Maya Gebeily

Talking to Phillip Smyth

Researcher and analyst Phillip Smyth breaks down the complexity of Syria’s ongoing war

Phillip Smyth testified before the US Congress on the presence of Shiite militias in Syria

If Syria’s war was ever a simple, two-front battle, it certainly isn’t now. Almost three years since the start of the conflict, the country’s battlefields are teeming with fighters of different sects, nationalities, and ideologies. To help shed light on this war’s growing complexity, NOW spoke with Phillip Smyth, analyst and researcher at the University of Maryland, about the growing numbers of Shiite militias, Hezbollah’s role in Syria, and the fate of the region’s Christians.


NOW: The main pro-Assad Shiite militia (sometimes the only one) that gets mentioned in the media is Hezbollah. Why do you think the Iraqi Shiite militias haven’t been focused on as much, and what should we know about their role now and in a future Syria?


Phillip Smyth: Even when focusing on Lebanese Hezbollah, this is a very murky world and hard to cover. Hezbollah has name recognition, but when we discuss other Shiite militias, we're just calling them: "Iraqi Shiite militias.” This essentially makes them appear almost amorphous, divorcing them from their proxy-masters and their goals. Naming the groups is important (to rectify this, here are some of the main Iraqi Shiite Islamist groups sending men to Syria: Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, Kata'ib Hezbollah, the Badr Organization, and Kata'ib Sayyed al-Shuhada). 


It's important to remember that the Iraqi Shiite organizations and Lebanese Hezbollah are very professional and know how to reveal information in a manner that fits a narrative-building pattern. These groups also know how to keep their mouths shut if some journalist is asking too many questions. Iran's many proxies also craft successful fronts which confuse the hell out of most observers. Take for example Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba (AKA Harakat al-Nujaba). They are an Iraq-based front which funnels fighters to Syria and primarily act as a front for the Iran-backed Iraqi Shiite Islamist Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq and Kata'ib Hezbollah. However, once these fighters get to Syria, I have identified that they fight under the banners of three separate militia groupings. 


NOW: Why are Shiite militant groups an entity to watch in Syria?


Smyth: They are well-trained, well-equipped, in most cases ideologically motivated, and over the course of 2013, have publicly engaged in major offensive and defensive operations throughout Syria. Without them, we would be looking at a far more stagnant type of battlefield. Beyond that, their fight is not one which is just based around "defending Assad". 


While this is exactly what they are doing, the war has been cast as an internal battle within Islam. These Shiite fighters are, in their minds, defending "true Islam" against what they have branded a "takfiri" enemy. Thus, even though it is a narrative, it's now viewed as a religious-ideological conflict.


 If anything, their future role in Syria is being written in East Ghouta, southern Damascus, parts of rural and urban Aleppo, Qusayr, and Qalamoun today. 


NOW: Do the various Shiite militias, along with the Assad regime’s forces, operate in any kind of hierarchy? Can Syria’s Arab Army do any of this on their own, or will they need Iranian, Iraqi, and Lebanese support to hold any territory in the foreseeable future?


Smyth: The Shiite fighting groups, National Defense Forces, localized pro-Assad militias, Syrian Arab Army, and the Republican Guard all cooperate together. Often combat commanders from the Republican Guard, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and from Lebanese Hezbollah are attached to the many mainly Iraqi-staffed militias. This does not mean that some Iraqi Shiite fighters haven't taken on command roles. For instance, Abu Hajar, the late-leader of Liwa Zulfiqar, was Iraqi. His successor is also an Iraqi Shiite. In terms of cooperating with the Syrian Arab Army, these groups tend to work well with that force. 


Needless to say, this does not necessitate all of these groups have not had their own problems with one another. Iraqi and Lebanese fighters have been recorded criticizing the lack of professionalism in Assad's forces. Back in June, Reuters even published a story about a firefight which broke-out between the well-trained Iranian-backed Iraqi fighters and Syrian fighters and commanders in Damascus. This led to the former being granted their own command structure, separate from that of the Syrian Arab Army. That is certainly a big deal. Regardless, these armed forces cooperate quite a bit and work as cohesive fighting units.


The question dealing with holding territory is really a hard one. This has been the main problem for forces on all sides (rebel and pro-Assad). For the time being, I have found that the Shiite Islamist militias are important when it comes to taking certain areas and are definitely required on a number of fronts. At times, I have seen them involved in actually holding key zones; Damascus Airport and the areas around it are a prime example. I'm sure this will continue. However, as history has taught us, outside fighting forces regularly have a harder time holding territory in a foreign country. Only time can really tell where this will all go. One shouldn't completely write out the Syrian Arab Army or the National Defense Forces yet. They are fighting pretty hard.


NOW: What does Syria teach us about the growth of transnational jihadist groups? Is the US – and are its allies – prepared to deal with security threats from these kinds of groups?


Smyth: On the Shiite Islamist side, Syria has demonstrated that Iran is going to be leading the pack when it comes to that brand of jihadist operating in the region. 


I'm a tad too self-deprecating to be able to say, "Yes, the United States and its allies can handle all of these threats!" or "Absolutely not! Head for the hills!" Threats from across the board are all growing at a very fast rate and everyone is trying to find an answer to them. Regularly (and unfortunately), policy comes down to a "Too little, too late" type of proposition. Policymakers have to pick-up the pieces and make the best of it. Hopefully those policy makers have put some plans into place. 


NOW: What everyone wants to know: how will the recent interim Iran deal affect the Islamic Republic’s involvement (and by extension, Hezbollah’s involvement) in Syria?


Smyth: They're still engaged in heavy fighting in Syria. Lebanese Hezbollah is still announcing the deaths of its fighters from combat in Syria. At the beginning of December, Iran reported the deaths of 10 Afghan Shiite fighters in Syria. It's pretty ludicrous to think that these negotiations would magically cause Tehran to just tell their regional proxy forces, and their own combatants, to pick up and leave.


NOW: What do you see as Hezbollah’s exit strategy from Syria? Is there one?


Smyth: Why would they need an exit strategy now? They are still engaged in very heavy fighting and are continuing to throw the "Qadimoun ya Qalamoun" ("We are coming O Qalamoun") rhetoric out onto friendly media organs, their social media, and out to Western journalists. Like any military force fighting, they want to make more substantive gains in their combat zone. 


NOW: How has Hezbollah’s internal stance in Lebanon has been affected by its fighting in Syria? How about the group’s regional popularity?


Smyth: I think it's very hard to tell how "damaged" the group is in Lebanon – even if one is sitting in Dahiyeh. Hezbollah holds a tremendous amount of power, particularly over the Shiite community. 


I think another overlooked trend, which I've written about, but am still attempting to fully grasp, is how Iran and Hezbollah have actually succeeded in pulling more Shiite Muslims under their umbrella. It's important to note that most of the region's Shiite are neither adherents of the Wilayat al-Faqih (governance of the Islamic jurist) ideology nor believe that Ayatollah Khamenei is their marja'a taqlidi. Many still subscribe to more traditional interpretations of Shi'ism, which are more apolitical. Just look at how Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has addressed the conflict in Syria; he doesn't support the sending of Shiite fighters to the country. 


Still, in recent history, especially in the Middle East, Shiite Islam has suffered an almost endless campaign of bombings and attacks by groups like al-Qaeda. When I speak to Shiite friends, some are more than willing to say (and I paraphrase), "fine, we'll accept Iranian protection. They are the only ones truly protecting the Shiites." Thus, Iran is slowly succeeding among Shiite muslims in the role of a hard-power protector from both real and imagined "anti-Shiite" forces. This will have some very important implications going into the future. 


NOW: Looking at the history of Hezbollah and how they’ve developed, how do we fit in their involvement in Syria? Does it indicate a turning point in the organization’s “identity?”


Smyth: Regarding the adoption of "new identities,” I feel this is a false concept. Hezbollah has reaffirmed time and time again that they back Wilayat al-Faqih. When the Lebanese nationalist, Arabist, and other types of rhetoric were showcased on previous occasions, these were simply fig leaves. Their ideological allies like Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq and Kata'ib Hezbollah in Iraq have also sung the same tunes, but their end goals are pretty transparent. 


However, in terms of where the messaging rhetoric is going now, there is already a shift toward the adoption of Shiite Islamist rhetoric. They haven't dropped the pan-Islamic tone of Wilayat al-Faqih – but the messaging style has dipped into a more sectarian pattern. Hezbollah's Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah was very clear about this back in August. It has also been a continuing trend on social media.  


Nasrallah is walking a tight rope due to the war in Syria, so the messaging pattern is still mixed. An additional rhetorical tone is the: 'Our ideological view is the only true Islam.' Thus, we're also seeing an intra-Islamist war for the "future of Islam[ism]". 


NOW: Syria’s Christian population is of particular concern when the future of the country’s minorities gets brought up. What do you see as the future of Syria’s Christians? Have they been left without a protector? 


Smyth: Regionally speaking, the condition for Christians is just plain bad. They have been politically marginalized, have fewer prospects when it comes to finding common political ground with other coreligionists, and are leaving the region en masse.


It's pretty obvious that Syria is not the best place for Christians at the moment. Don't let me give you the wrong idea, there are some rebel controlled areas which provide effective security for Christians. I still need to nip this in the bud: I know some will say, "But __ [Islamist] group wants to 'protect' Christians." Let's get real. Middle Eastern Christians don't consider a dhimma-type of existence ideal. 


Currently, specific anti-Christian violence and ethnic cleansing has not reached Iraq levels, but with the multitude of radical actors now in Syria and their history, it may be down the road. Of course, Syria is not Iraq and many Christians have sought a sort of junior partner status with either Bashar al-Assad or the Kurdish PYG. 


Right now, Russia, Bashar al-Assad, Iran, and Iran's proxies (particularly Lebanese Hezbollah) are taking the lead on acting as the new "protectors". The material that is presented markets a sort of minority Shiite-Christian alliance for Assad and Hezbollah.


NOW: Although Hezbollah has been loyally expending its resources and fighting forces on behalf of the Assad regime, there is at least one important disagreement between the two – Assad and his “people” inside Lebanon have an interest in destabilizing Syria’s smaller neighbor, while Hezbollah, for the sake of its domestic stance, needs to maintain stability in Lebanon. Will this difference ever spark a bigger split between the two?


Smyth: I doubt it. There have also been differences on the battlefield in Syria between other Iranian-backed forces (primarily Iraqi Shiite) and the Syrians. Yet, they're still cooperating and fighting hard. The stakes are too high and I would assume that Hezbollah, Iran, and the Syrians have tried to piece together an acceptable working relationship when dealing with Lebanon. 


NOW: Opposition groups said they wouldn’t stop fighting before the Geneva II conference took place in January, thereby essentially declaring the irrelevance of the talks to developments inside Syria. Others have claimed that pro-regime and opposition groups will, at least subconsciously, see Geneva II's date as a kind of deadline to secure some crucial territories (Qalamoun and others). What’s your take on the relevance of Geneva II to the events on the ground? 


Smyth: The talks were irrelevant from the start due to a multitude of factors--from rebel multipolarity to Assad's (and his allies’) own machinations. I'm not that convinced that Geneva II will produce anything substantive. Though, I wouldn't put it past Assad and his supporting forces to have launched their recent offensives in an effort to secure territory prior to Geneva II. It can be another development which can be shown off to international actors that "Assad is here to stay and should not be meddled with.” This would further constrain the already limited pressure Assad is currently feeling from primarily Western states. 

Phillip Smyth testified before the US Congress on the presence of Shiite militias in Syria. (Phillip Smyth)

"On the Shiite Islamist side, Syria has demonstrated that Iran is going to be leading the pack when it comes to that brand of jihadist operating in the region."