In April 2013 there were reports of young Iraqis being recruited to fight in Syria. Many were joining a new militia called Abu Fadhl Al-Abbas Brigade. They would sign up in Iraq and then travel to Iran for training before being shipped off to Syria. The reason given for the group’s involvement in Syria was to protect the Shiite shrine of Sayid Zainab in the Damascus suburbs, but it was really one of a number of armed groups organized by Iran to defend the government of Bashar al-Assad. It is now doing the same in Iraq defending the Baghdad government.
The Abu Fadhl Al-Abbas Brigade was created by Iran to organize Shiite fighters for the conflict in Syria. In 2012 the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps – Quds Force (IRGC-QF) put together the Abu Fadhl Al-Abbas Brigade using members of Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, Kataib Hezbollah, former members of the Mahdi Army, the Shuhada Brigade, along with Lebanese Hezbollah elements. The official reason why the militia was formed was to defend the Shiite shrine of Sayid Zainab in the Damascus suburbs, but in fact it was part of a plan by Quds Force commander General Qasim Suleimani to defend the Bashar al-Assad government. That was proven by the fact that Abu Fadhl Al-Abbas has been deployed to places like Aleppo, which is far to the north of Damascus, and by testimony of one of its fighters who was told upon arrival in Syria that he was there to protect the Syrian regime not just the shrine. Many of the militiamen were taken to Tehran for training, and Iranian advisers accompanied them into the field as well. Sheikh Qasim al-Tai, a former Sadrist who has now pledged allegiance to Iran and vilyat al-faqih is one of the militia’s leaders. Iran was determined to keep its ally the Assad government in power when protests started. It quickly organized Syrians, and then Lebanese and Iraqis into militias to keep the regime in power. In doing so it also ended up taking over much of the military policy in the country, as Damascus became dependent upon its support.
Abu Fadhl Al-Abbas fighters in Damascus (Syrian Revolution)
While in Syria the militias has deployed alongside the Syria army against the rebels, and taken part in at least one massacre. On October 8, 2013 government forces began shelling the town of Thyabeya outside Damascus with tanks and artillery along with air strikes. Militiamen from Lebanese Hezbollah and the Abu Fadhl Al-Abbas Brigade then moved into the town and executed civilians. The Syrian war has been marked by many such brutal events, as the country has broken apart into warring factions.
When the insurgency began taking off in early 2014 in Iraq, Abu Fadhl Al-Abbas began deploying there as well, again under Iranian direction. In March 2014, the militia posted on Facebook that it was operating in Iraq. In June it had video of its forces patrolling in Baghdad, and then after the fall of Mosul that month 1,500 of its fighters were sent to Samarra to defend the city. The next month it was involved in a security operation in Babil’s Jurf al-Sakhr. It also created a new organization Abu Fadhl Al-Abbas Tashkil al-Iraq marking its new emphasis upon that country. Just like Syria Iranian advisers provided supplies, intelligence, air cover, and coordination with other militias and the Iraqi Security Forces for the group. Tehran was repeating the same policy it used in Syria to face the new threat in Iraq. It deployed its militia allies to defend Baghdad against rebels, put its men out into the field to assist these groups, and delivered arms and ammunition to make the sure the government does not fall, while greatly expanding its power within the state.
Iran has always wanted to influence its neighbor Iraq, and the insurgent surge in the summer has provided it with one of its greatest opportunities to do so. Iranian backed militias now make up half or more of Baghdad’s forces, and they have been in the forefront of almost every major victory against the militants. Abu Fadhl Al-Abbas was prepared for this role through its experience in Syria where it was created by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to defend the regime there. Now it and Iran are trying to repeat that same strategy in Iraq with great success as the government just like the one in Syria is dependent upon Iran and its allies.
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