The Syria conflict hasn’t really stayed in Syria. The trickle of Sunni jihadists traveling to Syria to fight quickly became a flood, with their numbers rapidly surpassing those in past wars, the anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan being just one. Because of their strong anti-Western views and tendency toward international terrorist activities, the Sunni fighters have become an obsession of intelligence officials in Western capitals – including here in the United States. However, another consequential flow of foreign fighters has received far less attention: the thousands of Shi’ite fighters entering Syria, primarily from Lebanon and Iraq.
The number of Shi’ite fighters may meet or even exceed that of their Sunni jihadist enemies. Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, estimates that the total number of foreign Shi’ite fighters in Syria (as of December 2013) may be as high as 10,000. According to Zelin, Lebanon’s Hizballah has dispatched from 3,000 to 5,000 total fighters, many of whom rotate on a monthly basis (and thus the number at a moment in time is lower). Iraqi Shi’ite fighters, conclude Zelin, total somewhere between 3,500 and 4,000. As for who comprises these groups and their affiliations, Zelin explains:
[T]he Lebanese are fighting with Hezbollah. The Iraqi scene is a bit more complicated. Iraqi groups like the Hezbollah Battalions, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and the Badr Organization are funneling fighters to Syria but use different front groups. The most prominent among these newly formed groups is the Abu-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade. Others include the Sayyid al-Shuhada Battalions, the Zulfiqar Brigade, the Ammar ibn Yasser Brigade (associated with the Hezbollah Battalions and Asaib Ahl al-Haq), the Imam al-Hasan al-Mujtaba Brigade, the Martyr Mohamed Baqir al-Sadr Forces (associated with the Badr Organization), and the Khorasani Vanguard Company.
The Shi’ite influx swelled after the Sunnis began to flock in, and in many ways was a response to the Sunnis’ entrance. Both the Shi’ite-led Iraqi government and Hizballah had their own reasons for downplaying their support of the Asad regime and initially kept their actions clandestine. In the case of the Iraqi fighters, substate groups, not the government itself, send them. The Lebanese Hizballah initially kept quiet about its support, but as the violence increased and its role expanded, Hizballah openly declared its backing.
The motivations of many Shi’ite foreign fighters mirror those of their Sunni enemies. As the conflict’s atrocities have grown, and as the struggle became more defined as one of Sunnis seeking to defeat the apostate regime in Damascus, the Shi’a began to rally around Asad and his government. Although the dominant ‘Alawis in Syria differ in several important doctrinal aspects from more mainstream Shi’a, their enemies often lump these two groups together. The Sunnis view the anti-Alawi struggle as paralleling the Shi’ite-Sunni fighting and tension in Iraq and Lebanon; this perception has resulted in a self-fulfilling prophecy, one in which supposed religious self-defense mobilizes the opposing parties. So, Shi’ite groups emphasize emotive issues such as the defense of the shrine of Sayyida Zeinab, a Shi’ite shrine south of Damascus in their propaganda.
Sunnis receive indirect encouragement from some regional governments, which seek to topple the Asad regime and view the struggle as a proxy for a broader conflict with Iran. Tehran is encouraging, albeit more quietly, foreign Shi’a to join the fight. Iran, of course, wants to ensure that its oldest Arab ally remains in power. The IRGC reportedly provides training to many Shi’a before they join the fray and is also sending its own fighters.
The Lebanese Hizballah, Iran’s close ally, also wants the Asad regime to remain in power for its own reasons. Hizballah has long worked closely with the Syrian regime and, after the 2005 protests that forced Syria to withdraw its military forces from Lebanon, it has represented Asad’s interests in Lebanon. Given Syria’s historic influence over Hizballah’s home turf, the toppling of Asad or a government that brought oppositionists into power, even in a limited way, would be bad news for Hizballah.
The Shi’ite influx is also more organized than the Sunni effort. Because it draws on established groups like Lebanon’s Hizballah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq in Iraq, Shi’a fighters are more systematically recruited and deployed. Greater centralization and command and control of pro-regime forces – perhaps Bashar’s greatest asset against the opposition, which has hundreds or even thousands of disparate factions that often do not cooperate and occasionally fight one another – enables the integration of foreign forces more effectively into the existing military structure.
Most important, many of the Shi’a traveling to Syria are excellent fighters. Although some Sunnis come from established jihadist groups such as Al Qaeda in Iraq, most do not. Many Sunnis who travel to fight are inspired by the horrors of the war and strong anti-Shi’ite sentiment, but they are inexperienced. They make fine suicide bombers, but are less useful on the battlefield. The Shi’a hailing from Iraq, in contrast, often earned their spurs in the brutal sectarian conflict there during the Iraqi civil war, which ended in a triumph for the Shi’ite militias. The Lebanese Shi’a are even more formidable. Hizballah is perhaps the most militarily accomplished substate group in the world. Its forces have repeatedly scored tactical victories against the Israeli military--no easy task. Hundreds of Hizballah fighters helped the Asad regime regain control of Qusair, a battle viewed often as a turning point in the war, or at least the moment the Asad regime regained footing after suffering a series of defeats.
Sadly, and frighteningly, conflict involving Shi’ite fighters are likely to spread beyond Syria. Already, violence in Iraq and Lebanon has surged. More and more, the borders of this conflict do not align with state boundaries. We should expect Shi’ite fighters with experience in Syria to continue to play a violent role when they return home.