Where Is Assad Getting His Fighters From? (It's Not Just Lebanon and Iraq)
With consistent training provided by elite Hezbollah and IRGC commanders, what were once considered ragtag militias of undisciplined fighters have slowly developed into relatively well-trained and well-resourced soldiers that can be deployed throughout Syria to reinforce units loyal to Assad and his regime. Even though these units are sustaining high levels of casualties, they are also gaining valuable combat experience and working in tandem with sophisticated militant groups that can teach them various ways to improve their tactics, techniques and procedures.
While the Liwa Fatemiyoun and Liwa Zaynabiyoun were recruited and trained to fight specifically in Syria, there is growing concern that these militants could wreak havoc in Afghanistan and Pakistan, respectively, if and when sizeable numbers of the fighters return home. Beyond using Afghan and Pakistani fighters in Syria, another option would be to send the militants to other battlefields where the Iranians are fighting or backing proxy groups, including Iraq and Yemen, where Tehran is seeking to expand its influence even as it battles Saudi Arabia in an ongoing struggle for regional supremacy.
The United States and its allies are monitoring the ongoing developments in Syria with increasing unease. One major concern is that this network of foreign fighters could help Iran establish a greater presence beyond the Middle East and extending across the region, into South Asia. As research associates at the Council on Foreign Relations Ari Heistein and James West have argued, “When these battle-hardened foreign fighters return home after being trained and indoctrinated by Iran and having built a network of likeminded people, it is no stretch to believe that they could serve as transnational networks to advance longstanding Iranian ambitions in South Asia.”
Over the course of the next year, the United States and its Sunni allies in the region—especially Saudi Arabia—may seek to adopt a more active role in assessing, countering and developing a coherent strategy to rollback and contain the Iranian threat network and in particular, the cultivation of a transnational Shia foreign fighter contingent.
Accordingly, the United States and its Gulf partners should not simply surrender their own influence and strategic depth and need to develop, according to terrorism expert Michael Knights, some “intermediate red lines” to communicate to Iran what will not be tolerated.
Anything short of such a staunch stance could lead to an even stronger Iranian presence throughout the Middle East, making the prospects for continued conflict more, not less, likely.
Colin P. Clarke is a political scientist at RAND Corporation and an associate fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT)-The Hague. Phillip Smyth is an adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who focuses on Shia militia groups.