The Reserve Officers Association and the Foreign Policy Research Institute had an interesting event last week on foreign fighters in Syria. The discussion panel featured Will McCants, Clint Watts, and Barak Mendelsohn, all of whom had very interesting things to say about the dangers that foreign fighters currently participating in Syria’s ongoing civil war could pose to the West. While the panel focused on the dangers associated with extremist Sunni foreigners fighting with the opposition, all of the panelists agreed that the issue of foreigners fighting on behalf of the Syrian regime, most of whom are Shi’a Muslims, deserves more attention. This blog post addresses one aspect of the foreign fighter issue on the other side of the conflict.
(Khorasani Vanguard Brigades. Source: Facebook)
How much of a threat do foreign fighters in Syria fighting with the Syrian regime pose to the West? Compared to Sunni Muslim foreigners who go to Syria to fight the regime, many of whom wind up with extremist al-Qaeda affiliated groups, foreign fighters on the regime side pose much less of a threat to Western interests. In fact, their participation in the Syrian civil war could slightly weaken their ability to carry out terrorist acts in the West and against Western interests. This is not to say that the mostly Shi’a foreigners fighting on al-Asad’s side are not dangerous, but that they are unlikely to add much to the threat that their handlers in Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran already pose to the West.
There are four main features of the mostly Shi’a foreign fighters who fight with the regime that make them less of a concern than their Sunni counterparts: their handlers who control them, their intentions, their countries of origin, and the effects of the conflict on their future recruitment efforts.
1: Control – Shi’a foreign fighters in Syria and the groups with which they serve are more centralized and more deterrable. Most of the foreigners fighting on behalf of the Syrian regime are Shi’a Muslims from Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran who are funneled through Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) channels or through Hezbollah. Many of the Iraqi volunteers were part of Iran-backed militias formed to fight coalition forces in Iraq and, in the case of Hezbollah, the fighters were already members of the group’s military wing. All these groups are both financially and operationally linked to Iran and serve as some of the country’s main tools to project influence abroad and deter Western military action against it.
Thus, these foreigners fighting for the al-Asad regime are part of a more coherent command and control structure tied to Iran. Moreover, Iranian revolutionary concepts form the core of the justification for these foreigners’ participation in the war. This framework is hierarchical and based on the authority of the Supreme Leader in Tehran, to whom the groups fighting on al-Asad’s behalf owe their allegiance. This means that danger of Shi’a foreign fighters is linked to the West’s ability to deter their handlers in Iran and Hezbollah, a much more likely prospect that with non-state extremist groups such as al-Qaeda, its affiliates, and other jihadi groups whose fighters may continue to target the West once they return home.
2: Intentions – Unlike a large portion of Sunni foreign fighters in Syria, Shi’a foreigner fighters harbor less aggressive and less global intentions. This is, to be sure, somewhat ironic given Iran’s longstanding commitment to export its revolutionary ideals. But there is no doubt that al-Qaeda and those who support its ideology are more ambitious in their goal of establishing a world-wide caliphate and less rational in the means they use bring it about. The extremely low likelihood of achieving their goals, even in the Middle East, will not deter al-Qaeda zealots from attempting to launch frequent attacks against Western interests and those of its allies.
Iran and Hezbollah, however, are far shrewder in the way they conceive of the instrumentality of terrorism, and so are their supporters. Both rely on a strategy of asymmetric balancing to deter what they perceive as real security threats emanating primarily from Israel and the United States and have carried out terrorist attacks carefully designed to achieve particular goals.
As such, the culture among Shi’a foreign fighters in Syria does not include an all-out open war against the West that justifies attacks at every opportunity, nor do does it justify acting alone or in small cells separate from the direction of the central leadership.
3: Origins – Shi’a foreign fighters in Syria will return to countries that, to the West, are less vital compared to the countries to which Sunni foreign fighters will return. Additionally, the fact that these fighters will have gained combat experience is less destabilizing given the political and security environment in their home countries. Hezbollah fighters, for example, will return to Lebanon where the group already controlled the most powerful armed group in the country with very little chance any other group, including the Lebanese Armed Forces, could catch up. To be sure, the experience gained by Hezbollah fighters in Syria could improve their performance in a future conflict with Israel, but this improvement is most likely marginal and not a game changer. Additionally, Iraqi, Iranian, and Lebanese Shi’a fighters are unlikely to turn against their governments and, in the case of the latter two countries, target oil extraction and export facilities.
In comparison, Sunni jihadists in Syria hail from both the West’s closest allies in the region and from Western countries themselves. Moreover, radicalized foreign rebels in Syria are likely to be hostile to their home countries’ governments and could use their newly gained skills and experience to target vital oil facilities, government institutions, and civilians in the Gulf, Europe, and the U.S.
4: Recruitment – This point is a fair bit more speculative. Shi’a fighters and their handlers may find it more difficult to recruit agents abroad because the Syrian civil war has tarnished their image among potential supporters. Although, there is evidence that fighters with foreign combat experience are more effective recruiters once they return from the warzone, Shi’a fighters may in fact find this situation reversed.
Iran and Hezbollah in particular have carefully cultivated the perception that they represent the vanguard of resistance to Israeli and Western aggression. This perception has been vital in boosting the group’s popularity globally, even among audiences that do not share their Shi’a religious beliefs. This popularity allowed the group to effectively recruit among local non-Shi’a abroad, facilitating the assembly of effective networks that supported global terrorist operations.
Hezbollah and Iran’s participation in the Syrian civil war has severely damaged this image. Hezbollah’s weapons, which it always maintained were for fighting Israel, have been turned against fellow Muslims and Iran’s commitment to pan-Islamist resistance has been similarly exposed as a sham. All this means that non-Shi’a that both Iran and Hezbollah used to rely on for their foreign fundraising, logistics, and terrorist operations could be less likely to take risks for what they now perceive to be a hypocritical cause. This is, of course, highly speculative and the real effect of the Syrian civil war on Iranian and Hezbollah recruitment will take years to discern.