During the spring of 2017 the Hashd al-Shaabi reached the Iraq-Syrian border. Immediately, many of the pro-Iranian factions of the Hashd talked about crossing over to help the Assad government as many already had units doing so on the Syrian side. At the same time, they denied that they would enter the neighboring country without the authorization of the Iraqi government, but some did.
When the Hashd al-Shaabi got to western Iraq some units began discussing crossing into Syria. In April 2017 for instance, Asaib Ahl Al-Haq’s (AAH) Jawad Talabawi said that it should chase the Islamic State into Syria. The Guardian reported in June that Hashd units were building a road from central Ninewa to the Baaj district in the west and then into Syria. By the fall, the Iraqi forces were also pushing into western Anbar and Hashd leaders again talked about being ready to enter Syria in cooperation with the Syrian government forces. Almost all of the Hashd groups backed by Tehran have been involved in the Syrian war since its start. This was part of Iran’s policy of calling in its allies from across the Middle East to aid President Bashar al-Assad. That included Iraqi militias being sent to Damascus. This was actively supported by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who aligned himself with Iran at the end of his administration. It has quietly been continued by the pro-western Premier Haidar Abadi who opposes these groups, but doesn’t have the political capital to take them on directly.
Officially, the Hashd have said they will follow the government and not move into Syria. A spokesman for the Hashd in June for instance denied that any units had crossed the border. AAH’s Talabawi told the press that the Hashd would follow the orders of PM Abadi and not operate in Syria. Finally, Hashd spokesman Ahmed al-Assadi was quoted in November that Iraqi law does not allow any forces to move into Syria without the approval of Baghdad. The Hashd do not want to hurt their image that they are loyal members of the Iraqi security forces, and that they are common people who heeded the call to defend their country. While publicly lobbying Abadi to allow them to head into Syria, they claimed they would follow his directives to stay out of foreign affairs. Some of the Iranian backed factions had other ideas however.
Starting in the summer there have been various reports of Hashd units fighting in Syria despite their statements to the contrary. In June for example, Al Rafidain had a story that a Hashd unit went 10 kilometers into Syria and took two towns after the Islamic State withdrew from the area in what was said to be a border clearing operation. Later that month, two Kataibh Hezbollah brigades met in Anbar, one coming from Syria and the other from Iraq. Then in August, Al Mada reported that Kataib Hezbollah had used to the Walid border crossing to enter Syria. Also that month, Kataib Sayid al-Shuhada’s 14th Brigade was said to have gone 14 kilometers into Syria and suffered 80 casualties at the hands of IS. Shuhada tried to cover up their activities by claiming that they were attacked by the U.S., but the Abadi government and the Joint Operations Command denied that happened. In September, Saraya Ansar al-Aqeeda’s 28th Brigade moved from Ninewa into a Syrian village. Later, a large battle began between IS and the Syrian forces over Abu Kamal along the Iraq-Syrian border. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights had Hashd forces taking part. Finally, in November during the operation to free western Anbar, officers from the army’s 7th Division and Tribal Hashd forces told Iraq Oil Report that Hashd units had used the opportunity to go into Syria to fight in Abu Kamal. Many of the Hashd are beholden to Iran having been formed by it, and receive money and weapons as well. Almost all have been fighting in Syria for the last few years. It should be no surprise then that once they reached the Syrian border they would take advantage of the situation. Recruiting Shiites from across western Asia to prop up the Assad government has been one of Tehran’s major policies this decade. Its allies in Iraq have been all too willing to help out.
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