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Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: What Does Syria Mean for the Region's Shia

Author: Rodger Shanahan
January 7, 2014


"In contrast to some of the more avowedly Sunni Islamist groups among the opposition, who see in Syria the opportunity to establish an Islamic state as part of a broader regional caliphate, the Shia fighting in this conflict don't appear to approach it as part of a broader Shia project."

The Syrian civil war is not a rallying call for the region's Shia communities in the same way that it is for foreign Sunni jihadis. The involvement of the region's Shia actors—Iran, Lebanon's Hezbollah, and Iraqi groups—is often presented in religious terms. But the motivations of Shia fighters in Syria (or at least of those states or groups who send them there) are nuanced, and owe more to a number of factors such as geopolitics, a sense of self-preservation, and defense than it does to clear-cut sectarianism—as it is often presented.

While Hezbollah's Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah speaks of the takfiri threat to the community, for example, he also talks of the need to defend Syria from the dangers of international and regional attacks. In a speech in September Iran's Supreme Leader linked the problems in Syria to the aggressively pursued interests of the United States, Zionists, and, somewhat unusually, capitalists, while downplaying the sectarian nature of the conflict. The speech was no doubt self-serving, but it did show that, because they are a minority, Shia actors understand that in any significant intra-Muslim conflict they should downplay this element.

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