Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat—Much attention has been given to the involvement of Lebanese fighters from Hezbollah in the fighting in Syria, understandably so given their fierce reputation and role as the vanguard of recent government offensives in the Qalamoun region. Reports of Iranian assistance on the battlefield, including drones, have also received great attention. But there is also another group of Arab fighters that has played a key role in bolstering the forces of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
Since their arrival in Damascus, bands of Iraqi militia fighters have done much to take the pressure off Syrian government forces in and around the capital. Whereas Hezbollah’s contributions to the war effort have been concentrated on the Lebanese border, primarily in the countryside between Damascus and Homs to the north, Iraqi fighters are now an important part of the regime’s forces in the south of the country.
It is difficult to determine the number of Iraqis involved in the fighting, considering that the Iraqi presence in the area south of Damascus can be dated to 2001. An opposition source south of the capital told Asharq Al-Awsat that Iraqi fighters have come to Syria “in defense of Shi’a religious sites, most notably the Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque south of the capital,” but the number of fighters, placed at around 6,000, is “not precise.”
The area around the Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque attracts large numbers of Iraqi Shi’ites, many of whom fled Iraq after 2001 in order to escape Saddam Hussein. This number reached record levels in 2003 following the US-led invasion. Syrian activists say that the large numbers of displaced Iraqis effectively “turned streets in the Sayyidah Zaynab area into purely Iraqi neighborhoods, which have remained as such even after the Syrian revolution in 2011.”
The Iraqi presence in the war became apparent in the fall of 2012, when clashes between the regime and the opposition reached southern Damascus.
The first measure taken by Iraqi fighters was to secure the Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque. An Iraqi source in Syria said that the initial push to defend the mosque involved around 600 fighters, spurred on by “sectarian slogans” scrawled on the mosque’s wall, one of which said “[Zaynab] will fall with the regime.” The opposition denies the existence of this slogan, saying it was “an excuse fabricated in order to justify [Iraqi Shi’a] intervention on behalf of the regime and to draw in more militants.”
Another opposition source said that the Iraqis’ mission “was concentrated in the areas around religious sites before expanding.” According to a senior opposition sources based in the the Damascus countryside, Iraqi fighters are “primarily in the area around Sayyidah Zaynab, as well as the shrine of Sakinah bint Ali in Darya, which is under the control of the opposition.” They also sent fighters to Nubl and Al-Zahraa, two rebel-controlled Shi’a villages in the Aleppo suburbs that are home to more than 40,000 Shi’ites.
The Al-Abbas Brigade is the most prominent militant group fighting in Syria. The group appeared on the scene in the last days of 2012 in the Sayyidah Zaynab area. They are a highly organized and well-trained military group equipped with modern weaponry, making them highly effective in urban combat. Moreover, the Brigade enjoys a clear military hierarchy and is fully coordinated with the Syrian war machine.
The majority of the Brigade’s fighters are Iraqi Shi’ites from various militant groups in their homeland. Although other militia groups are present in Syria, the Al-Abbas Brigade is reportedly the most influential. Iraqi fighters, primarily the Al-Abbas Brigade, were able to achieve victory for the regime in the area around Sayyidah Zaynab last fall. They have since moved on to other flashpoints, such as Babbila, Al-Hajar Al-Aswad, and the Yarmouk refugee camp. They have also moved eastwards in an attempt to secure the road to Damascus International Airport.
In terms of their recent operations, opposition sources said last week that Iraqi fighters spearheaded an operation on the highway between the city and the airport, where they lost more than 12 fighters while trying to fend off an attack by the Al-Nusra Front and other Islamic contingents in the region. In addition, sources indicate that Iraqi militias are actively involved in the attack on Al-Malihah in East Ghouta, north of the Syrian capital.
Opposition fighters say that within their ranks it is believed the presence of Iraqi fighters is “an attempt by the regime to stem the shortfall in manpower,” pointing out that the regime has “employed [Iraqis] as mercenaries in the war against the opposition, moving them around Damascus as fighters and a rearguard”.
In Aleppo, the most important flashpoints are Nubl and Al-Zahraa, due to the large deficit in regime forces in the area. Sources say the regime recruits these fighters through ideological methods, explaining that “all outside forces fighting alongside the regime are doing so out of a specific political concern; Iraqis fight in Shi’a areas, and Hezbollah fights under the pretext of border security.”
Iraqi authorities do not officially support any faction in the three-year-old Syrian conflict, and they have repeatedly denied allowing Shi’a militias to fight in Syria. But the reality is that some of these militias, such as Hezbollah and the Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq (The League of the Righteous), are able to travel to Syria in defense of Shi’a holy sites without objection from the Iraqi government, especially after the Iranian-built tomb of Hujr ibn Adi was desecrated by Al-Qaeda-linked militants.
Despite repeated official denials, Iraqi factions informally encourage fighters to defend Shi’a shrines, a duty they do not think requires approval from any government. The official Iraqi denial of these accusations came from Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, as well as the Ministry of the Interior. The facts on the ground suggest that Iraqi citizens travel to Syria in secret, either of their own volition or on orders from various factions. Their return from the fighting is typically not publicized, but their funeral processions are often prominent events within their communities. They largely hail from central and southern Shi’ite-majority provinces, and government officials have been known to attend the services. The Shi’a parties that have encouraged participation in the war in Syria include the Mahdi Army, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), the Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq, and Iraqi Hezbollah.
Variation in public messaging often signifies divergence within the ranks. This principle can be seen as regards Shi’ite fighters in Syria. Hamid Al-Mutlaq, a member of the Committee on Security and Defense in the Iraqi parliament, says the violence in Syria has made Iraq less secure.
“Iraq has become party to the Syrian conflict in an inauspicious manner,” he said. “The Iraqi government had often accused the Syrian regime of sheltering terrorists who cross into Iraq; however, today it defends the Syrian regime and turns a blind eye to the participation of Iraqi fighters in the conflict, all the while censuring other countries who do likewise. Overall, the Syrian crisis has negatively impacted the situation in Iraq. That is mainly due to the porous border that divide the two countries. Foreign fighters cross back and forth following fatwas of jihad, which include armed militias and terrorist groups. It is clear that Iran is behind all of this.”
As the conflict has dragged on, it has become less and less of a taboo topic. Abdul-Hussein Abtan, vice-president of the parliamentary Citizen Bloc of the ISCI, said in a recent television statement that while it was not official government policy to send fighters to Syria, it was still an acceptable practice.
“Young Shi’ites fighting in Syria are not in violation of Iraqi law, because they are not fighting anybody,” he said. “If the Syrian state is incapable of protecting the sacred shrine of Sayyidah Zaynab, Shi’ite men will volunteer to defend every shrine and sacred place the world over. The war is not between the Syrian regime and some terrorists, such as the Free Syrian Army. Those young people are protecting the shrines because it is our duty to do so.”
Most Shi’ite political leaders, especially the Sadrists and the Mahdi Army, are less forthcoming regarding Iraqi Shi’ites fighting in Syria. Abu Abdullah, a spokesman for Hezbollah–Islamic Renaissance, which is led by Wathiq Al-Battat and is affiliated with the Mukhtar Army, told Asharq Al-Awsat the group’s leader had ordered his followers to stop travelling to Syria, while the Sadrists deny that the Mahdi Army ever deployed fighters abroad. Abu Abdullah added: “The order to freeze was issued by Secretary-General Wathiq Battat, who is adamant that what is happening in Syria is a Syrian affair, and that . . . [we] should not get involved.”
Nonetheless, Abu Abdullah confirmed that Hezbollah–Islamic Renaissance had been sending fighters, but would not offer any further explanations as to why they stopped doing so. Meanwhile, the secretary-general of the Sadrist Ahrar Bloc, Dia’a Al-Asadi, has previously denied that the Sadrists or the Mahdi Army had ever sent fighters to Syria. At a press conference held at the headquarters of the political arm of the Sadrist movement, Asadi said: “Talk about sending Mahdi Army personnel to Syria is unfounded, and we deny it unequivocally. The Mahdi Army operates in Iraq, and nowhere else. The Syrian opposition may say what it wants, but the reality is that Moqtada Al-Sadr has denied this repeatedly, and he is opposed to interfering in the affairs of others.”
The clearest stance of all of Iraq’s Shi’ite political parties in this regard belongs to the Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq, a Shi’a paramilitary group led by Qais Al-Khazali. Khazali was once a leader in the Sadrist movement and close to Moqtada Al-Sadr, before splitting with the group in 2006. According to Sadr, the Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq is now close with the State of Law Coalition led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Ahmad Kanani, official spokesman of the Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq has already announced that its official position is to defend the sacred sites of Islam, which is the duty of every Muslim, Sunni and Shi’ite. Attacks on the Shi’a holy sites could trigger sectarian strife, which would bring about reprisals, as happened in Iraq in 2006 with the destruction of the Al-Askari Mosque, which led to sectarian strife. Therefore we are trying to spare the region this conflict by defending the shrine of Sayyidah Zaynab and thus avoid the need for targeted reprisals.”
Al-Kanani continued: “The movement’s fighters are not fighting alongside Syrian regime forces, but rather their mission is limited to the defense of holy places. The movement incorporates the followers of various Shi’a religious authorities. We are not all followers of the same religious authority. Some of these factions have been told to defend the holy shrines, while others have not. Going in the name of Islam is up to the individual; it is not a political matter.”
In response to a question on whether or not religious rights are performed for fighters killed in action, Kanani stated that, “We have a foundation for martyrs; however, fighters serving in Syria are not inducted as of yet because we have not officially endorsed that. However, there are groups within civil society that help these people in the event that something happens to them there.”