scenario, these groups might be tempted to attack Israeli and Western targets in the region, acting on their own initiative.
Scenario 2: In another scenario, the Shiite foreign fighters could remain disciplined and integrated within a chain of command leading back to Tehran and following a certain political agenda. This would amount to the establishment of Hezbollah-style battalions ready to intervene – or stay put – upon Iran’s instruction. So far, all signs seem to indicate that the Shiite foreign fighters are well supervised and remain committed to clear military and political goals.
However, the indefinite prolongation of the war in Syria and the repeated terrorist attacks against the Shiite population in Lebanon could increase the likelihood of progressive radicalization of Shiite society across the Middle East.
(1) cf. a recent report by the military opposition, “Terrifying Facts – the Regime’s Military Status after 1000 Days of War”. The numbers might be exaggerated in an effort to maintain the morale of the rebels, but it gives an impression of the pressure on the Syrian army.
(2) cf. an Israeli report quoted by the Washington Post.
(3) For a detailed description of the different groups, see the ‘Hezbollah cavalcade‘ page.
(4) See the declarations of the Iraqi Transportation Minister, who also happens to be heading the al-Badr militant organization.
(5) See Philip Smith’s detailed analysis. It should be noted that the Liwa’ Zulfiqar and the fighters close to Muqtada al-Sadr do not recognize the wilayat al-faqih.
(6) “Iraq’s Clergy Strives to Maintain Legacy Amid Rise of Shia Militias,” The National [Abu Dhabi], August 6, 2013