Sectarianism as Plan B: Saudi-Iranian identity politics in the Syria conflict

By Christopher Phillips, The Foreign Policy Centre

Saudi Arabia and Iran have both been deeply involved in the Syrian civil war from its beginning in 2011, each sponsoring rival sides. Both have utilised sectarian identity politics to further their goals and both have contributed to the growth of violence along sectarian lines. This has led to a characterisation by many that both are sectarian actors that immediately reach for identity politics as a tool of influence. However, a closer examination of the Syrian case would challenge this. Drawing on research by myself and Morten Valbjorn that examines the relationship between Syrian fighting groups and their external sponsors, this article argues that in Syria identity politics was not the immediate policy pursued by either Saudi Arabia or Iran.[1] Instead, sponsoring sectarian actors was a plan B after backing other, more inclusive actors failed. This suggests a degree of pragmatism from both governments, rather than being driven exclusively by sectarian zeal.

The Syrian conflict is often characterised as sectarian, but this is one strand of several driving the civil war.[2] There has been variation across Syria and over the course of the conflict. In some areas, the war has been driven more by political, economic and international factors than sectarianism. That said, an identity component has often been present, with violence, sexual assault and looting taking place along sectarian lines. Saudi Arabia and Iran have contributed to this. Saudi Arabia has sent arms and money to overtly sectarian Sunni Islamist fighters. Its government turned a blind eye for the first few years of the war to private Saudi donors sending money to radical Sunni groups, and it did little to clamp down on its sectarian preachers appearing on satellite television watched in Syria.

Iran’s sectarian activity was even more pronounced. From 2012 it sent Islamist Shi’a militia to Syria to fight for President Bashar al-Assad, with up to 8,000 fighters from its Lebanese ally Hizballah and 12,000 Afghani and Pakistani fighters present by 2017. It sent its own Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force officers, led by Major General Qassem Suleimani, to direct the war effort and retrain Syria’s military. Several of these retrained units were based around sectarian identities, as were the non-governmental pro-Assad militia they encouraged. The presence of Shi’a militia in the Syria conflict, many with an explicitly anti-Sunni agenda, helped to radicalise anti-Assad fighters, who were overwhelmingly Sunni, and further sectarianized the conflict.

However, it is important to note that turning to sectarian fighters was neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia’s first reaction, and their policies evolved from the failure of earlier options. Riyadh, initially sponsored moderates among those who took up arms against Assad. From early 2012 Saudi Arabia backed the Free Syria Army (FSA), which had a national Syrian rather than a Sunni sectarian focus, even though most were Sunni Muslims. Unlike other sponsors of the opposition like Qatar and Turkey who turned to more Islamist and sectarian fighters earlier, Saudi Arabia feared Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood and preferred the mostly secular former army officers of the FSA.

It was only after the FSA proved unable to defeat Assad and its fighters started joining more radical Islamist groups that Riyadh looked for alternatives. It eventually backed the Salafist Jaysh al-Islam in Damascus in late 2013, led by Zahran Alloush whose father was an imam in Saudi Arabia. This connection also led to it briefly backing the mostly Islamist Jaysh al-Fatah coalition in Idlib in 2015. Both included Sunni sectarianists. However, it encouraged Alloush and his successors to moderate their slogans.[3] This suggests that Saudi Arabia was pragmatic enough to recognise that ultra-sectarian actors would struggle to win in multi-faith Syria and must compromise. Moreover, Saudi did not abandon the FSA completely and maintained its sponsorship of the Southern Front, a south Syria FSA militia until 2017 at the same time. This shows a degree of expediency from Riyadh. It turned to Alloush in desperation, when plan A of backing the FSA failed. Yet even then it stuck with the southern FSA in the hope it would still triumph.

Iran was also more nuanced, turning to sectarian actors only after others failed. Tehran first sent weapons and advisers to help Assad’s army, the nominally inclusive Syrian Arab Army (SAA). Though its elite units were dominated by members of Assad’s Shi’a-linked Alawi sect, it was no sectarian institution, boasting Sunnis, Shi’as, Alawis and Christians in its ranks and utilising inclusive national symbols and slogans. However, the SAA performed poorly in the first year of the war, prompting Iran to send Suleimani to Damascus to salvage the situation. Within a few weeks, the Quds force commander reportedly stated, “The Syrian army is useless! Give me one brigade of Basij [the IRGC’s paramilitary force] and I could conquer the whole country!”[4] Soon Suleimani turned to Hizballah and other Shi’a militia from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to come to Syria. Having trained many of them himself, especially in Iraq during the post-2003 campaign against the US, Suleimani saw such sectarian actors as more dependable than the SAA.

Yet, as with the Saudis, this suggests a pragmatic rather than an exclusively sectarian motivation. These militias were utilised for their reliability and fighting ability rather than purely ideological reasons. Moreover, Iran used these groups to supplement rather than replace Assad’s national forces and the SAA continued to receive support. Indeed, when the Iranians reorganised Syria’s paramilitary forces in 2013 they gave it a national rather than sectarian name: The National Defence Forces (NDF). While the NDF did include sectarian militia, it retained a deliberately national character. Again, expediency may have driven this. Shi’as make up barely 1-2% of Syria’s population, and Alawis are barely 12%. Were Iran to encourage a purely sectarian chauvinistic discourse, they would have isolated key Christian, Druze and Sunni constituents that continued to back Assad.[5] Unlike in Iraq, where over 60% of the population is Shi’a, demographics in Syria were not in Suleimani’s favour. Even had he wanted to adopt a sectarian approach from the beginning, it would have been counter-productive.

Both Saudi Arabia and Iran, therefore, were not as sectarian as often characterised in their sponsorship of fighting groups in the Syrian civil war. Though both would eventually turn to sectarian militia, each did this only after their first option, more inclusive national-focused fighters, failed. Yet each continued to sponsor national groups alongside these sectarian actors, possibly recognising the impracticality of backing only exclusionary actors in a multi-faith country. In both cases, governments often portrayed as arch-sectarian actors showed a considerable degree of pragmatism and expediency.

[1] Chris Phillips and Morten Valbjorn, ‘What is in a Name?’: The Role of (Different) Identities in the Multiple Proxy Wars in Syria’, Small Wars & Insurgencies 29 (3), 414-433

[2] G. Abdo, The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shia–Sunni Divide. Brookings, SD: Saban Center for Middle East Policy Paper. April 10, 2013.

[3] Phillips and Valbjorn, ‘What is in a Name?’

[4] Dexter Filkins, ‘The shadow commander’, The New Yorker, September 2013, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/09/30/the-shadow-commander

[5] Chris. Phillips, The Battle for Syria: International rivalry in the New Middle East, 2016, London: Yale University Press, pp. 50-53.

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Hezbollah: The real winner of the Syrian war?

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 1 November 2018

In hindsight, it was obvious why Hezbollah entered the Syrian war. President Bashar al-Assad’s potential fall was an existential threat that would cut its supply lines with Iran and, though Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah was initially reluctant, fighters were dispatched from 2012 onwards.

Today, it’s clear that Hezbollah’s involvement was one of several key interventions that helped to save Assad, but what has it meant for the Lebanese movement? Is the “Party of God” stronger or struggling after six years of war?

Alongside Assad’s survival, Hezbollah has seen several benefits for its involvement in Syria. Three stand out: improved military experience, enhanced military equipment and personnel, and expanded regional clout.

Urban warfare

In terms of military experience, the conflict was quite unlike the wars fought with Israel since the 1980s, forcing Hezbollah to adapt and learn new skills. It now has experience in urban warfare, fighting inside enemy territory, working with air support, and collaborating with non-Hezbollah groups, including major state militaries, such as Russia, and non-Arabic speakers, such as Afghani and Pakistani Shia militias.

In terms of military equipment, Iran has used the war to massively increase Hezbollah’s stockpiles, which now include guided missiles, unmanned armed drones, short-range ballistic missiles and anti-tank missiles. In terms of numbers, it now has approximately 130,000 rockets and missiles, compared with 15,000 on the eve of the 2006 war.

As for personnel, to fight in Syria, Hezbollah had to massively increase its recruitment. It expanded its recruiting pool by relaxing previously strict ideological and age requirements. This has given it a permanent “army” of 20,000 fighters, alongside tens of thousands more Lebanese reservists and allied Syrian proxy militia.

Hezbollah’s regional clout has also been boosted, now having a presence in Iraq and Yemen, as well as Syria. Up to 500 Hezbollah specialists have been sent to Iraq since 2014 to train the Hashd al-Shaabi against the Islamic State and others, while Nasrallah plays a regular mediating role between Iraqi Shia factions.

An unknown number of Hezbollah operatives have also been sent to Yemen to train Houthi fighters, while Hezbollah now has direct relations with Russia, at both an operational and political level. The result is a transformed Hezbollah: it entered Syria as a local Lebanese movement, but it is now a significant regional armed player.

Domestic consequences

Yet, there have been costs. The death count has been high. Analysts believe Hezbollah has lost between 1,000 and 2,000 fighters in Syria – up to 10 percent of its fighters, including high-quality commanders and veterans of the 1990s and 2006 Israel wars.

There have been grumblings about the high casualty figures among Hezbollah’s Lebanese popular base, and a conscious effort to seek more recruits from Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa-Hermel region rather than the more traditional strongholds of the south and southern Beirut to partly limit this fallout.

There have been other domestic consequences, too. In 2013-14,  jihadists, sympathetic to the anti-Assad opposition, launched attacks on Hezbollah and mainly Shia-populated areas in Lebanon. This was ultimately overcome through military campaigns and domestic politicking. Indeed, today, Hezbollah looks strong in Lebanon.

Its allies are in government, including President Michel Aoun, while its long-term rival, the March 14 Alliance, has fractured and its leader, Saad Hariri, is weak and acquiescent.

Other consequences of the Syrian war for Hezbollah, however, remain unresolved. The war has been expensive. Combined with new sanctions on its ally and main benefactor Iran, the Party of God is struggling to pay the increased salaries and pensions demanded by its rising list of recruits and casualties. It has already had to cut back on some of the essential services it provides to its poor popular base. While this alone won’t turn the population on Hezbollah, it may impact the group’s long-term appeal.

More pressing are concerns that Israel may launch a significant attack to counter Hezbollah’s growing power. Any future war would be far more destructive to both Israel and Lebanon than in 2006, and this has thus far deterred both sides – but an accidental outbreak is always possible, especially given recent tensions over Hezbollah’s presence in the Syrian Golan Heights.

Russia’s presence in Syria as a possible mediator may calm the situation, and thus far, Israel has launched tens of attacks in Syria without provoking a significant escalation on either side. However, fine lines are being walked.

Emerging more powerful

Finally, it is unclear what Hezbollah’s future will be in Syria itself. The movement’s leaders have said they will withdraw once a political settlement is agreed, and there has been a recent reduction in numbers as violence has diminished. Perhaps fearful of losing any more precious fighters, Hezbollah has shifted from a combat role to training Syrian proxies and pro-Iranian Afghani and Pakistani forces.

That said, Hezbollah seems to be establishing a permanent presence in key strategic places such as Qusayr, Qalamoun and Sayyeda Zeinab. Moreover, given how close Lebanon is, it can easily send combat troops over should Assad or Iran need them for future assaults on Idlib or the Eastern Euphrates.

While it has proven itself a loyal and valuable ally over the course of the Syrian conflict, its leadership is probably conscious that it cannot sustain heavy combat losses indefinitely, and will hope it can keep numbers to a minimum as the war moves forward.

On balance, Hezbollah has emerged from the Syrian conflict well. It is now a far more powerful, well-trained regional power than it was before the war. However, it is still limited financially and in terms of recruits, and may quietly be hoping that the Syrian war can end soon and that a new conflict with Israel can be avoided so that it can consolidate its newly improved position.