Strange Bedfellows: Shiite Militias and the Future of Syria and Iraq

The same Shiite militiamen who partner with the US to battle ISIS in Syria and Iraq might also wish us harm, when we're not converging on the same target.

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Mar 8 2015, 10:12am

Photo by Ali Mohammed/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

In the fight against ISIS, the front lines are etched by blood-stained sand and the calculations of strange bedfellows. The same Shiite militiamen who partner with the United States to battle ISIS in Syria and Iraq might also wish us harm, when we're not converging on the same target.

Not all of these militia groups pledge allegiance to Iran, the Shiite stronghold trying to position itself as a champion for Muslims and minorities against Sunni jihadists like ISIS. But the influx of Shiite fighters reveals the tendrils of Iran's influence. Shiite militias that aid us in a pragmatic, Machiavellian way also help sustain the Assad regime in Syria and, through retribution against Sunnis, feed the entrenched, sectarian animus that defines Iraqi society. As more forces are activated to combat ISIS, many scholars have argued that Iran stands to gain, on the ground in Damascus and Baghdad and in the zoomed-out power game.

Among them is Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland and adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. In an in-depth study on Shiite militarism, Smyth argues that the militias represent a mobile army of Iran's bidding. VICE spoke to Smyth about the future of Iraq, Iran's foreign policy, and the consequences of sectarian war.

VICE: You believe that the US should reaffirm its commitment to a unified Iraq. Can you elaborate?
Phillip Smyth: The United States has pushed that we wanted a more inclusive government in Baghdad, one that would be accepting of Sunni, Shiite, and the multitude of minority groups. Frankly, the Iraqi government has become a Shiite-dominated institution. Don't get me wrong; many of these Shiites were democratically elected. However, there is a project going on where certain ministries, in almost a feudalistic form, have taken control through very sectarian Shiite parties, and Sunnis feel very, very left out. This allows for the growth of ISIS. I think a lot of people tend to ignore that factor.

Think about this: Iraqi Sunni tribes normally would not have gone over to what was then AQI, Al Qaeda in Iraq. They fought alongside them, but then they got sick of them and joined the Sahwa Movement (the "Sunni Awakening"). Then, all of a sudden, ISIS is gaining lots and lots of popularity because there are these grievances in the Sunni community with the Shiite government. And those were never really addressed.

The US needs to firmly keep coming out and saying we support an inclusive government that doesn't make Sunnis feel isolated. As a state, we have generally supported the rights of many different groups living under the national banner.

You argue that what appears as an organic flow of Shiite fighters into Syria is really an orchestrated effort by Iran.
There is no way anyone can deny that Iran has not only guided but controlled the flow of fighters for the most part, and it doesn't mean they weren't working with Assad. They altered the narrative of the war. I mean, how do you get Shiite jihadist foreign fighters to go to Syria? First, they manufactured a need for this holy war, where Iran was very big on promoting a defensive jihad, of defending Shiite holy sites in Syria against Sunni extremists, in particular the golden-domed Sayyeda Zainab shrine. And it resonated with a lot of people. They understood the romantic pull it would have on many.

Then there is the Hezbollah influence. And you have Iraqi Shiite forces that have direct ties to other Iranian proxies: Ketaib Hezbollah; the Badr Organization; Asaib Ahl al-Haqq. All of these fighters were showing up and it's most certainly not an organic move. I think there is some level of genuine volunteering. But we are talking about a recruitment program that is huge. Iran is in the background leading this, filtering in fighters not just from Iraq, but from Afghanistan and other "exotic" locales.

The real way to kind of tell the sectarian war was getting hotter was to look at the funerals. In Iraq they would send the bodies to Iran first. It's a highly organized effort by Iran and they manage it so fluidly and so well and we are seeing the effects today.

We've seen the threat of ISIS. What threat do Shiite militias pose?
It depends on the Shiite militia. But if we are talking about these Iranian direct proxy groups, it's a monumental threat. And I say that because they demonstrated a very sophisticated manner of being able to attack American and coalition forces when they were still occupying Iraq. They have advanced weaponry, advanced tactics; they have a state backer. Beyond that, they have their own radical extremist ideology, which is highly anti-American. But then there is another long-term goal. If American policy is to build a more inclusive Baghdad and pull Sunnis out of the clutches of ISIS, what happens when the main forces on the ground executing attacks against ISIS, and by extension the Sunni community, are these radical and sectarian and extremist Shiite groups? That doesn't really build much consensus. It hurts the long-term policy.

Photo by Ali Mukarrem Garip/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

What is the alternative to relying on Shiite militias if Iraqi security forces are inadequate?
This is a huge problem. And I think it goes beyond Iraq just having a functional security force. Because you have to remember, when we are talking about Shiite militia groups, many of them have not only infiltrated but now control large sections of the security forces.

I would argue that there has been an active move by the militias to keep the Iraqi military weak. Why is that? One: it allows them to project power more effectively. Two: It means that the country is reliant upon them for their own security. And three: there are elements of the Iraqi military who don't like the Shiite militias, who may be Shiite themselves or are Iraqi nationalists—and this is a good way to keep them in check.

I don't believe that one of these solutions is to ally yourself with the lesser of two evils. Iran plays 3D chess and we are still learning how to get the checkers board out of the box. I don't think anybody wants ISIS to exist or to fester, but then again, do you want the replacement for that to be a hyper-radicalized sectarian militia-apparatus with revenge on its mind?

Many Shiite militias are believed to have committed human rights violations.
I have a number of social media profiles where I follow Shiite militias. In the past month and a half I don't think there's been a single day where I've not seen a video or a photograph showing some kind of abuse, what we'd call a human rights violation, or possibly a war crime going on on camera. And most would respond: Who cares. It's happening to an ISIS guy and he deserves it. But we don't even know who that is. We don't know if it's an ISIS guy. It could be some Sunni villager.

How do the West's Sunni Arab allies view the rise of the Shiite militias in Syria and Iraq?
They view this as a long-term regional power struggle. And it's eroding our alliances with them. They are scared about what's going to happen when the militia guns eventually turn on them.

Follow Hamza Shaban on Twitter.

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