In watching the Syrian conflict, one of the most extraordinary tendencies of the reporting is the way “foreign fighter” and “jihadist” have become synonymous with the Sunni militants who have descended on that tormented country. This is one among many illusions that will hopefully be ended by Phillip Smyth’s monograph, “The Shiite Jihad in Syria and its Regional Effects“. You should read the whole thing but below are the salient points I took away.
In 2012, a trickle of Shi’a fighters began entering Syria to fight on the side of Bashar al-Assad’s regime: the first “martyr” is Jaafar Adhab Farhud, who was killed on May 12, 2012, and buried in Diwaniyah, Iraq. But in the late summer of 2012, with the Assad dictatorship seemingly on the ropes—several senior ministers killed in mysterious circumstances and a minoritarian Alawi regime simply losing the battle of demographic attrition against a Sunni revolt—Iran began moving Iraqi Shi’a jihadists into Syria in large numbers. These Iraqi militias and Iran’s own forces were the decisive factor in rescuing the dictator.
Iran cast a narrative that said the Shi’ites had come to Syria to protect the Shi’a shrine of Sayida Zaynab, a mosque containing the tomb of the prophet Muhammad’s granddaughter south-east of Damascus. This “shrines narrative,” combined with the numerous cut-outs Iran used, could make the movement of Shi’a militias into Syria appear to be a spontaneous, popular reaction—and that impression certainly helped garner recruits.
But there should be no doubt: this is a geostrategic move by a State, a top-down jihad wholly orchestrated by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Assad is Iran’s one Arab ally and Syria lets Iran reach Lebanon to support the Islamic Revolution’s one true offspring, Hizballah, a wholly owned subsidiary of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC). Iran’s level of control can be seen in the logistics: The Shi’a fighters are often taken from Iraq to Iran for training before being deployed in Syria, and the dead are taken back to Iraq via Iran.
While Sayida Zaynab has strategic value, the overwhelming justification for the presence of the Shi’a jihadists has been religious and defensive, with memories of the destruction of the Askari Mosque fresh among Shi’ites. Some have even called the Shi’a jihad in defence of Assad al-Difa al-Muqaddas (the Sacred Defence), a charged label usually given to the war with Saddam Hussein that nearly undid the clerical regime.
Sayida Zaynab “has been a regional focal point for Iran’s attempt to extend its religious and political influence among Shi’ites,” Smyth writes, and has been a centre of recruitment for Iran’s intelligence services since the early 1980s, using the cover of religious pilgrimages to facilitate the travel of especially-Saudi Shi’ites to training camps in Lebanon and Iran. Indeed, a number of the Saudi Hizballah members who carried out the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing were recruited from Sayida Zaynab. (That terror attack, “planned, funded, and sponsored by the senior leadership” in Iran, was directed from the Iranian Embassy in Damascus. The Assad regime’s role is uncertain, though the evidence of it being an accomplice after the fact is strong, and al-Qaeda also played “some role, as yet unknown“.)
In tandem with transporting the Iraqi Shi’a jihadists into Syria, Iran engaged in a virulent messaging campaign to discredit the entire Syrian rebellion as a takfiri conspiracy, backed by Israel and America, bent on the destruction of the Shi’a and Sayida Zaynab. In time, the “shrines narrative” would be widened to encompass all shrines—and the Islamic State (I.S.) played into this by, for example, blowing up the Ammar ibn Yassir shrine in Raqqa in March 2013—which gave the Iran/Assad regime cover to move Shi’ite jihadists around the whole country to counter the insurgency. Ingeniously, when Shi’a jihadists were moved into areas where there were no shrines, it was claimed they were averting future dangers to shrines. Talk about pre-emptive. The shrines narrative is so strong that even the “fascistic, rabidly secular Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP)” has been drawn into it.
The attacks by Sunni militants on Shi’a mosques in Pakistan and the June 2013 murder by a Salafi lynch mob of Shaykh Hassan Shehata and three of his followers in Egypt, during a Shi’a festival, have been very helpful to Iran, being incorporated into Iranian propaganda with a message that this is what Iran is fighting against, and to prevent, facilitating Iran’s incitement of the “growth of extremely sectarian outlooks among Shi’ites” all across the region as a means of mobilising support.
Assad and Iran have also at times tried to widen the “shrines narrative” to include the religious sites of other minorities, especially Christian. From the beginning of the war, Assad sought to frighten the minorities into sticking with his regime by building up the Islamists in the insurgency—and then present himself to the West as a minority-protecting dictator against the terrorist hordes.
But this cross-sectarian veneer has been overshadowed by pan-Shi’ism, something the Hizballah was disseminating as early as February 2013. Muw al-Bashar ahna hamna al-Shi’a (Bashar is not our concern, it is the Shi’ites), was one rallying cry, and in combination with the shrines narrative it was intended to obscure the geostrategic program that the Shi’ite jihadists were serving.
In mobilising Iraqi Shi’ites to fight for the Assad dictatorship, Iran relied on its State ideology, veleyat-e faqih, developed by Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, which says that Ali Khamenei is the Supreme Leader (“the shadow of god on earth,” some of IRGC call him.) Khamenei issued taklif shari’i (obligation of law) to Hizballah, demanding they come to Bashar’s aid. To disobey is tantamount to disobeying god.
Tehran then worked through Iraqi proxies to have fatwas issued licensing jihad. The first was in November 2013 from Ayatollah Kadhim al-Husseini al-Haeri, a Tehran-based cleric with ties to Iraq that include having been until 2004 Muqtada as-Sadr’s spiritual leader, and an ardent Khomeini’ist, who called on Shi’ites to do holy war in Syria as an obligation to defend and spread veleyat-e faqih. Other fatwas would follow, creating for the first time an international Shi’a jihad on the model of the Sunni jihads in Afghanistan in the 1980s or Bosnia and Chechnya in the 1990s.
In countering the opposition of other Shi’ites, notably Sadr, whose Shi’ite militancy has a distinctly nationalist flavour, and above all Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a foe of veleyat-e faqih, Iran enlisted clerics close to both men to confuse the Shi’a about what their views were, and then spread propaganda and disinformation co-opting Sadr and Sistani to the cause.
Shaykh Jalal ad-Din as-Saghir, the leader of Baghdad’s important Buratha Mosque, is the most obvious example of Iran doing this to Sistani. In Sadr’s case, Iran annexed Shaykh Qasim al-Tai and Shaykh Auws al-Khafaji, a Sadrist who had actually criticised Iran’s influence over Iraq in 2004, but who now has his own militia, Qaeda Quwet Abu Fadl al-Abbas (QQAFA), set up with the help of Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), one of Iran’s larger Iraqi proxies. “Iran went so far as to design groups marketed as ‘Sadrist’ or under the direct control of al-Sadr,” Smyth notes, such as the Rapid Reaction Forces (RRF) and Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein (LIH), which were actually led by Khomeini’ists from AAH.
Iran also appropriated the legacies of revered Shi’ite figures like Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq as-Sadr, Muqtada’s father, whose brave defiance of Saddam Hussein resulted in his assassination in 1999, Musa as-Sadr, the “Vanished Imam” whom the Khomeini’ists might have actually murdered, and Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, often referred to as the spiritual founder of the Hizballah but who later declared himself a marja taqlid (source of emulation), a direct challenge to Ali Khamenei.
One of the key methods of Iran’s Shi’a jihad is to work through innumerable proxies, many of which appear to split quite frequently. In fact, “What appears to be atomization … is instead more reminiscent of cell replication, with new groups simply expanding the size and influence of a broader IRGC-created network and model. This might be construed as a strategy to confuse outside observers as well as demonstrate broader acceptance for Iran’s absolute velayat-e faqih ideology.”
To see how this strategy works, one can look at the fact that while Sadr objected, the Sadrists “have undoubtedly made a significant contribution to the Syrian Shiite jihad.” His Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM) “was a fount for many fighters in Syria,” both those under the banner of JAM’s successor, Liwa al-Youm al-Mawud (LYM, Promised Day Brigades), which has fallen under Iran’s sway, and those groups derived from JAM such as AAH, and Kataib Hizballah (KH), which split from AAH. More recently an AAH splinter formed called Harakat Hizballah an-Nujaba (HHN). And the leaders of all of these groups derive from the Badr Organisation, Iran’s oldest proxy.
This model originates with Lebanese Hizballah, which was formed by Iran’s intelligence cultivating an ultra-radical splinter from the AMAL movement in Lebanon. In Iraq, Hizballah moved in almost immediately after Saddam’s fall and would set up Unit 3800 to help the Shi’a militias, but this was a co-ordinating role: Iran’s Iraq policy worked mostly through Badr to replicate Hizballah’s actions in Lebanon, consolidating a sectarian Deep State right under the nose of the United States.
Even as Shi’a politicians in Baghdad worry that, under the cover of the war with I.S., Iran is creating “Shi’a al-Qaeda” and “Shi’ite Islamic State” in Iraq, this has not gained any traction in the West. But Smyth makes clear: Just like I.S., Iran’s Shi’a jihadists engage in torture, extra judicial executions, beheading prisoners and celebrating it on video, ethnic cleansing, and the recruitment of child soldiers. Through its Kishaf al-Imam al-Mahdi fi Suriya (the Imam Mahdi Scouts in Syria), the young Shi’a have a counterpart to the young Sunnis’ “Zarqawi’s Cubs“. The difference between the Salafi jihadists and the Khomeini’ist jihadists is that the latter are the extensions of the State power of a regime pushing to dismantle the American-led regional order and place itself at the helm while driving for nuclear weapons.
The fact that Hizballah and Badr date back to the 1980s makes it very difficult to maintain that the Shi’a militias in Iraq and Syria are a reaction to the Islamic State, let alone that Iran’s hand in their formation and direction is overstated. But Iran’s messaging that the Shi’a jihadists are “defensive,” and the Shi’a fighting an enemy as barbaric as the Islamic State, has even infected the Western coverage, making the Shi’a militants seem “understandable” in a way the Salafis aren’t. Other factors—such as the professionalism of Iran’s proxies, the lack of social media coverage of their atrocities, and Iran’s very capable agitprop mechanisms—have kept the Shi’a jihad under the radar in much of the Western press.
One of the most interesting parts of Smyth’s paper is his documenting the “very strong possibility” the Iraqi State was directly involved in the movement of Iraqi Shi’ite jihadists into Syria from the earliest days. The most well-known Syrian-based Shi’ite group is Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas (LAFA), and its leadership is nearly wholly Iraqi. Its leader, Abu Ajeeb, has been pictured wearing Iraqi Special Operations Force (ISOF) patches. Abu Ali al-Darraji, another LAFA-affiliated commander, sported Iraqi Special Forces patches. It seems unlikely either of these men really had been in the Iraqi elite military forces, but other Iraqi fighters in Syria had. The Special Police Commandos (SPC) and other units associated with the Interior Ministry—a by-word for Shi’a death squads to many Iraqis, thoroughly infiltrated (and now controlled by) the Badr Corp—have also been seen in Syria.
In consolidating his sectarian autocracy, former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s main method was taking personal control of the Iraqi security forces (ISF). Maliki also courted Iranian proxy militias like AAH, which had infiltrated the ISF and were then, like Hizballah, dabbling in infiltrating the political system by standing for election while maintaining an armed militia. Now Shi’a jihadists returning from Syria, including AAH members, are running for parliament in Iraq based on their war records. Most of them, like Falah Hasan Jassim al-Harishawi (a.k.a. Mustafa al-Khazali), the purported secretary-general of Kataib Sayyid as-Shuhada (KSS), ran on Maliki’s State of Law slate.
“Harishawi’s candidacy and campaign doubled as a venue from which to legitimize the jihad in Syria and the broader Iranian moves to push their Islamic resistance narratives and groups,” Smyth writes. This “reflect[s] a larger strategy for Iranian proxy groups: to project their interests into various electorates and legitimize their involvement in Syria. Iran’s proxies will, moreover, continue to view politics as a means of advancing their larger war for regional domination.”
The appointment of Mohammed al-Ghabban (a proxy for Badr’s leader, Hadi al-Amiri) as Iraqi Interior Minister shows “how doggedly Iran is working, through both armed and democratic methods, to thwart U.S. efforts within Iraq.” The U.S. wants a pluralist government in Iraq, which is necessary to fight the Islamic State, and a key part of that is creating a National Guard in the Sunni Arab parts of Iraq to ensure the safety of the population and an alternative to the takfiris. But it was an Iranian-aligned government that dismantled the Sahwa militias that had performed this role, and with Ghabban in place re-erecting them will be resisted by Iran.
Another aspect of the Shi’a jihad that Smyth examines is recruitment. The Islamic State’s online-recruitment has gotten a lot of attention; Iran does it, too, and it is a highly centralised, extremely sophisticated operation. Pictures of religious sites are disseminated with telephone numbers hidden in the image to evade detection software. Telephone numbers are put up on websites and then taken down. While Iran’s proxies have made Facebook their home since beginning this effort in 2012, often announcing the formation of a “new” militias via the platform, Twitter, YouTube, and blogs—including the comments section—have become forums for Iranian recruitment. When called, the telephone numbers link to call centres, which the I.S. does have, and if it did one can be certain they would be targeted by Western airstrikes. As yet, the West hasn’t even begun taking down Iran’s online propaganda, let alone countering its forces on the ground—indeed a de facto alignment with them on the ground has been reached in Iraq and Syria (and now Yemen).
I.S.’s foreign fighters have also gotten a lot of attention, but men from North America have been killed in Syria fighting for the Shi’ite jihadists and others have been arrested for fundraising for them. Recruits from the Gulf remain “relatively rare” but reports have emerged of the Fiver/Zaydi fighters of Ansar Allah (a.k.a. the Houthis) from Yemen fighting in Syria—though “little evidence” of this, or the claimed Pakistani Shi’ites, exists. In India, 30,000 Shi’ites signed-up with the Anjuman-e-Haideri organisation to fight in Iraq against I.S. under the leadership of Maulana Kalb-e-Jawad (a.k.a. Maulana Syed Kalbe Jawad Naqvi), an “ardent supporter of absolute velayat-e faqih with deep ties to Iran.” It is unclear if this show of support translated into anything concrete.
Photographs have shown Abu Ajeeb in the presence of a “Somali [Shi’a] holy warrior,” and the “first African martyr” of the Shi’a jihadists was Muhammad Suleiman al-Kuwni from Côte d’Ivoire in July 2013. The Islamic Movement of Nigeria, long under Iranian sway, has supported the Shi’a jihad. Matthew Levitt in his book on the Hizballah’s (Iran’s) global terrorist network notes that the exploitation of West African Shi’a communities, especially Lebanese, has been extensive since at least the 1980s, funding the Hizballah with shake-down schemes not dissimilar to I.S.’s rule of “taxes” (extortion) in the zones it controls across Iraq and Syria.
The largest non-Arab contingent to the Shi’a jihad is Afghan Hazaras. As early as October 2012, the rebellion was reporting that Afghan Shi’a jihadists were in Syria. The Afghan Shi’a militiamen come from three populations:
- Afghan refugees in Syria
- Afghan refugees in Iran
- Afghan refugee populations in other countries, and quite possibly Afghanistan itself.
There is no firm evidence Iran has recruited Afghan Shi’ites direct from Afghanistan, and just one claim that an Afghan Shi’a refugee from Australia was recruited to do jihad in Syria. But Afghan Shi’a refugees from Syria, and more from Iran, certainly are fighting for the Assad regime.
The Afghan Shi’ites started with the LAFA model of a local Popular Committee organised by Assad’s military-intelligence apparatus, which was then professionalised by Iran. The professionalization of the Afghan Shi’a jihadists noticeably took hold in November-December 2013 with the public emergence of Liwa Fatemiyoun (LF). LF has connections with AAH and has also been shown to have dual members with KSS and Liwa Dhulfiqar. Interestingly, though transported by Iran under the LF banner, inside Syria the Afghan Shi’a fight as part of LAFA. In early 2014, another, lower-profile Afghan group, Hizballah Afghanistan, appeared.
“As the United States begins its broader pull-out from Afghanistan, Tehran could decide to reorient its new network of Afghan proxies eastward, with the goal of asserting broader influence among Afghanistan’s often fractious Shiite communities,” Smyth notes. Iran’s attempt to secure influence in Afghanistan, especially the west, is longstanding, as its support for the Taliban. Unfortunately, rather securing the gains America has fought so long for, the present administration seems to be encouraging Iran’s entry into Afghanistan, at least in a “soft power” way, as a means of stabilising the country. Iran’s soft power is bad enough—aimed at spreading a fanatical, totalitarian ideology the better to serve its dictatorial regime—but there is no reason to think it will not eventuate in Iran trying to exert hard power, and it now has cadres, trained in Syria with the time and space they were given by Western inaction, to deploy.
Syria’s Shi’ites are only two to four percent of the population. They concentrate in villages like Nubl and Zahra in Aleppo, among some of the tribes converted from Sunnism in Deir Ezzor, and places like Busra al-Sham in Deraa, where the Shi’ite population dissimulated and “professed to be Sunnis,” until the late 1990s. Hizballah cells have been able to organise local Shi’a militias that have then grown and professionalised. One of the largest is Jaysh al-Imam al-Mahdi al-Muqawama al-Watani al-Aqaidiya fi Suriya (the Army of Imam Mahdi, the National Ideological Resistance in Syria), which draws some of its members from Tartus.
Some of the Iraqi Shi’a jihadist groups formed on Syrian soil have now flowed back into Iraq. They did this before the Islamic State’s invasion in June 2014 that conquered Mosul, and provoked Maliki’s June 10 and Sistani’s June 13 call for a mobilisation of the citizenry against then-ISIS. Iraqi Shi’ite jihadists from Syria fought alongside the ISF in Anbar in January 2014. And the internet-based recruitment-drives of many Shi’ite jihadists began in May 2014, “utilizing techniques learned over the previous year [in Syria].” The taklif shari’i to KH for the group’s assembly was issued in April 2014, six weeks before Maliki’s call, when KH also announced the formation of Saraya ad-Difa as-Shabi (KH-SDS), a “fighting force for combat in Iraq”.
Over the summer, various splinters of LAFA, and eventually the group’s leadership, would establish militias in Iraq. Lijna al-Tabia as-Shabiyah an as-Sayida Zaynab (the Popular Committee for the Mobilization to Defend Sayyeda Zainab or PCMDSZ), an umbrella recruitment group linked to AAH, KSS, Badr, KH, and other Iranian proxies had stated in December 2013 that the Shi’a jihad in Syria was a “defensive war and defensive wars do not require permission from anyone,” and it has been one of the most vivacious recruiters since Iraq mobilised against the Islamic State.
Sistani’s fatwa mobilised two million people overnight: it was very specific that people must join the institutions of the State, part of “Sistani’s assiduous efforts to thwart Iran’s penetration of Iraq“. Unfortunately, Iran has been able to co-opt most of this mobilisation under the aegis of al-Hashd al-Shabi, partly by its penetration of the security forces that these people joined up to, partly by drawing away recruits to the militias with better pay and weapons, and partly by a messaging strategy that paints Iran as the saviour of Iraq against the Islamic State, who were, of course, agents of the Zionist-Crusader imperialist alliance designed to sow division among the Muslims.
The crucial thing is that while this can look disparate and localised, the groups are in fact “highly cooperative, if not interlinked,” and “the spread of so-called ‘resistance’ model groups, even without an absolute loyalty to Iran’s Supreme Leader, represents a major strategic victory for Tehran and its proxies.”
An obvious question is how many foreign Shi’a jihadists are in Syria. Essentially nobody knows. There was a ridiculous estimate in the fall of 2013 of 60,000 Shi’ite jihadists in Syria, as compared with 30,000 Sunnis. An Israeli study in January 2014, however, did conclude that there were more Shi’a than Sunni jihadists in Syria: 7,000-8,000 Shi’ites against 6,000-7,000 Sunnis. Estimates of Iraqi Shi’ite jihadists in Syria hovered between 2,000 and 3,000 but have grown considerably in the last year. The flow of Iraqis back into Iraq makes this estimate even harder still. Smyth was quoted recently saying: there are 5,000-7,000 Hizballah jihadists in Syria, 5,000-10,000 Iraqis, “hundreds” of Afghans, and “a few thousand” IRGC, which means something between 12,000 and 20,000 Shi’ite jihadists in total in Syria at any one time. The number of foreign—which is to say non-Iraqi and non-Syrian—Salafi jihadists in “Syraq” is believed to be 20,000 (the number of foreign Salafis is actually much higher in Syria since I.S.’s core is so heavily Iraqi).
Smyth’s conclusions are sobering. The “real victor of the Syrian war and in Iraq has been Iran,” he writes. This is now one war—Iran having no more respect for the region’s borders than the Islamic State—and Iran’s militias “will keep growing”. Already Shi’ite militias are “adopting a role as the Iraqi rump state’s main fighting force,” and with Iran’s control of the Interior Ministry this is only going to get worse.
Iran’s Shi’a jihadists “assist in the hypersectarianization and radicalization of regional conflicts” as a means of mobilising their own supporters, frightening neutral Shi’ites into taking up arms against radicalised Sunnis who would destroy them, as part of the Quds Force-led “larger regional strategy,” which is one of hegemony, not balancing with other States. In pursuing this, Iran’s proxies commit crimes of a cruelty and on a scale—witness Assad’s conduct in Syria—to dwarf anything I.S. has done, or could do.
Smyth calls for analysis to recognise the hydra-headed structure of Iran’s network: if the U.S. designates an Iranian proxy as a terrorist organisation, for example, it must also designate the members who are part of more than one group and the organisation’s front-groups, too. Iran’s recruitment of Western jihadists and financiers has already begun (Hizballah makes millions every year from simple fraud in the U.S.). Recruitment should be curtailed by taking down Iran’s websites, as has happened with the Islamic State. And the U.S. should make clear “its commitment to a multisectarian Iraq,” Smyth notes, and be aware that Iran’s extremists will join the Sunni extremists in attacking any moderate force the U.S. supports in Syria.
Iran’s tributaries cannot be considered allies against Islamic extremism and disorder. Iran’s proxies are “effective agents in projecting Iranian ideology and power throughout the region”: Khomeini’ism is not moderate now and the Khomeini’ists will not moderate once they are in control. Hizballah did not “go local” and disarm after Israel pulled out of Lebanon in 2000; Asaib Ahl al-Haq didn’t after America pulled out of Iraq in 2011. Both groups entered politics as a way to infiltrating another area of the State to expand Iran’s power, not as a way of normalising themselves as political parties rather than militias.
The current U.S. policy of de facto strategic alignment with Iran is folly. Not only is it morally gruesome, allying with Shi’a jihadist forces who have murdered Westerners and engaged in massacre and ethnic cleansing of Sunni civilians, but strategically mistaken: defeating I.S. requires moderate Sunnis to root out the takfiris, and the Sunnis will never turn on I.S. if removing I.S. paves the way for Iranian domination. This threat to Western interests is also direct: The Iranian Empire taking shape in the Fertile Crescent has as its ruling ideology a radical Islamist ideology, veleyat-e faqih, which is deeply anti-Western—Iran just opened up a front against Israel in the Golan Heights, for example.
It also has to be understood, as Smyth explained in a recent interview, that Iran’s bid for hegemony is also an effort to redefine Shi’ism, and U.S. backing for an Iranian Imperium would demoralise the non-Khomeini’ist Shi’a (who are the majority) fighting against Iran’s attempt to weaponise their faith for its State interests.
As Smyth has elsewhere pointed out, Iran will not settle into being a status quo power if its conquests of Syria and Iraq are ratified by the West. Right now, Iran’s proxies have taken up the cause of Nimr al-Nimr, jailed by the Saudis, and Bahrain, where the majority Shi’ites are repressed by a minority Sunni government. This is a regional struggle for mastery by Iran: until its domination is absolute, which it never can be, there will always be another cause, another reason for agitation, violence, and revolution.
The U.S. should “counter Shiite militias’ influence,” Smyth writes, and Iran’s proxies should “be intrinsically linked in any future U.S. negotiations with Iran.” Allowing Syria to run has given Iran a launchpad on Europe’s doorstep. It “is only a matter of time before [Iran’s proxies’] focus shifts” from attacking the Sunnis nearby, to attacking these enemies at what they believe is the source: America and the West.