Winter 2016
Number 30

The Shi'a Strike Back

Michael David Clark

On June 13, 2014, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Shi’ite Islam’s most senior cleric in Iraq, issued a fatwa (religious edict) calling on all Iraqi citizens “to defend the country, its people, the honor of its citizens, and its sacred places” against the threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS). Sistani’s call to arms followed the lightning-fast conquest by ISIS of Mosul, Tikrit, Baiji and a slew of other smaller towns in early June, after the collapse of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in the area.

In both form and substance, Sistani’s fatwa was indicative of the broader Shi’ite response to the rise and expansion of ISIS, as well as part of it. The Shi’a, perhaps more than all others, have taken to the front line in the fight against ISIS. This is understandable, given the profound sectarian chauvinism of ISIS.

But it is not at all clear to what extent we can legitimately talk of a “Shi’ite response” to the rise of ISIS. Certainly, a wide array of state and nonstate actors from across the Shi’ite world are now engaged in the fight, often on the front lines of the conflicts in Iraq and Syria. But is this reaction concerted and centrally organized? Or have these actors taken up the fight in their own ways, according to their own interests, and with their own goals in mind? And what role has Iran played in mobilizing Shi’a forces? In other words, should we be talking of a Shi’ite response, Shi’a responses, an Iranian response to the new threat, or something else altogether?

A historic juncture

There are a number of important distinctions of which one must be aware when addressing the Shi’ite response to ISIS. Perhaps the most obvious is the differing interests, goals and motivation of the various actors involved. Another is geographical location; specifically, where the opposition is taking place. The importance of Iraq to not only Iraqi but also Iranian Shi’a actors means that the response to ISIS in Syria and Iraq has manifested itself differently. However, there is also an important distinction to be made related to timing.

Here, June 10, 2014, represents a central date in terms of analysis of the Shi’a response to ISIS. It was on that date that ISIS moved from representing a serious but relatively constrained threat to Iraqi security in one province to becoming an existential concern on the whole. Although ISIS had previously launched smash-and-grab raids to release imprisoned fighters held at Iraqi prisons in Taiji and Abu Ghraib, throughout 2013, it had concentrated on seizing towns and cities across Syria, paying relatively little attention to Iraq. But in January 2014, it took advantage of the ongoing conflict in al-Anbar province to enter its capital, Ramadi, and also to capture Fallujah and a slew of smaller Iraqi towns. Those advances were fleeting, however; during the months that followed, most were rolled back as a result of fierce fighting.

That is, until June 10th. On that day, ISIS successfully completed its conquest of Iraq’s second city, having overrun it in only a few days of fighting. It then proceeded to take Tikrit, birthplace of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein, and also Baiji, the most important oil refinery in Iraq, as well as a number of smaller towns across Anbar Province. From here, the ISIS threat grew until it appeared to menace Baghdad itself.

This represented a historical juncture of some significance, both for its immediate outcomes and for what it revealed about the Shi’ite response. First, this startling turn of events, and the associated collapse of the ISF, prompted Sistani’s June 2014 fatwa, which in turn led to the formal establishment of the Hashd al-Sha’abi (Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF) the same month. This development had (and continues to have) enormous knock-on effects for Iraqi politics, Iranian projection, and trends among nonstate Shi’a actors. It also led to the return of most of the Iraqi militiamen from Syria to Iraq, which had a significant negative impact on the Shi’ite response to ISIS in Syria.

Second, it also signaled a turning point in the Iranian response to ISIS, and in particular, a pivot toward Iraq by the Islamic Republic and a redoubling of its war effort there. Of course, by this point Iran had already established and maintained a significant presence in Iraq. Nevertheless, there was, following June 2014, a notable reconfiguration of Iran’s counter-ISIS deployment—entailing, among other things, the transfer of Quds Force commander General Qassem Suleimani from Syria to Iraq.

Thus, the events of June 2014 precipitated vastly different Shi’a responses to ISIS in Syria and in Iraq. The primary defining characteristic of the Shi’ite response in Syria has been the involvement of mostly foreign actors—chiefly Iran and Hezbollah, and more recently Russia—alongside Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the affiliated Alawite minority. In Iraq, by contrast, most of the actors involved have been Iraqis themselves. What was revealed in June 2014 is that the Iraqi front has taken priority among many of the actors that have been involved in the Shi’ite response in both Syria and Iraq. Whereas the Shi’ite response to ISIS in Syria has largely been a war of choice, the war in Iraq is one of necessity.

Complex motivations

The establishment of the PMF and the return of so many militiamen from Syria to Iraq raises serious questions about the Shi’ite nature of the “Shi’ite response.” It is true, of course, that the PMF was established in part by holy writ, with Sistani’s fatwa calling for able-bodied Iraqi citizens to engage in jihad against ISIS, leading to a massive surge in applications to join both the ISF and the many nonstate militias. The result has been that, notwithstanding the presence of Sunni fighters and tribal militias, the PMF is an overwhelmingly Shi’ite phenomenon.

However, nationalism has trumped pan-religious sentiment. When faced with a call to protect the Iraqi nation, the Shi’ite response (at least on the part of Iraqis) to the threat of ISIS in Syria faded away. While the nationalist call to arms was uttered by a religious leader, somewhat muddying the waters, the phrasing of the fatwa—and the immediate and detrimental effect it had on the Shi’ite response in Syria—makes nationalism a major factor. Moreover, Sistani’s fatwa was as nationalist in its wording as it was religious, referring to both “citizens” and “Iraq” and calling for the people to join the security services.

Even so, problems have remained. Alongside ardent Iraqi nationalists, the PMF incorporates militias such as the Badr Organization and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, which subscribe to the Khomeinist religio-political concept of wilayat al-faqih (Guardianship of the Jurisprudence) and are therefore in some way loyal to Khamenei. The motivations of many of these groups, their targeting of civilians, and the challenge they pose to the Iraqi state has led to calls for them to be demobilized as soon as ISIS is defeated in Iraq, in line with what is stipulated in Sistani’s fatwa. Moreover, the PMF contains actors—such as the Sadrist Movement—that previously had a problematic relationship with Sistani and the mainstream hawzah (clerical establishment), as well as with the Iraqi premiership and other militias. Equally, certain ultranationalist groups refused to supply men at all (due to the involvement of Iran), with the Sarkhi Faction clashing violently with other militias and security forces in July. Simply put, not all nationalist Shi’a militias are on the same page, and factional tensions simmer beneath the surface of their common fight against ISIS.

What about the Iranian pivot to Iraq? While the IRGC Quds force has been involved in Syria in terms of intelligence gathering and in an advisory capacity alongside Assad regime forces, it has played a far more significant role in the Iraqi response to ISIS, in particular after the events of June 2014. This no doubt reflects the increased influence that Iran has amassed in Iraqi politics since 2003. For Iran, Iraq is now not only an asset to be protected, but also the first—and still the largest and most important—exemplar of a resurgent Iran’s victories in the region. For these reasons alone, Tehran has a greater long-term strategic interest at stake in Iraq than it does in Syria. Yet, the fear of ISIS at the very gates of Iran should not be underestimated. Notably, however, these are nationalist rather than sectarian motivations.

The issue of motivation is no clearer if we turn to Hezbollah. While the Lebanese militia remains in Syria, more or less representing the rearguard of a pan-Shi’ite response that has long since moved on to Iraq, it is not entirely clear that sectarian rationale comes before realpolitik here. Although Hezbollah subscribes to the wilayat al-faqih, with Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah and Shaykh Muhammad Yazbeq acting as the representatives of the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, in Lebanon, its continued existence as a viable adversary to Israel depends on the maintenance of the “resistance corridor” (via Damascus) for the delivery of weapons from Tehran.

Thus, in almost every case, the motivations of the actors involved in the Shi’ite response to ISIS are not easy to discern, and certainly cannot be allocated purely to sectarian identity.

Cohesion or fragmentation?

So, to what extent is it possible to talk about a concerted Shi’ite response? On the one hand, we have not only Sistani’s fatwa but also the concept of wilayat al-faqih, which influences the actions of Iranian, Iraqi and Lebanese actors. Yet we also see the parallel trend of rising Iranian influence among Iraq’s Shi’a.

Is this deliberate or accidental? Is Tehran exploiting chaos to advance its reach in Iraq, or simply pitching in to fight a defensive war? It is impossible to know, and it would certainly be a mistake to simply assume the former. Today’s reality is probably not a simple dichotomy. Iran is not seeking to mobilize Shi’a exclusively as part of a hegemonic strategy in Iraq. But if its influence increases as an outcome of support for the Iraqi government and the PMF, then it will hardly be an undesirable outcome for Tehran. And Iran is unlikely to wish to threaten the territorial or national unity of Iraq, because partition or civil war would reduce Iranian influence and its ability to project power.

Yet the growing influence of Iran and affiliated or like-minded militias can be expected to lead to internal conflict among the Shi’a, particularly in Iraq. There is already competition between the Iraqi government of Haider al-Abadi and a more pro-Iranian faction affiliated to his predecessor, former Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki. This is and should be considered to be an Iranian wedge that increases the Islamic Republic’s leverage in Iraqi politics.

A similar scenario is playing out between pan-Shi’a elements and those militias that follow Grand Ayatollah Sistani or which are motivated more by nationalist interests, such as the Sadrists—in part due to differences caused by Iranian support and financing. Notably, however, Iran’s Supreme Leader has not issued his own fatwa calling for jihad against ISIS, perhaps aware of the potentially sectarianizing effect this would have, or at least the fact that it would be easily seized upon as evidence of Iran’s sectarian role. More optimistically, it may well have to do with minimizing internal conflict in Iraq, particularly in light of the prior care that both he and Sistani have taken to avoid direct theological confrontation. This might indicate that Khamenei and the Iranian leadership are aware of the brewing problems between militias in Iraq and do not wish to do anything to increase them.

Yet there is also fragmentation occurring which has little to do with Iran and more to do with the old adage that today’s revolutionary is tomorrow’s reactionary. There is a clear divide emerging between the old guard of the Shi’a militias and the newer, often more extremist, factions. Given the tendency for Iraqi militias to move into politics, and given the fact that many of them are or would be competing for the same constituents, an increase in their number seems bound to lead to some conflict.

There are good reasons, then, for some healthy skepticism about talk of a “Shi’ite response.” It is clear that the motivations of the many actors involved owe as much to nationalist and local interests as pan-Shi’a ones. Ideas of a de facto Shi’ite Islamic State are thus greatly overblown. In fact, given different motivations and competing interests, it seems likely that cohesion among the Shi’a today could very well lead to fragmentation and conflict tomorrow.

Michael David Clark is a research associate at the University of Cambridge. His doctoral research analyzed the relationship between identity and foreign policy in the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iraqi Sadrist Movement, in particular toward the “Arab Spring” and the Syrian Civil War. More broadly, his interests cover the politics of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.