x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Even if Assad loses, Iran gains from its support of Shia militias

Iran is using the conflict in Syria to further its own designs, in obvious ways and in some that are not so evident.

As Syria continues to burn, Iran has successfully pushed the narrative that it is the unbridled defender of Shia Islam. Even if Bashar Al Assad loses more ground to the rebel forces, Iran can still benefit from the conflict to bolster that narrative.

Iran's guiding ideology of valeyat Al Faqih, or the absolute rule of a religious cleric, is far from the accepted norm among the world's Shia. And Iran's support for sending Shia militants to fight alongside the Syrian regime has put Iran at odds with both traditional Shia clerics, who are followed by the majority of Shia Muslims, and radical clerics such as Iraq's Muqtada Al Sadr. These clerics, particularly Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Najaf, Iraq, have rejected the Iranian role and have thus been a persistent thorn in Iran's side. Mr Sistani went so far as to call Shia who go to fight in Syria "disobedient". Mr Al Sadr has said that he would "punish" any members participating in Syria's battles, according to the news agency AFP.

Despite such resistance, the Iranian regime has managed to advance its narrative among many Shia in the region.

The Iranian regime justifies the involvement of Shia foreign fighters in Syria as fighting to "protect Shia holy sites" - particularly the Sayyida Zaynab shrine in Damascus - from "takfiris", a euphemism Tehran uses to describe all Syrian rebels. The term is generally used to describe radical Sunni Islamists who view Shia and some other Muslims as infidels.

The pretext of defending the shrine in Damascus plays well with Shia who have suffered under waves of bombings targeting their mosques, shrines and gatherings from Baghdad to Pakistan. Iran and its proxies have described their operations in Syria as a "sacred defence" and fallen fighters as "holy warriors of jihad".

The Iranian "defensive jihad" narrative is meant to be juxtaposed with the statements by Mr Al Sadr or Mr Sistani, who call on their followers not to fight in Syria, to make Shia feel their traditional and radical leaders are out of step in the face of a historic threat.

Iran works with numerous regional proxies, such as Lebanon's Hizbollah and Iraq's Asa'ib Ahl Al Haq - which split from Mr Al Sadr's militia - and Kata'ib Hizbollah, to propagate that narrative. These groups have provided members for Shia militias that operate in Syria, such as Liwa Abu Fadl Al Abbas. Working with these groups also helps Iran to expand its influence and create the impression that a broad front, united under Iran's leadership, is committed to keeping Mr Al Assad in power, thus attracting more Shia fighters for the conflict.

Even if a militia operates away from the holy sites in Syria, Iran claims that its policy of backing Mr Al Assad is part of its ultimate goal of defending the Shia relics. In May, for example, Liwaa Ammar Ibn Yasir, an Iranian-backed Shia militia, announced that it operates in Aleppo but also "defends" Sayyida Zaynab shrine in Damascus. The clear message is that no matter where one of the Tehran-backed Shia militias operates, it is indirectly defending Sayyida Zaynab.

Through this strategy, Iran can achieve three significant results: it can save a strategically important ally, lessen the influence of its Shia clerical rivals and foster a greater acceptance of its own radical doctrine within the Shia Islamic community.

Iranian government-controlled media has been proactive in pushing that narrative by highlighting the Sistani statements that jibe with Tehran's agenda while downplaying or simply ignoring his opposition to sending Shia fighters to Syria. For example, remarks made by Sayyid Javad Shahrestani, Mr Sistani's representative in Iran, that the war in Syria was actually a plot to damage Iran's regional standing were widely carried by Iranian state media. But Mr Sistani's clear opposition to Iranian moves in Syria is rarely mentioned.

The slogans used by Iranian-backed Shia militias fighting in Syria have also been used to give the impression that certain Shia clerics support the intervention. Liwa Imam Husayn has been branded as "Sadrist" by its creators. (It is worth mentioning that Shia militias in Syria have common leaders, for unstated reasons). According to a photograph used in the promotion of the latter militia on Facebook, one of the militiamen wields a heavy machine gun with a shot of Mr Al Sadr paternally looking down on him. The same photograph was published a few days earlier with Asa'ib Ahl Al Haq's logo on it, which suggests the group cannot be affiliated to Mr Al Sadr, as the latter's forces had sometimes clashed with Asa'ib Ahl Al Haq in Iraq.

Mr Al Sadr probably knew that he would need to cooperate with Iranian-backed groups in any joint operations in Syria, including with Asa'ib Ahl Al Haq, which is one of the main providers of combatants in Syria. In May, Mr Al Sadr came to loggerheads with Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al Maliki over the militia's activities in Iraq; according to the Saudi newspaper Asharq Al Awsat, Mr Al Sadr even called on his supporters to clamp down on the militia in Baghdad.

Both Syrian rebels and Shia militias have claimed Mr Al Sadr's forces operate in Syria. But he has categorically denied these reports, saying, in June, that "all these claims are lies". Judging from the reports and videos emerging from Syria, Mr Al Sadr appears to be telling the truth.

Moreover, Liwa Imam Husayn, in an attempt to suggest that Mr Sistani supports its involvement in Syria, announced recently that it held iftar for residents in the neighbourhood around the Sayyida Zaynab shrine in a Damascus building owned by Mr Sistani.

Iran and its proxies will continue to push more Shia into Syria's conflict. The war in Syria has provided a situation in which Iran can assume a leadership role among the region's Shia community.

 

Phillip Smyth is a researcher at the University of Maryland. He focuses on Lebanon and Syria and specialises in Shia militias in Syria