CSS Engaging Practitioners Series – Phillip Smyth: The Value of Connections in Shiite Military Groups

By Lexie Bowser

“I actually don’t have my undergraduate degree,” said Phillip Smyth. “I said to my mother one day, ‘I really like Lebanon, Lebanon is interesting.’ So, we went to the library to get some books on Lebanon. I was obsessed! Particularly with Lebanese Christian groups, [but] I didn’t think the research was good because it was extraordinarily biased, and I just wanted facts.”

Kicking off his Engaging Practitioners lunch, Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Philip Smyth shared a bit about his unique background to becoming the expert on Shiite militia groups that he is today.

The value of the connections Smyth made, specifically the informal, social relationships, in his travels around Lebanon stood out as key factors in shaping his experience and expertise, he told the group. At the time Smyth was exploring the intricacies of Lebanese military groups, social media was not as prevalent or pervasive as it is today. “[I realized] there were these [online fora] that were dedicated to militia leaders in Lebanon, so I joined those. I started talking to people and I made really good connections. By 2006, I decided that I was going to go to Lebanon,” said Smyth. “I eventually found myself [on] some Hezbollah and other foreign terrorist Facebook pages. This let me identify groups before anyone else knew they were there. I was able to analyze their command structures using the Arabic skills that I had built [which] allowed me to build critical networks.”

When it comes to fully understanding the Shiite militia as a group, Smyth contested that much of the mainstream media over-generalizes their motivation to fight. “What do they believe in? What is the focus of this group? What ideologies are they pushing and why? And what are their goals? [Are they] just poor and need money? Not always,” said Smyth, advocating for media and practitioners to consider a wide array of questions when trying to decipher fighters’ motivations.

With tens of thousands of Shiite fighters having traveled to Syria, there are a multitude of different reasons that they have for joining Hezbollah. “While some are [inspired by monetary reward], there is also defense of sect to consider, which is a really big motivator. In fact, many Shiites are fighting to protect a shrine, in particular the Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque in southern Demascus. You also have some people who want to have on an adventure. Family links must also be given more attention. Families may apply pressure to someone and say ‘Why aren’t you fighting? Your brother fought, and your cousin was murdered. Who do you think you are?’” explained Smyth.

Additionally, foreign fighters who are recruited to Syria are oftentimes promised things that are difficult to turn down. “The Iran government will [sometimes] offer full martyrdom incentives [to families of killed fighters], which means you are praised as a martyr and get a nice government stipend. You may even get a house and residency so you don’t have to worry about going back [to where you came from],” said Smyth. “In particular, to recruit Pakistani Shiite fighters, Iran offers free religious classes…which has led to a tripling of the number of fighters wanting to travel out of Pakistan and be recruited by Iranian Shiite fighters.”

“There’s a lot of weird details that get lost because we take the steamroller approach and want simple policy conclusions. If you’re a young professional in this field, you will run into this problem a lot, and it is part of the reason why bad policy is sometimes created,” said Smyth.

So, why does it all matter? “At the end of the day, all of these groups are a major threat to regional security. Yes, they may have been [created] in response to the Islamic State in some cases, but they’re still around and ingratiating themselves into society. In Syria they’re becoming a major part of the political apparatus and have done so by building connections, staying well organized, and staying armed. [In other words], they’re not going anywhere,” said Smyth.


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