Iraqi militia presence in Syria draws sharp criticism from all sides
The history of Iraqi militias is controversial. These forces have undoubtedly been important in the country’s recent fighting – against Islamic State and against Kurdish forces after the referendum on the independence of the Kurdistan region in 2017.
It is commonly believed that the Iraqi Shiite militias were created in a time of crisis as the ultimate national defense and that their creation was attributed to a fatwa issued by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in 2014 which called on Iraqis to take up arms. to defend the country against the Islamic State (ISIS).
While this event, and the peril Iraq found itself in in 2014, galvanized recruitment and increased the number of those ready to take up arms, it was not the start of Iraqi militias.
Sectarian militias, including on the Shiite side the Mahdi’s Army and Badr’s Corps, fought in the civil war that followed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The political affiliates of the two serve in the Iraqi legislature and are or have been part of its government.
A similar dynamic exists within the Popular Mobilization Forces (FMP), whose militias fought ISIS but did not do so without criticism. PMF fighters have been accused of participating in punitive violence against those who remained in Mosul after ISIS’s defeat in the city and their numbers include many militiamen uncomfortable serving their country instead. than some sectarian interests.
Evidenced by the ease with which some militias moved from Iraq, where their ostensive mission against ISIS’s mission was clearly defined, to Syria to participate in a bloody civil war alongside Syrian President Bashar Assad and his allies. Iranians.
Phillip Smyth, senior researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said: âThe Iraqi Shiite militias that went to Syria did so for the most part – and I’m talking about the vast majority – at the behest of Tehran. “
Iraqi militias in Syria are not operationally independent from their Iranian allies, capable of separating their activities from the worst excesses of the forces supporting Assad’s survival.
âThe groups they joined are ideologically, financially and politically linked to the Iranians. These groups have helped secure the Assad regime in Syria, but they themselves control large swathes of territory and carry out Iran’s will in Syria, âSmyth said.
This territory has become a practical difficulty for those trying to reach a conclusion favorable to the war in Syria and for Iraqi politicians taking stock of a vast Iranian effort to overcome internal Iraqi politics and increase Iranian strength to through Mesopotamia and the Levant.
The Iraqi militias have, Smyth said, “also established their own presence in Syria by starting their own branches there, helping to create new militias controlled by Iran and still keeping thousands of their own fighters in the country. “.
Muqtada al-Sadr, a former head of a sectarian militia during the post-Saddam era and now an electoral force, has been a persistent critic of the PMF, especially for its apparent focus on Iranian objectives rather than improving the future of Iraq.
Al-Sadr called for an immediate withdrawal of PMF fighters from Syria as part of a series of demands he has made on the Iraqi government‘s foreign policy, including saying the Iraqis should seek better diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia and aim to end the fighting in Syria. and Yemen.
Al-Sadr’s statement contains a lot of politics. Iraqi citizens have endured much and the gains of the past few years have been repeatedly diminished by a half-decade of direct conflict and guerrilla warfare against ISIS in the north, governance failures across the country and a creeping sense of Iranian encroachment. The criticism of Al-Sadr, coming as it does amid a litany of other complaints, could therefore be dismissed as pure oppositionism.
To say this would be to ignore the extent to which Iraqi politicians and the public are aware of Iranian influence in their country and do not want to be involved in larger conflicts as part of a camp they have not joined.
Al-Sadr’s statement referred to his reluctance for Iraq to find itself embroiled in a larger confrontation between Iran and a union of Israel and the United States. Iraqi PMF fighters, operating as part of Iran-aligned units, were killed in Syria at the end of March in suspected Israeli airstrikes.
The idea that they are there, fighting and dying, at the behest of another nation is enough to arouse criticism in Iraq, criticism that is increasingly justified and more and more virulent.