The growing power of Iran’s ‘international brigade’
In Syria, Iranian-controlled militias made up of Shia fighters from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan have become vital components of the expanding army that Tehran has deployed there to keep Syrian President Bashar Assad in power.
In Iraq, Shia militias are a major military and political entity underlining Iran’s expanding influence through ideological proxies and by force of arms, accelerating demographic shifts in both war-torn countries that will cement Iranian influence and control.
But these forces, operated by the elite expeditionary arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the Quds Force, are also there for a much broader strategic purpose: To secure a land bridge that the Tehran regime seeks to build from Iran’s western border through Iraq, Syria, often by way of their Kurdish zones, and Lebanon to the Mediterranean Sea.
With these deployments of battle-hardened proxies, along with the seasoned veterans of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iran has established paramilitary forces in key Arab states that are primary targets in Tehran’s drive to make the Islamic Republic the region’s dominant power.
The Iranian-led Shia participation in the Syrian and Iraqi wars, ostensibly to crush the Sunni jihadists of the Islamic State (ISIS), masks a swelling sectarian conflict emerging between Iran and its long-time rival, Saudi Arabia, birthplace of Islam and the beacon of its dominant Sunni sect.
“At a time when direct and proxy conflicts are ravaging the Middle East and North Africa, rivalries such as the heated Saudi-Iranian stand-off will continue to transcend national borders with unpredictably destabilising effects,” observed analyst Farzin Nadimi of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“By progressively expanding paramilitary units and providing them with more advanced weapons and tactics, Iran seems bent on creating enough foot soldiers to realise Ayatollah Khomeini’s dream of Islam sans frontières,” he wrote in an August 22nd analysis.
Amir Toumaj, an Iranian specialist with the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, noted at about the same time: “Developing the foreign militias serves the IRGC’s long-term interests… extending the guard’s arms into the region.
“These forces could return to their home countries and act as Iranian assets there… The IRGC is honing this capability in Syria and Iraq and aspires to develop a capable foreign legion.
“The war in Syria will certainly be the crucible for the IRGC’s mission to export the (Iranian) revolution and expand its influence in the Middle East.”
Brigadier-General Mohammad Ali Falaki, an Iranian who commands the Fatemiyoun Division — 20,000 Afghan Shia fighters — in Syria, declared in August that his unit was part of a “Shia liberation army” under the Quds Force head, Major- General Qassem Soleimani, that is fighting on three fronts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
Falaki, a veteran of Iran’s 1980- 88 war with Iraq, is one of about 50 experienced IRGC commanders brought out of retirement to lead the Shia militias that Tehran has flung into its proxy wars.
There are around 20 Shia militias in Iraq, most of them collectively known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). These are under the direct command of Soleimani, whose Quds Force is responsible for the IRGC’s foreign operations, long clandestine but now bursting from the shadows to do battle.
Kirk H. Sowell of the Carnegie Endowment said these militias’ strength and firepower “expanded dramatically following the June 2014 collapse of the Iraqi Army” when Mosul was stormed by the Islamic State.
J. Matthew McInnis, a former US intelligence official who specialised on Iran and is now with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a right-wing Washington think-tank, estimates that the strength of Iranian proxy forces in Iraq has tripled since 2014, when ISIS seized large chunks of the country, to around 80,000.
Some of these fought a guerrilla war against the United States in Iraq and killed some 500 troops before US forces were withdrawn in 2011. In a bitter twist of fate that underlines the complexities of the wars in Iraq and Syria, they are now fighting ISIS along with the Americans.
US Army Colonel Chris Garver, a Baghdad-based military spokesman, on August 16th put the total at closer to 100,000.
There are no firm figures for Shia proxies in Syria, where they and Hezbollah, along with Iranian military units, are all under Soleimani’s command, but their combined strength is estimated in the tens of thousands.
As US-backed government forces in Iraq gather momentum in their offensive to recapture the northern city of Mosul, seized by ISIS in June 2014, the PMF has been deployed west of the city.
With the Iraqi Army advancing from the south, the PMF’s mission is ostensibly to block the ISIS escape route from Mosul westward to Raqqa, the embattled ISIS strong¬hold in northern Syria and the de facto capital of the Islamic caliphate the jihadists declared nearly two-and-a-half years ago.
But it is likely that the Shia militias, who are increasingly a destabilising element as Iraq wrestles with its sectarian demons, are there for another purpose altogether: Carving out the land bridge to the Mediterranean that is the centrepiece of Iran’s grand design.
James Bruce is an Arab Weekly contributor in Beirut.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.