Two of the most important actors in the Syria conflict are the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, Sunni extremists groups that have attracted thousands of foreign recruits based on violently differing views of how the global jihad should be waged.
In a major new study published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, researcher Phillip Smyth makes a convincing case that there’s a third jihadist vision contesting the Syrian battlefield.
And it’s arguably been the most successful of the bunch.
As Smyth explains, Iran has used the Syrian civil war to expand its influence over the Shi’ite communities in the broader Middle East and advance the clerical regime’s strategic and ideological goals. Iran’s support for the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad is well-documented.
But Smyth’s study goes in-depth on how Iran framed the conflict as a theological struggle from almost the very beginning, an effort aided through heavy doses of anti-American rhetoric and sectarian fear-mongering. At the same time, Iran mobilized a vast network of Iraqi and Lebanese militant groups, along with assorted other foreign elements to backstop the Assad regime and deepen Tehran’s regional clout.
Smyth’s paper dispenses with the misconception that Syria is a quagmire for Iran, or its “Vietnam,” as some analysts have claimed. “In a wider political sense, the real victor of the Syrian war and in Iraq has been Iran, a triumph for which the Islamic Republic has its militia forces to thank,” Smyth writes. Tehran succeeded in turning Syria’s war into a sectarian conflict and has benefitted greatly as a result.
Here’s how they did it.
Iran turned the defence of Assad into a religious duty for Shi’ites
Iran and Assad are strategic allies, but Iran carefully framed its support for the regime as a Shi’ite religious obligation almost from the very start of the conflict. As Smyth recounts, Tehran used the defence of the Sayyida Zainab shrine, a Shi’ite pilgrimage site in Damascus, as its initial justification for mobilizing its proxies militias. Smyth quotes a range of militia leaders, militant songs, and other data points showing the emphasis on the defence of the Shrine emerging at an early point in the war — as early as mid-2012, which is long before ISIS even existed in its current form.
Shortly after, a second religious justification emerged as Lebanese Hezbollah began incorporating the defence of Shi’ite communities in Syria into its rhetoric. “Themes relating to shrine defence, the ‘Islamic resistance’ factions started by Iran, and a distancing of the Syrian fight from realpolitik motivations thereby coalesced,” Smyth writes. “Thus, the conflict was morphed into a romantic jihad addressing a varied existential threat.”
(It’s worth noting at this point that Assad and many of the regime’s top-ranking officials are Alawite. While Musa Sadr, a Lebanese Shi’ite cleric and one of the major figures in modern Shi’ite Islam, declared the Alawites to be Shi’ites in the 1970s, their religious practices and beliefs actually have little in common and the association of the Alawites with Shi’ism is largely a modern, political phenomena).
And then Iran turned the Syrian opposition and its alleged supporters into existential enemies.
As Smyth recounts, for Iran and its proxies, the opposition to the Syrian regime consists entirely of “takfiris,” or Muslims who believe that those who fail to adhere to a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam must be killed out of religious obligation.
And this generalization meant that the Syrian opposition and its supporters were the enemies of Shi’ites everywhere.
This was even true if they didn’t explicitly adhere to Takfiri ideology: “These days, the new takfiris — be they Islamic fundamentalists, liberal fundamentalists or leftist fundamentalists — resort to the same method. Do you support the Syrian regime? If the answer is ‘yes,’ you are sentenced to excommunication if not death,” the editor of the pro-Hezbollah Lebanese newspaper Al Akbhar wrote in August of 2012, according to Smyth.
The US has been notably indecisive in formulating a response to the chaos in Syria. But that hasn’t stopped Tehran from associating the US and its allies with the takfiri menace. “In this narrative,” Smyth writes, “the West has often been implicated as an abettor of the takfiris.”
Meanwhile, Iran was building a network of militia groups that it could mobilize
Revolutionary Iran has used Lebanese Hezbollah as an instrument of its policies in the Levant for over 30 years. But Smyth’s paper gets into granular detail about other, less well-known Iranian networks in the region. The Liwa abu Fadl al-Abbas network mobilized Iraqi Shi’ite militias for combat in Syria and often included “advisors from Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran’s IRGC” in order “to influence the groups’ military and ideological development.”
Iran has deeply penetrated Iraq’s security apparatus and even sent Iraq’s regular security services into Syria: “Whatever the reasons, the very strong possibility exists that elements from Iraqi government forces were utilized from the start of open engagements by Iranian proxies and other Shiite organisations in Syria,” Smyth writes.
This was made possible partly by the activities of Iraqi-based and Iran-allied groups like the Badr Organisation, one of the most brutal sectarian militias to emerge in Iraq during the US operation of the last decade. As Smyth notes, Mohammad al-Ghabban, a leader with Badr, is currently Iraq’s interior minister.
Iranian-allied groups range from direct proxies like Hezbollah to smaller, less-accountable, and more local armed actors. Some of these groups have splintered. But they all play into Iran’s larger regional strategy: “What appears to be atomization within the ranks is instead more reminiscent of cell replication, with new groups simply expanding the size and influence of a broader IRGC-created network and model.”
Taken altgoether, Iran is clearly winning
The most alarming thing about Iran’s management and framing of the Syria conflict is that it’s actually worked. As Smyth writes, the “battlefield successes” of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra “have effectively caused the Iranian and Assad messaging strategy to appear more like a self-fulfilling prophecy than an advanced operation to alter narratives about the rebels.”
And the secular rebels who Iran and its allies smeared as “takfiris” are barely holding onto what little territory they still control. The war is being fought along Iran’s preferred sectarian fault-line, with Sunni extremists fighting a network of Shi’ite religious warriors largely organised from Tehran.
The US has even “de-conflicted” with the Syrian and Iranian air forces in Iraq and Syria. That isn’t tantamount to an endorsement of the Iranian narrative of the war, but it is a sign of how US policy has conformed to the conditions that Iran and Assad have imposed on the conflict.
Smyth’s paper is an important look at how and why Iran was able to pull it off.
Tehran was able to inflame and then channel Shi’ite sectarian fighters from throughout the Middle East. But as Smyth clarifies, Iran’s end-goals are earthly and political in nature: “What may have appeared to be a disjointed or even organic flow of Shiite fighters into Syria, ostensibly to defend the country’s Shiite holy sites is actually a highly organised geostrategic and ideological effort by Iran to protect its ally in Damascus and project power within Syria, Iraq, and across the Middle East.”
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