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
Fighters posing in Baghdad before heading for Syria (Reuters)
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)
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
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.
What are the main motivations for young Iraqis to get involved in the Syrian
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.
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)
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
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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
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,”
Ghazi, Yasir and Arango, Tim, “Iraqi Sects Join Battle in
Syria on Both Sides,” New York Times, 10/27/12
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shrine,” Reuters, 3/3/13
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sectarian crisis reignites as Shi’a militias execute civilians and remobilize,”
Institute for the Study of War, 5/31/13
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army of two million to support Assad,” 1/7/12
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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
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Assad,” Reuters, 10/16/12
- “Iraqi Shi’ite militants start to acknowledge role in
Syria,” Reuters, 4/10/13
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widens,” Reuters, 6/19/13
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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