Iraqi militias complicate battle for Aleppo


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Iraqi militia fighters are flocking to Syria to bolster the Assad regime’s rebel headquarters in Aleppo, further complicating the tangled web of alliances the United States relies on to fight the Islamic State, which can turn an ally into an ally. ‘one side of the border into an enemy on the other.

Shiite militias, which fought alongside U.S.-backed Iraqi government forces against the Islamic State in Iraq, are now fighting Sunni Syrian rebels, some of whom are armed and trained by the United States.

More than 1,000 Iraqi Shiite militants have traveled from Iraq since early September, joining the ranks of 4,000 others already on the ground near Aleppo, militia leaders and Syrian rebels said. They represent about half of the regime’s estimated land force of 10,000.

The siege they are helping to impose has tipped the battle there in favor of President Bashar al-Assad. Its ruling Alawite sect has leaned on other Shiite powers – the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hezbollah’s Lebanese militia, and Afghan Shiite fighters – to bolster government forces exhausted by deaths, defections and war. wear during five years of war.

The regime, along with its ally Russia, has heavily bombed rebel areas in the divided city in recent weeks. The offensive claimed hundreds of lives, including dozens of children, and this week sparked the failure of joint US-Russian efforts to forge a lasting ceasefire and relaunch talks on a political solution.

In an update on the situation in Aleppo released on Tuesday, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said the living conditions of around 250,000 people in besieged neighborhoods in eastern Aleppo have deteriorated. deteriorated, and “an assessment in eastern Aleppo city found that 50% of residents have expressed a willingness to leave if they can.

Tensions between the United States and Syria escalated this week as the United States withdrew from talks with Russia aimed at reducing violence in Syria’s civil war. Washington Institute principal researcher Andrew Tabler has details on the lunch break with Tanya Rivero. Photo: Getty

Hashem al-Mosawwi, a commander of the Iraqi Shiite militia Al Nujaba, or “The Nobles”, said his group had deployed 1,000 fighters to Aleppo in September – the latest influx of Shiite fighters in recent weeks – and that he saw their involvement as part of a wider regional fight against terrorism. Other militia leaders said they also sent fighters recently, without giving figures.

Mr Mosawwi claimed the Aleppo rebels were part of an extremist Sunni axis sponsored by Saudi Arabia and the United States

“These … terrorist groups are causing all the problems in the region and in the world and they should be stopped,” he said, naming several Sunni opposition groups in Syria that he considers to be synonymous with Sunni extremists in Syria. ‘Islamic State. The Syrian opposition is dominated by the country’s Sunni majority.

A spokesperson for the US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria did not respond to a request for comment.

What is remarkable is that Iraqi militias are flocking to wage a battle deep within Syria, just as the anti-Islamic State alliance at home prepares for its biggest battle in more than two years of operation. war. The offensive against Mosul, the extremist group’s last stronghold in Iraq, is expected to start this month.

Shiite militias are expected to play only a marginal role in the Battle for Mosul, despite having successfully waged some battles to expel ISIS from Iraqi towns and villages, including predominantly Sunni areas like Tikrit.

Rivals in the city’s long conflict

REGIME STRENGTHS

  • Syrian government troops, fighting on several fronts
  • Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia supported by Iran
  • Three Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militias, including Al Nujaba
  • The Russian Air Force, which joined the regime in a bombardment of rebel-held neighborhoods in Aleppo

REBEL GROUPS

  • Former US-backed Nour al-Din al-Zenki now aligned with an alliance that includes the Syrian Conquest Front
  • Faylaq al-Sham, an Islamist rebel alliance group
  • Fastaqim Kama Umirt, a rebel group supported by the United States
  • The Levant Front, a moderate alliance supported by the United States

Allegations that militias systematically abused Sunnis, whom they perceive to be supporters of the Islamic State and who constitute the bulk of the population in areas seized by the extremist group in 2014, recently prompted the government to restrict the Shiite militias to second rank. the roles. Militia leaders said the constant sidelining of their paramilitaries inside Iraq was one of the key factors in their push towards Aleppo.

Many militia fighters first mobilized in Syria in 2012, fighting alongside Mr. Assad. But they were brought back to Iraq to help stem an Islamic State attack in 2014 that saw militants take nearly a third of the country.

Their return has given Mr. Assad an auxiliary force experienced in urban combat and rooted in the belief that anti-Assad forces are ideologically indistinguishable from Islamic State radicals and are proxies of Iran’s great regional rival, Saudi Arabia.

Al Nujaba is one of a triad of Iraqi Shiite militias currently besieging eastern Aleppo. The other two are Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas, the commanders said. Asaib fought US troops in the decade-long US-led war in Iraq. The leaders of the three militias deny the allegations of abuse and stoking sectarian tensions.

Mosawwi said his forces were in Syria to protect Shiite and Christian holy sites, while providing the Assad regime with their honed expertise during two years of battles with the Islamic State in Iraq.

The outcome of years of fighting to recapture Aleppo is seen as crucial in determining the victors of the larger war in Syria. Some diplomats in the Middle East have said they fear the Iraqi Shiite militias could turn into a larger, outward-focused force tasked with settling scores between Shiites and Sunnis in the region.

“The use of Iraq [militias] reflects how Iranian outreach in the region is becoming more and more aggressive and Iran is only using Shiite forces to increase the level of war in the region in order to achieve its political means, ”said a senior Arab diplomat based in Beirut. “But this only serves to increase sectarian tensions in the region and the cycle of bloodshed in this competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran.”

The Badr Organization, one of Iraq’s most powerful Shiite paramilitary forces and political party, currently has no forces in Aleppo, but has hinted that after the Battle of Mosul it may expand its local base into a regional force.

Moeen al-Kadhemi, deputy leader of Badr and commander of the armed wing, sees the potential of his group to join the fight in Syria once the Islamic State is defeated in Iraq.

“In the future, after finishing Iraq, we may have to go abroad to fight the enemy,” he said.

Write to Tamer El-Ghobashy at [email protected] and Maria Abi-Habib at [email protected]

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