Allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have been building up their forces for the last several months in anticipation of a new push to secure the northwestern section of the country. That includes Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ advisers and Basij militia, Lebanese Hezbollah, Russian air strikes and trainers, and Iraqi fighters. The Iraqis were some of the first to mobilize for these offensives, which just begun in October.
Starting in the summer of 2015 several Iraqi armed groups groups began recruiting for deployment to Syria. As Phillip Smyth wrote in a new report for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, one of those groups was Kataib al-Imam Ali that was formed by ex-Mahdi Army militiamen. They started a drive to gain new manpower in Najaf starting in July using the Sayid Zainab shrine outside Damascus as a rallying point. The group has been sending its men to Syria since 2013. Karakt Hezbollah al-Nujaba, which is made up of former Asaib Ahl Al-Haq members, Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib formed from Liwa Abu Fadhl al-Abbas, which has been fighting in Syria for years, new groups such as Kataib al-Muqawama al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq, Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya, and Kataib al-Ansar al-Wilayah, and veteran Hashd group Kataib Hezbollah have all been bringing in new fighters for Syria since the summer as well. Smyth told the Wall Street Journal that approximately 5,000 Iraqis had gone to Syria from July to August. Some of these groups like Kataib Hezbollah have been taking part in the Iraqi government offensives in Anbar and Salahaddin, while others appear to be exclusively fighting in Syria. They are all supported by Iran, which is organizing the pro-Assad forces, and that is why these groups are leaving Iraq.
The Iraqi militiamen will be backing the Syrian Army in their operations in Homs, Ladhidiya, and Hama provinces. Iraqis were said to be involved in the first part of this offensive that started in Hama and Ladhidiya at the beginning of October. That included Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah fighters, and Russian air strikes and missile barrages. The pro-Assad forces took six villages, but rebels held out in some other areas. On October 15, the second phase started with two Syrian Divisions moving on the Rastan Plains in Homs province. According to the Associated Press the main goals of these moves are to secure the Alwaite areas of Latakia in Ladhidiya, keep the supply lines to Aleppo open, and retake areas of Hama province lost to rebels with the larger aim of shoring up the Assad government’s position in the country. That stands in contrast to the narrative that Iraqi groups use to recruit fighters as none of this fighting is near the Sayid Zainab shrine that is far to the south, nor does it involve confronting the Islamic State as Russia is using to justify its new intervention in Syria. The main rebels that the joint forces will be taking on come from groups like Al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham.
The main architects of this offensive appeared to be Tehran. General Qasim Suleimani the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force allegedly travelled to Moscow in July 2015 and met with President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu probably to discuss a joint venture in Syria. One official told the Associated Press that Iran had been asking for Russian help for a year. Tehran is also said to be in charge of much of the Syrian government’s military operations since 2011 when Assad first began putting down the protest movement. Iran organized the National Defense Forces for example based upon its own Basij militia, and brought in its Lebanese and Iraqi allies to prop up Damascus as well. It now appears to be behind the current push, and Iraqis are an integral part to its plans as they have been from almost the beginning of the Syrian war.
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