In the past year or so, much has been made of the Assad regime’s victories in different areas of Syria. From Aleppo to Daraya and most recently the besieged Homs suburb of Al-Waer, the regime recaptured bastions of Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades across the country. Whilst the Assad regime’s victories have often been put under the label of the “Syrian Army” in general media coverage, the reality of who exactly constitutes that army is generally very different.
Whilst the dominant role of pro-regime foreign militias has been relatively underplayed in general media coverage (especially when compared to the attention given to foreign fighters travelling to Syria to fight for groups such as ISIS), what in particular has been little covered is the role of Iraqi state-backed brigades in the fighting: Iraqi Shia brigades known collectively as part of the “Popular Mobilisation Units” (PMUs) or al-Hashd al-Sha’abi (Hashd for short). Possessing a sectarian-doctrinal loyalty to the Iranian theocracy, the Assad-allied PMUs receive simultaneous Western and Iranian military backing in the fight against ISIS and other Sunni insurgents inside Iraq. However like ISIS their fighting is not limited just to the borders of Iraq; they are a transnational force who believe in fighting for Iran’s cross-border “Islamic nation”. Whilst most of the core PMU brigades have joined in the fighting in Syria, some have refused to follow Iran’s line and do so; notably the Saraya al-Salam (”Peace Companies”) of the influential cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Similarly, in stark contrast to the substantial attention devoted in official Western statements to “ISIS’ trampling of national borders”, little has been made of the same process taking place by the PMUs and indeed other pro-Iran groups such as Hezbollah (the latter has also come to experience a relative rapprochement with the United States in the post-Arab Spring era with US officials poignantly declaring that they do not view Hezbollah as a threat, and with the Lebanese Army serving as a security and intelligence conduit between the two sides in the greater fight against Sunni jihadism; indeed there have even been reports of direct coordination against Jabhat al-Nusra).
Numbering somewhere in the region of 20,000+ fighters spread across a dozen core constituent groups (details of the individual PMU factions can be found here in English and Arabic), the PMUs fighting in Syria are the single largest component within the pro-Iran coalition fighting for the Assad regime in Syria – twice outnumbering Hezbollah. They view their fighting in Syria as part of an ideological “holy war” – albeit a Shia rather than Sunni one – and have been accused of war crimes inside Syria as well as Iraq. The sectarian nature of their Syrian intervention is reflected in the areas that the PMU groups profess to be fighting in, with the bulk of their fighting concentrated not in the known ISIS strongholds of Raqqa, al-Hasakah or Deir al-Zor but mainly in West Syria and the far-away, anti-ISIS popular bastions of the mainstream Sunni rebel forces (mainly local Free Syrian Army and Islamic Front battalions) in Hama, Homs, Aleppo, Rural Damascus and Dara’a. In many such crucial battles, as in the regime’s attempts to regain control of Damascus’ besieged suburbs and Aleppo, the Iraqi brigades played a dominant front-line role.
In both Syria and Iraq sectarian PMU groups have been accused of carrying out sectarian cleansing in Sunni areas (often under US air-cover); including emptying villages from their inhabitants, razing their homes to the ground, and partaking in extreme brutality and torture against their opponents. Inside Iraq the militias receive direct military support (including aerial cover) from the US and its allies as well as salaries, machinery and arms provided by the Western-backed Iraqi government (whilst the US has also taken part in training select PMU groups). The PMUs have arguably played the most decisive role in the Assad regime’s victories in the past year, surpassing the much more media-reported role of Hezbollah. It was their increased presence that was decisive in capturing rebel-held strongholds (which Hezbollah and the Syrian Army for years proved uncapable of), most prominently East Aleppo and the Damascus suburb of Daraya. Though not as extensive, there have also been reports of regular Iraqi security personnel belonging to SWAT teams, Special Operation Forces (SOF) and ’Rapid Response Units’ fighting alongside the PMUs in Syria.
The years-long Western backing of Iraqi brigades who fight for Assad in Syria has received scant to little coverage in mainstream Western media, despite both their decisive role in support of Assad and the reality of their Western backing being well-reported by Syrian groups and activists. Ironically, much of ‘alternative’ media and anti-war platforms have also similarly largely ignored their critical intervention inside Syria, perhaps viewing it as an uncomfortable, complex contradiction to a long-propagated and comfortable (yet false and simplistic) ‘regime-change’ narrative.
Meanwhile, in much mainstream media coverage from the frontlines of Mosul, it would be common to find BBC and Sky News journalists declaring that they were “embedded with the Iraqi Army” whilst the flags of a PMU faction could be seen clearly flying in the background. Yet whilst this form of coverage (of presenting sect-based militias to Western audiences as a ‘national’ – i.e. non-sectarian – regular army) can be deceiving, the PMU groups nonetheless have indeed been the backbone of the Iraqi state’s forces and long constituted the closest Iraq had to an effective ‘army’. There is thus a combined ‘mainstream’ and ‘alternative’ media failure on much of reporting regarding Syria.
Whilst having previously qualified as a ‘substate militia’ – albeit one still operating with official state sanction – as of November 2016 the ‘militias’ finally and officially became legally integrated into the Iraqi Armed Forces. Their fighters are thus salaried members of the Iraqi military under the command of the Iraqi Commander in Chief, the Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Thus the Iraqi PMUs are in fact no longer ‘militias’ (indeed, some PMU leaders insist on no longer being called this), but in fact Iraqi military brigades.
What this means, in other words, is that the Iraqi military is occupying Syria.
Western governments have of course been fully aware for years that the same PMU brigades who they support inside Iraq also fight across the border for Assad in Syria, yet they have for years kept this quiet and relied on the lack of coverage of the issue in Western media (as with so many other aspects of Syria, a lack of coverage not helped by the ‘complexity’ of the issue). Indeed, the US and UK arguably allowed and facilitated the capture of the revolutionary, democratically-governed town of Daraya in an offensive led by Iraqi brigades in August 2016 – blocking Saudi and Qatari military supplies to the rebels via the Jordanian border whilst taking no action against the thousands of Iraqi state fighters entering Syria to fight for Assad. The ‘evacuated’ or ‘transferred’ (to use the regime’s terminologies) residents of Daraya joined the growing list of towns which have been recaptured from the regime and allegedly “cleansed” of their original inhabitants.
Whilst the PMUs have always been state-backed – meaning that the distinction between ‘state-sanctioned militia’ and ‘official military brigade’ can be a fine one – clarifying the nuances in the terminology is nonetheless an important endeavour. For terminology plays a large part in the confusion – and for Western power-holders, obfuscation – of the decisive role of the PMU brigades inside Syria. Within the dominant existing lexicon the PMUs are commonly referred to as ‘Iraqi Shia’ or ‘Iranian proxy’ militias, yet more accurate definitions (especially since the PMUs’ legal integration into the Iraqi military) would clearly underline the statist nature of these groups, whether that entails labeling them specifically as ‘Iraqi military PMUs’ or simply as ‘Iraqi military brigades’. Furthermore, acknowledging these forces as official state actors opens up a series of legal questions. Indeed, it should be remembered that the US began its destruction of Iraq in 1991 after it invaded ‘sovereign’ Kuwait, yet today it is effectively supporting the ‘sovereign’ troops of its regional ally occupying Syrian territory.
There are two crucial factors that have provided Western governments with the necessary deniability of this pro-Assad role in Syria (though they have been seldom interrogated on the matter). The first is the claim that the groups are militias, i.e. with the implication of being “out-of-control” non-state actors on which Western governments could exercise no leverage. Yet this is patently mistaken: as well as indirect Western arms provisions via the Iraqi government, warplanes of the US-led coalition have also directly provided vital aerial cover to PMU brigades (including such Assad-supporting groups as Iraqi Hezbollah, the League of the Righteous/Asa’ib ahl al-Haq and the Badr organisation) in military operations against ISIS in Iraq.
Indeed, the PMU brigades can be commonly found in Iraq driving US Humveys and APCs provided by the Iraqi government, and have even been documented fighting for Assad inside Syria in US tanks and Humveys. Meanwhile the flight of Iraqi PMU fighters from Baghdad to Damascus takes place directly under the eyes of US military personnel and officials present in the country (for symbolic value, a US military base surrounds and protects the same Baghdad airport which serves as Assad’s Iraqi conduit). The US could easily condition military support to the Iraqi government to the “verifiable closure of the country’s airspace... to pro-Assad convoys” – and has been advised to do so since 2013 – but chooses not to.
The second factor is the relegation of the Iraqi nature of these groups to simply being ‘Iranian proxies’. Indeed, commonly used terms by many anti-Assad Syrians for the pro-Assad PMUs include ‘sectarian militias’, ‘Iraqi Shia militias’, ‘Iranian-backed militias’ or even simply ‘Iranian militias’. Yet this is ultimately a simplification; for whilst the invading PMUs are indeed ideologically-sectarian groups supported by Iran, this does not preclude them from being simultaneously backed by Western governments. That the Iraqi state has become largely a sectarian Iranian proxy does not negate the existence of that state or the backing that it receives from Western powers, and ultimately the PMUs form a crucial part of the Iraqi state apparatus alongside their simultaneous role as an Iranian foreign proxy. Furthermore, such descriptions of the PMUs as more or less ‘Iranian’ provide deniability to Western governments, since it can be claimed that Iran – unlike Iraq – is not a main beneficiary of Western military support. The legal commander-in-chief of the PMUs is the Iraqi Prime Minister, not an Iranian general.
Whilst US support for the PMUs has largely been centred in Iraq, the notion that the PMU brigades cease being ‘Western-backed’ once they cross the border into Syria is, of course, fanciful. Nonetheless it is noteworthy that the US has on limited occasion provided aerial support to the PMUs inside Syria, namely in Palmyra (along with Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the PMU’s Imam Ali Brigades [AR]]) and possibly – though indeterminately – as part of pro-regime forces in Hasakah and Deir al-Zor. In other words, the United States has provided military support to foreign militias on Syrian territory.
Indeed, according to many anti-Assad detractors of US policy, the United States had the clear capacity to condition its critical military support to the Iraqi government – without which Baghdad would have likely come under siege by ISIS in 2014 – on the understanding that it was contingent on the non-intervention of Iraqi state-backed brigades in the Syrian conflict. Accordingly, if the United States truly cared about the Assad regime’s criminality – or was obsessed with “regime-change”, the severely inaccurate mischaracterisation of US policy which Western commentators such as Robert Fisk have spent years promoting (simultaneously obfuscating a plethora of inconvenient facts, such as the Assad regime in 2014 welcoming the military intervention by the same US government supposedly conspiring against it – and correctly declaring it as “aligned”) its extensive military support to Iraq would have been suspended long ago when it was clear that the PMUs were fighting for Assad in Syria. Instead, the significant and game-changing level of involvement of Iraqi brigades in the Syrian conflict since 2015 has actually taken place concurrent with the US increasing its military support to Iraq during this period. That Western governments have for years ignored the intervention of Iraq in Syria whilst increasing support to its armed forces is due at best to their lack of interest in the regime’s crimes, and at worst (according to many of the detractors) a policy of active calculation.
Indeed, the capability of Iraqi PMU brigades to flock into Syria is directly a result of the heavy US-led intervention against ISIS and other Sunni insurgent groups in Iraq. It is within this context – the retreat of ISIS as the thousands of US-led Coalition bombings took their toll – that sectarian Iraqi groups proliferated into Syria. The number of Iraqi fighters entering Syria increased pointedly, with an estimated 2013 level of between 800–2,000 Iraqi fighters multiplying to at least 20,000 by 2016. Thus the US-led support for Iraqi state forces against their enemies inside Iraq undoubtedly facilitated the entry of many of these same forces into Syria.
The recent capture of Mosul opens the possibility that far more Iraqi PMU brigades will intervene in Syria, perhaps even with “official” backing (likely encompassing significantly-escalated and coordinated support). With recent news that the CIA has ended its “vetted arms” program to Syrian rebels (a misunderstood role which contrary to popular media portrayal was centred on controlling, restricting and vetoing existing arms inflows from regional states – and by extension the scope of rebel mlitary campaigns – to ensure that the regime was not pressured to a point of collapse), the possible US return to a “choking” policy of rebel supplies (potentially encompassing much tighter border policing) in conjunction with an escalated involvement by the Iraqi government in Syria may bode ill for the Syrian revolutionaries, unless regional rebel allies finally challenge US diktat and bypass “Uncle Sam’s” regime-preserving red lines. Contrary to the disparaging of the Syrian revolutionary forces as either non-existent, weak or ‘extremists’ (rhetoric which is noticeably fashionable today amongst proclaimed ‘anti-establishment’ circles, yet which far from being ‘alternative’ is in fact identical to long-established polemic by US officials and reports by Tony Blair’s think-tank), the US subversion of the Syrian revolutionaries was because – unlike others such as the Kurdish YPG – they were “not ready to back US interests”.
What this years-long effective Western support (be it directed or acquiesced-to) for the Assad regime by way of the Iraqi military means is that the 2003 invasion of Iraq – ostensibly committed in the name of “democracy” – has in fact brought to power forces that are today crucial in helping the Assad regime bury the genuine, grassroots demand for democracy of 2011. Neither is this merely a retrospective truth, for the US and UK governments continue to support Iraq despite being fully aware of its invasion of Syria, making a mockery of ‘official’ condemnations of the Assad regime.
Thus far from the useful populist fanfare of a ‘Western conspiracy’ to overthrow him – the empty trope repeated by every previously Western-collaborating Arab Spring dictator (and there is evidence that Assad himself does not fully believe it) – Assad’s real secret winning ingredient? The past and present US-led interventions in Iraq.
Part Two discusses the question as to what extent the United States simply turned a blind eye to the role of foreign militias in Syria, or whether this constituted part of a more calculated policy. It also discusses the Trump administration’s recent actions which have involved some foreign pro-Assad groups in Syria, and which have opened questions as to whether the Trump administration is shifting away from its predecessor’s policy.