US Withdrawal from Syria Could Enable a Pan-Shi’a Iran and Change the Mideast Balance of Power
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By James Hess, Ph.D.
Professor, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University
During the Cold War, it was common to discuss the various forms of socialism and communism. The intelligence community was well aware of this, and analysts were often well-versed in The Communist Manifesto. When it comes to combating Islamic extremism, the same level of expertise is needed.
Understanding Extremism Requires Understanding Various Forms of Islamic Faith and Jurisprudence
When studying Islamic extremism, it is important that analysts understand the various forms of Islam. This understanding needs to be greater than simply knowing there are Sunnis and Shi’a, but that there are forms of jurisprudence, which define the faith. For the Shi’a, there are four schools of jurisprudence, or fiqh, with the largest being Ja’farism, or Twelver.
Understanding how fiqh is being interpreted by Muslim clerics is as important today as it was to understanding the finer points of communism during the Cold War. U.S. foreign policy should be carefully informed by the interpretation of fiqh, and for the Shi’a Twelvers, this is a complicated endeavor.
US Troop Withdrawals from Syria Could Upset Power Balance in Middle East
President Trump has said he would like to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. Notwithstanding how this decision could affect the fight against ISIS and its affiliated groups, such a withdrawal from Syria and Iraq could enable a contiguous pan-Shi’a Iran.
Currently, the Middle East can be seen as a balance of power between Sunni Wahhabist Saudi Arabia and Shi’a Iran. But that balance could change sooner than expected. There are two significant issues that could transform the Middle East and make Iran the most powerful nation in the region.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad owes his regime’s survival, in large part, to Iran’s assistance. Iran has provided material, financial and personnel support in the ongoing conflict in Syria. Assad, an Alawite Shi’a Muslim, has previously proclaimed that Alawites are also “Twelver” followers (also known as Imamiyya), which is the specific jurisprudence followed by Shi’a in Iran and Iraq. Iran is the only country whose state religion is (Twelver) Shi’a Islam.
While Alawites have followed the tenets of the Twelvers, they have historically been looked upon with disdain by the traditional Twelver community. In a move that could be interpreted as a step toward cementing a pan-Shi’a corridor across the Middle East, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei along with other senior Shi’a clerics in Qom, Iran, have recognized the Alawites as legitimate members of the Twelver community.
Shi’a Jurisprudence of the Imamiyya Does Not Have a Unified Voice
The Shi’a jurisprudence of the Imamiyya is currently not speaking with one voice. The most influential Shi’a cleric is Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Al-Sistani is a more traditional adherent to the teachings of the Imamiyya, which kept the religious authorities separate from the political leaders. For the Imamiyya, this teaching changed with the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
After Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s successful rise to power, he announced a new interpretation of the jurisprudence of the Imamiyya – Velayat-e-Faqih (guardianship of the jurist). This fundamentally changed the Imamiyya by teaching that the cleric is not only the leader of the faith, but also the leader of the political direction of the country.
Al-Sistani, who resides in Najaf, Iraq, directs the beliefs of more than 90% of Shi’a Muslims by some estimates. He does not support Velayat-e-Faqih; nor does he support Shi’a followers supporting the conflict in Syria. While this is an asset to U.S. and Saudi efforts in the Middle East, that could change soon.
The difference between Khamenei and Sistani’s beliefs is akin to a modern-day Avignon Papacy – two divergent voices speaking for the same faith. Furthermore, Qom-influenced Moqtada al-Sadr, who comes from an influential Shi’a clerical family, is the leader of a political bloc that won a significant number of parliamentary seats in the recent Iraqi elections.
Lastly, Sistani is 87 and has had health issues over the past decade. There are reports that Iran is supporting senior clerics friendly to the teachings of Qom to take Sistani’s place. Given Sistani’s health, this could occur sooner rather than later.
Given Sadr’s newfound political influence, a Qom-backed ayatollah could become the newest and most influential Shi’a cleric if he were selected to take Sistani’s place. This change, along with the recognition of Assad’s Alawite faith, could create a dominant pan-Shi’a presence in the heart of the Middle East.
U.S. foreign policy needs to reflect a mature understanding of fiqh. In order to meet this effort, the intelligence community needs to have the same level of expertise that was commonplace during the Cold War.
About the Author
Dr. James Hess is currently a professor at American Military University. Dr. Hess received his Ph.D. from Louisiana State University, where he studied improving analytical methodologies in counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism environments. He also completed a fellowship studying the relationship between Islamic jurisprudence and terrorism as an International Relations Research Fellow with the University of Arizona’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies.