Four years after Lebanon’s Hezbollah first appeared in Syria, and following the military victory in Aleppo last December, there is great change in Syria’s Shi‘a Twelver community. The community makes up no more than 1–2 percent of the total Syrian population, a few hundred thousand people at most, but has been largely militarized since 2012. It is now demanding a greater share of power, alongside the Alawi community to whom the Assad family belongs.
Iraqi Shi‘a militias, under the banner of Liwa Abul al-Fadl al-Abbas, first emerged in the predominantly Shi‘a suburb of Sayyida Zeinab in Damascus. There, thousands of Shi‘a pilgrims and refugees, most of them from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, had settled starting in the early 1980s, some receiving Syrian nationality.
As Iraq’s battle against the Islamic State raged after 2014, many Iraqi fighters returned home, while others joined Iraqi militias fighting in Syria, such as Harakat al-Nujaba. This gave Syria’s Shi‘a an opportunity to expand their independence under the umbrella of Iran-led armed groups. As a sign of their emerging self-empowerment, the Syrian Shi‘a militias established last year a unit named the 313 Special Operations battalion. However, the overall command of Shi‘a forces in Syria remains overwhelmingly non-Syrian—namely Iranian, Lebanese, and Iraqi. Not surprisingly, tensions have risen within this transnational network as a consequence.
The tensions recently resurfaced in a leaked internal report from Quwwat al-Rida, a Homs-based Khomeinist faction. The report calls for equality between Syrians, paid in Syrian pounds, and Lebanese fighters, who receive their monthly salaries in U.S. dollars. The document, an investigation by the Emergency Committee to Resolve our People’s Situation in Homs, a Quwwat al-Rida-affiliated body, claims that fighters were promised the equivalent of $400–$600; however, due to the depreciation of the pound, their pay has declined to a mere $80. The document demanded attention to “the financial side, and support for the mujahideen, providing security to the families of the injured and martyred, in a way that decreases the difference between them and their Lebanese brothers … to stop the defections to other factions.”
Aside from the financial tensions, the document stressed the need to empower Syrian Shi‘a ulama, or religious scholars, and military cadres vis-a-vis the Lebanese, so that the former “might lay the ground for future institutional work.” It underlined that it was necessary to pay “attention to the issue of jihadi indoctrination, since this requires a special vision that suits our country’s situation and that of the Homs ulama. Not everything applicable in Lebanon works in Syria, as the circumstances and culture are different. We call for an increase in the number and quality of courses to spread spiritual and ideological consciousness, to hold to the ethics and path of wilayat to defend our precious country.”
While noting the favoritism displayed toward the Lebanese and Iranians (called hijaj, or those who have gone on pilgrimage), the writers of the report ask for Iran’s and Hezbollah’s help in securing representation of the Shi‘a in Syrian government positions on all levels, “similar to the remaining sects,” even if it requires forming a secular party to defend those interests. To achieve that, Quwwat al-Rida bluntly requests “Hezbollah’s support, in tune with our people’s sacrifices and our right to representation, similar to other sects,” in helping their representatives to enter the Homs provincial and city council. After the report came out, rumors circulated online of a presidential decree allocating financial compensation to Quwwat al-Rida, similar to that allocated to the Syrian army’s “martyrs” and “wounded.”
Unlike the Shi‘a communities in Iraq and Lebanon, the Syrian Shi‘a minority is small and geographically dispersed. That is why Iran cannot afford to leave them divided, otherwise they would not represent a viable Iranian proxy. The Shi‘a militias in Homs and Damascus are the most organized, compared to the ones in Aleppo, Idlib, and Der‘a. Therefore, some sort of unification of their ranks is required, to replicate the Lebanese approach and create a Syrian version of Hezbollah. The recent population transfers of Syrian Shi‘a from the two Idlib towns of Kefraya and Al-Fou‘a to Damascus has reinforced their presence in the Syrian capital.
Since 2012, Syria’s Shi‘a community has developed institutionally. This ranges from setting up Khomeinist scout movements, for example in Homs and Damascus, to the community’s own religious authority, namely the Supreme Islamic Ja‘fari Council in Syria, which was established in 2012 along the lines of the Lebanese Supreme Islamic Shiite Council. These institutions emerged nearly simultaneously with the Iranian, Hezbollah, and Iraqi Shi‘a interventions in the Syrian conflict. However, while such interventions led to greater support for Syrian Shi‘a military factions, almost no overarching Shi‘a organizational structure was ever created.
Only one unifying figure, albeit mainly a spiritual and political figure, emerged in the community. He is Sayyed Mohamad Ali al-Misky, a Damascene who is the president of the Supreme Islamic Ja’fari Council in Syria. Alongside Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, who is revered among Syrian Shi‘a, Misky is gaining prominence. He leads the community’s major marches in the capital commemorating the death of Imam Hussein. The cleric often visits towns in Homs governorate, meeting local dignitaries and registering their needs.
The establishment of the Supreme Islamic Ja‘fari Council in Syria suggests that Iran, which played a key role in creating the body, is leaning more towards applying the Lebanese model of unifying Shi‘a forces in Syria, rather than adopting the more multifarious approach prevailing in Iraq, with its multiplicity of Khomeinist groups. The council emerged from the Syrian conflict. Unlike its Lebanese counterpart, which is dominated by the Amal Movement, not Hezbollah, the Syrian council maintains a Khomeinist discourse and is close to the pro-Iran militias fighting in Syria. What remains to be seen is whether Misky will play a leading role in the Syrian Khomeinist movement or whether his role will remain confined to religious and political matters, while Iran itself maintains control over Shi‘a military groups.