November 20, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: Sectarian Contest: The Islamic State, Hizballah, and Iran
• The narrative that the Islamic State uses as its raison d’être—that it alone protects Sunnis from Shi’a oppression—is actually being coopted by Shi’a Iran and Hizballah, who in turn claim that they will help protect minorities, and in some cases Sunnis, from Islamic State oppression
• It is testament to how much the Islamic State’s unrelenting violence against all sides has upended regional sectarian gamesmanship, in that Iran is openly supporting the Kurds in Iraq and Syria and Hizballah is openly courting Christians and Druze in eastern and northeastern Lebanon to fight against Sunni extremists
• While the regional Sunni countries remain constrained within their sectarian framework and rhetoric, Iran sees opportunity to build good relations among a region in which it has very few—explaining this summer’s high-profile visit to Iraq by the head of Iran’s Quds Force, Qasim Sulaymani
• Hizballah and Iran, both supporters of the Assad regime, are framing their efforts not so much as helping Assad but as battling the Islamic State and its extremist ilk, to include Jabhat al-Nusra both in Syria and along the Lebanese border
• For its part, Hizballah downplays its sectarian bent when recruiting non-Shi’a, emphasizing the notion of a national “resistance” in the fight against “takfiris,” which fits perfectly with its own philosophy and goals.
In its violent quest to be seen as the Sunni vanguard across the Middle East, the Islamic State has in some ways benefited both Hizballah and Iran. In offering protection from the threat of violent Sunni takfirism, Hizballah and Iran are finding receptive non-Shi’a audiences in Lebanon and Syria. The Islamic State’s relentless violence against Sunnis as well as everyone else—to include Christians, Kurds, Druze, Yazidis, Alawis, and Shi’a— and the absence of trusted on-the-ground military support (especially in Syria but also in Iraq) has opened the door for the most unlikely of temporary alliances, with Iran and Hizballah filling the role of minority protector. To be sure, this is happening on a micro-community level but it is indicative of larger regional trends being upended by the Islamic State.
In keeping with its self-proclaimed role as the primary Lebanese ‘resistance,’ Hizballah is seeking to recruit from outside its Shi’a base, courting Christians and Druze in the Bekaa valley and the Mount Hermon region to serve in the “Resistance Brigades,” functioning as a national guard of sorts to protect the border region from incursion. Hizballah has done this since 2009, but now for the express purpose of claiming to protect the country not from Israeli incursion but from Sunni extremism. After the northern Sunni border town of Arsal was attacked in August by Sunni extremists coming in from Syria, Hizballah stepped up its offers to support threatened Lebanese populations. From Mount Hermon to Arsal, the Shi’a group is fostering goodwill and relationships with minority enclaves under threat from the extremism radiating out from Syria. The effort aims to shore up community defenses as well as to increase support for Hizballah among non-Shi’a.
Inside Syria, and Iraq for that matter, Iran is stepping into the void left by regional sectarian mistrust and local communities’ inability to defend themselves from the Islamic State and other radical extremists. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) is recruiting among minorities in Syria, who rightfully fear the violent extremism of ‘Bin Ladin-ism’ spread by the Islamic State and al-Nusra. The IRGC is competing for recruits with its closest affiliate Hizballah, and other nationalist groups such as the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). Many Syrian minority groups support Assad, seeing his regime as a bulwark against a Sunni extremist tidal wave, and are receptive to IRGC and SSNP overtures of support. Even some Sunni communities are being actively courted by the IRGC in the hope they find it more palatable to align with Shi’a supporters than the extremist currents that permeate some factions of the Free Syrian Army and other ‘moderate’ Sunni rebel groups.
In Iraq, Iran sees a chance to extend its influence further north, into Kurdistan. It was no small matter that the head of the IRGC Quds Force, Qasim Sulaymani, was photographed helping Iraqi Kurds during the siege of Sinjar. This overt on-the-ground support means a great deal to groups that are distrustful of the central government in Baghdad. The new government of Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi might make symbolic gestures of inclusiveness but Iran is providing weapons and tactical support to embattled communities such as the Kurds and Yazidis much faster than Baghdad.
Hizballah and Iran have shown nimbleness since the summer to adapt to the changing sectarian environment created by the Islamic State’s utter inability to refrain from killing all those in its path. Both have created an effective counter-narrative that is falling on receptive ears, given the lack of other options. It remains to be seen how these new dynamics will play out, especially if credible Sunni support and narratives emerge in the coming months.
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