Monday, June 24, 2013

The Increasing Flow Of Iraqi Fighters To Syria, An Interview With University of Maryland’s Phillip Smyth

As the conflict in Syria has escalated, so has the involvement of foreign countries. Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and now the United States and England are all supporting one group or another in the war. Neighboring Iraq has also joined in the conflict. Every month there are reports about young Iraqis going to fight in Syria, usually organized by not only Shiite militant groups like the League of the Righteous or the Hezbollah Brigades, but also the country’s major political parties like the Sadrists and the Badr Organization. These organizations are now publicly acknowledging their losses in funerals and on the Internet. Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah are also recruiting, arming, and funding Iraqis. To help explain this growing flow of men and material to Syria from Iraq is Phillip Smyth. Smyth works for the University of Maryland’s Institute for Advanced Computer Studies’ Lab for Computational Cultural Dynamics. He also writes the Hizballah Cavalcade which focuses on militant Shia organizations operating in Syria, their members, ideologies, arms, funerals, and other related topics for the Jihadology website.

Fighters posing in Baghdad before heading for Syria (Reuters)

1. What’s the earliest date you have for when Iraqis first started heading for Syria to fight?

It is very hard to put an exact time when Iraqi Shia fighters first arrived in Syria. I would argue it started occurring in the Spring of 2012. The organizations to which Iraqi Shia belong to deliberately obscured the dates of their arrival and only started announcing deaths in Fall of 2012. The earliest concrete date I have for Iraqi Shia foreign fighters in Syria is early August 2012. Their presence was more officially exposed, due to their own messaging program in September-December, 2012.

Saad Abed al-Qadr Abu Shamia was from the Hezbollah Brigades and had his death announced in March 2013 (Jihadology)

2. Do you have any idea how many were going to Syria initially compared to today, and what are some of the units they have been associated with?

I’ve written about their units quite extensively on Hizballah Cavalcade on Jihadology. The primary organization was a front group called Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas (LAFA). LAFA is comprised of fighters from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard-Quds Force (IRGC-QF), Lebanese Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous), Kata’ib Hizballah (Hezbollah Brigades), and Basra’s Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhadah. According to a number of sources, Sadr’s Liwa al-Yum al-Mawud (Promised Day Brigades) also has fighters in Syria. I have only seen isolated evidence of this. There may have also been a split in LAFA where the trained pro-Iranian Iraqi Shia fighters refused Syrian leadership.

Numbers for the amount of Iraqi Shia fighters are hard to come by. My rough estimate would be around 800-2,000. Numbers may have gone up over the past three months, but it is impossible to verify. Initially, a core of fighters, primarily from Lebanese Hezbollah and the IRGC-QF, were the first on the ground in Damascus. As of Summer 2013, trained Iraqi Shia assist in forming a piece of the core for Shia fighters in Syria.

3. What are the main motivations for young Iraqis to get involved in the Syrian conflict?

First, let us remember from where these Iraqi Shia fighters are coming from: Iranian-backed/created organizations. Thus, their views on the conflict are constructed through that lens. I will not lend credence to such views, but will attempt to explain how they see it from that angle.

These fighters view the Syrian conflict as a representation of what Iran has cast as a “Global war” on Shia. The war in Syria is presented as a grand conspiracy of Takfiri Salafists, like Al Qaeda, backed by Gulf regimes, Israel, the United States, and Europe. From Pakistan to Baghdad, Shia mosques and shrines have been attacked by various Sunni Islamist extremists. This helps feed into such a worldview. Now, Syria’s “Shia”, actually Alawite leadership is being targeted, and Syrian Twelver Shia, a tiny community are finding themselves as targets of “The U.S.-backed Takfiris”.

Another grand symbol for Shia armed “resistance” against this perceived cabal is the “Sacred defense of Sayida Zainab Shrine” in Damascus. This sort of line demonstrates that Shia are defending their holy sites in the face of such a huge and powerful conspiracy.

For Iraqis who remember the horrific 2006 and 2007 bombings of the ‘Askari Shrine in Samarra, and countless other attacks on their religious sites by radical Sunni Islamist groups namely, Al Qaeda, the Iranian narrative and the belief they are defending a holy site has particular resonance.

For them, if Syria falls, so will other Shia communities throughout the Levant. It’s a fight to the death.

4. In western reports the Sayida Zainab shrine in Damascus is almost always mentioned as where Iraqi fighters are based. Where else in Syria are they fighting, and do you have any idea what kind of operations they are involved in?

There are reasons why the shrine features prominently in most coverage on Iraqi fighters. For starters, it was the fighters and their organizations who pushed for those in the media to make these connections. The shrine serves as an extremely recognizable talking point, and creates notions of romantic self-sacrifice. It also frames the discussion into one only focusing on how foreign Shia fighters are acting only as defensive entities.

Yes, in Syria the main body of Iraqi Shia fighters have been based around the shrine. However, they have operated throughout Damascus. Just focusing on southern portions of Damascus: Some members of LAFA and Lebanese Hezbollah fought pitched battles inside the Midan neighborhood. In other cases, Iraqi Shia fighters have been photographed fighting around Damascus airport.

Based on my research, these groups have engaged in both offensive and defensive operations inside Damascus. They have served as infantry support for Syrian armored vehicles, as snipers, and as rapid reaction units, which can be quickly thrust into battle.

It is entirely possible these Iraqi Shia fighters are operating elsewhere in Syria. Nevertheless, it is rarely publicized. Iraqi Shia organizations contributing fighters need the Sayida Zainab narrative, and do not want too much material leaking out showing that they are doing more than acting as defenders.

Two fighters from the League of the Righteous photographed in Syria. The one on the right was announced dead in April 2013 (Jihadology)

5. The League of the Righteous and Hezbollah Brigade are the two groups most associated with organizing fighters for Syria. They are on the margins of Iraqi politics. Are the country’s more mainstream political parties also involved such as the Badr Organization, Sadrists, the Supreme Council, etc.?

The “marginal” qualities of these groups, in an Iraqi context, matters very little. The important aspect to grasp is that the groups contributing fighters are all Iranian-backed. These organizations and their members believe in/push the Vilayat al-Faqih ideology, and this is the primary motivating factor.

I will have a post soon on whether the Badr Organization is getting involved. At the moment it is very hazy. I think there is a limited Sadrist presence, and it may be overblown by Sunni and pro-rebel elements who recall how the Sadrists behaved in Iraq, ethnic-cleansings, kidnappings, murders, etc. Iran can call on some members of Liwa al-Yum al-Mawud, recall the fractiousness of Sadrist militant organizations and their links to Tehran. It is important to remember that Moqtada al-Sadr actually said Iraqi Shia fighters should not fight for anyone in Syria.

As the conflict becomes more overtly sectarian, a number of more mainstream Iraqi Shia parties may start to adopt many of the narrative lines the Iranian-backed groups have been utilizing. This is more passive approval. However, in terms of contributing fighters, I don’t believe we will immediately see a concerted effort by Iraq’s large and mainstream Shia parties.

6. The press likes to call of those going to Syria as militiamen. Is that a realistic characterization or are some of these novices simply getting caught up in the fervor that the Syrian war has generated?

The vast majority of Iraqi Shia fighters who are present in Syria are quite professional. It is simply more narrative when one says, “They are all volunteers” or, I’m mocking a bit with this, “They left their simple provincial lives as peasants in Iraq to protect Shia shrines”. These are well trained and very well equipped militiamen. They come from organizations, which follow a common ideology and share the same backing.

7. What role has Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah played in recruiting and organizing Iraqis heading for Syria? Once the Iraqis are in the country do those two exercise any kind of command and control over the fighters?

Iran’s role is huge. I had been researching the topic of Shia militias in Syria since Spring of 2012, and it’s astonishing how obvious Tehran has been about their control over these fighters. They are the facilitators for the Iraqi Shia fighters to fight in Syria. When some of these Iraqis are killed, they are returned via Iran. The Iranians and Lebanese Hezbollah have also served as the core for the Shia foreign fighters on the ground. According to social media sources, there are Iraqi Shia commanders. However, it is clear the Iranians and Lebanese Hezbollah retain a dominant role.
Banner for dead League of the Righteous fighter with images of Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr (left), Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (top right), and League leader Qais Khazali (bottom right)

8. At first there were only a few scattered reports about Iraqis fighting in Syria, but now it has become public knowledge with funerals and Internet postings about those killed. What’s a typical online memorial like, and why do you think they are now open about them?

It is intriguing how Iraqi Shia killed in Syria is now “common knowledge”. When I first had discussions with some journalists and analysts covering Syria at the end of 2012, I was told the information I had was “Disparate” and “inconclusive”. Part of the reason for this was the fact that these organizations, and their backers had a phased approach in releasing information on their involvement. Simply put, they often lied, and most following their movements did not do the background research. Others missed the data, which was available and did not connect the dots. No one was really focused on Shia fighters aiding Assad. This was actually part of the reason why I started writing Hizballah Cavalcade, and posting funeral photos.

In terms of online memorials, they have evolved quite a bit over the past few months. Facebook has become a medium where many deceased individual fighters have found a home. Sometimes unique Facebook Pages are dedicated to them. Other times, a photo of the dead would be posted on an organization’s Facebook Page with limited details on their death. There are also personal photographs of the fighters, generally the dead posing with small arms. Yet, these photos are still released in a trickle.

For Iraqi Shia, the organization the fighter belonged to features as prominently as the dead individual on the martyrdom posters. Clerical leaders, namely Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq Sadr and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei are generally included. This is especially the case with Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq.

YouTube is another area where funeral videos can be found. Videos of funerals for Iraqi Shia killed in Syria are not always released the day of the funeral, often they are edited. Regardless, they are invaluable for seeing how the organizations these fighters belonged to are marketing the deaths of their members, and why they are fighting.

If it had not been for the funerals, I doubt most journalists would have had any real idea Iraqi, or for that matter, Lebanese Shia with Hezbollah were fighting and dying in Syria.

Tehran must have made the calculation that the time had come for when it would be most beneficial for these groups to release more information. Additionally, Iraqi Shia organizations participating in the fighting in Syria have only become more public with announcements due to the inability to hide their activities and those of Lebanese Hezbollah, especially in the run-up to the Battle of Qusayr.

9. Has the Maliki government taken an official position about this growing flow of fighters to Syria, and is it doing anything behind the scenes about it?

Maliki has not really taken a position. I doubt he wants to see Assad fall, especially with Sunni protests in Iraq. Maliki’s opposition has generally been opposed to Iraqi Shia fighting in Syria. It’s important to remember that Maliki is also allied with groups such as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, and that his links with Tehran have increased quite a bit over the past year.

10. How do you see this playing out for Iraq? Do you think the flow of fighters will escalate, and what do you think Baghdad’s stance is going to be in the future? 

Iran will most likely continue to draw from its stock of Iraqi Shia fighters, and use them to fight in Syria. As the war in Syria continues, more Shia volunteers, legitimate ones, not simply members of Iranian proxies will also want to get in on the action. However, it remains to be seen how the Assad regime, Iran, or others could really use them successfully.

Baghdad has to play a balancing game. As the Syrian War becomes a hyper-sectarian conflict, and Sunni Islamists dominate rebel ranks, Iraqi Shia will certainly hold more sympathy for the Assad regime. The Iraqi government will also have to work with Iran’s concerns, which include the free flow of men and material out of Iraq and into Syria. While Maliki has said Iraq would search Iranian aircraft flying over Iraq to Syria, Iran still has its over flight rights. Maliki will probably remain silent when it comes to Shia fighters leaving his country and heading into Syria.


Abdul-Zahra, Qassim, “Iraqi Shiite group says member killed in Syria,” Associated Press, 4/6/13

Agence France Presse, “Funeral held for Iraqi killed fighting in Syria,” 5/6/13
- “Sadr says his followers not fighting in Syria,” 6/8/12

Alsumaria News, “Governor of Anbar confirms possession of evidence of the entry of armed elements of the Mehdi Army to Syria,” 11/19/11

Aswat al-Iraq, “Sadrists deny sending fighters to Syria,” 2/12/12

Ghazi, Yasir and Arango, Tim, “Iraqi Sects Join Battle in Syria on Both Sides,” New York Times, 10/27/12

Karouny, Mariam, “Shi’ite fighters rally to defend Damascus shrine,” Reuters, 3/3/13

Lewis, Jessica, Ali, Ahmed, and Kagan, Kimberly, “Iraq’s sectarian crisis reignites as Shi’a militias execute civilians and remobilize,” Institute for the Study of War, 5/31/13

Al-Mada, “Official in Basra calling for the formation of an army of two million to support Assad,” 1/7/12

Nakhoul, Samia and al-Salhy, Suadad, “Thousands of Shi’ites ready to fight in Syria, Iraqi says,” Reuters, 6/21/13

Al-Qaisi, Mohammed, “Iran ‘directly involved; in recruiting Iraqis to fight in Syria: officials,” Al Shorfa, 4/24/13

Recknagel, Charles and Mandee, Samira Ali, “Iraqi Volunteers Join Both Sides Of War in Syria,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 5/24/13

Al-Salhy, Suadad, “Iraqi Shi’ite militants fight for Syria’s Assad,” Reuters, 10/16/12
- “Iraqi Shi’ite militants start to acknowledge role in Syria,” Reuters, 4/10/13
- “Iraqi Shi’ites flock to Assad’s side as sectarian split widens,” Reuters, 6/19/13

Schreck, Adam and Al-Jurani, Nabil, “Iraqi death hints of Iran’s role in Syrian crisis,” Associated Press, 5/6/13

Shafaq News, “Gunmen from Iraq and Lebanon form “Abu al-Fathl al-Abbas Brigade “to protect Sayyida Zainab shrine,” 1/20/13
- “Source: Asaib alhel al – Haq intensify their presence in Damascus to protect Zeinab shrine,” 7/26/12

Smyth, Phillip, “Hizballah Cavalcade: Roundup of Iraqis Killed in Syria, Part 1,” Jihadology, 5/11/13
- “Hizballah Cavalcade: Roundup of Iraqis Killed in Syria, Part 2,” Jihadology, 5/17/13

UPI, “Iran ‘grooms Mehdi Army for gulf ops,’” 6/9/11

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