Syria and Iraq have gained enormous media attention since the Syrian Civil War in 2011 and the rise and fight against ISIS in 2013. Although ISIS-inspired attacks in Europe have kept these two events fresh in the British national consciousness, it is beneficial to quickly recap the situation.
This first blog post provides the context and sums where Shia militias were deployed and for which purposes. This post will be followed by two others which analyse the geopolitical implications of holy sites for the mobilization of proxy militias.
The Rise of ISIS in Syria
In March 2011, the Arab Spring arrived in Syria. Protesters were crushed by the Assad regime with extreme violence and the fight spiralled into a civil war waging now for eight years. In that context, Daesh emerged as an offshoot of al-Qaeda. It grew stronger and eventually invaded northern Iraq in early 2013. At the time, there were serious fears that the group would go as far as taking over Baghdad, after capturing cities such as Mosul, Tikrit and al-Qaim.
At its peak, in 2014-2015, it controlled a third of Syria and large territories in Iraq and ruled over 10 million people. Led by the United States, an international coalition formed to back predominantly Kurdish battalions fighting against ISIS and used air strikes to weaken the terrorist group.
As President Trump’s recent comments have reminded us, Daesh has now lost almost all its territory in both Iraq and Syria.
However, one element is too often overlooked in this story: the role of Shia militias in supporting the Assad regime and in fighting ISIS.
Largely controlled by Iran, these paramilitary groups have played a massive role in both Syria and Iraq. In Syria, Iranian-backed militias have greatly contributed to turning the tide of the conflict in favour of Assad – along with Russian air strikes. In Iraq, militias have successfully fought off Daesh when the Iraqi Army couldn’t. Since then, militiamen have become heroes: posters of martyrs are displayed in the streets, and songs and poems praise their fight.
But where do these Iranian-backed Shia militias come from?
Backing militias has been an important aspect of Iran’s Foreign Policy since the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Under Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader, this was seen as a way to ‘export the revolution’ to other states. The ideological stance of the regime was to establish a pan-Islamic state in the region by favouring uprisings loyal to Iran and to the concept of velayat-e faqih (the rule of the jurists). The most successful example of this tactic remains Hezbollah, now a political party in Lebanon.
However, after Khomeini’s death, Iran’s support to militias became more cautious. Nowadays, Iran mainly support groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and – possibly – Yemen.
Sometimes dubbed “forward defence strategy” by the Iranian regime, this transnational support has alarmed the countries in the region. King Abdullah II of Jordan famously talked about a “Shiite Crescent” in 2004 during an interview. The expression referred to Shia populations in the region, situated in Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon – forming a crescent-like form – and which concerns many Sunni countries because of the support Iran could grant them on the basis of their confession.
So how did Iran come to expand its influence in Iraq and Syria?
Under the rule of Saddam Hussein in Iraq (1979-2003), and especially during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) Iran supported rebel groups wishing to fight the Sunni regime, such as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. After the US invasion in 2003, Iran’s support shifted to anti-US occupation militias notably the Mahdi Army – led by Muqtada al-Sadr. It’s in post-invasion Iraq that Iran’s most powerful militias emerge, including Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), Kataib Hezbollah, and the Badr Brigades.
The instability in Iraq transformed the country into a reserve base for Iranian proxies. In 2011, when the civil war erupted in Syria, Iran sent Iraqi militias to support the Assad regime.
In late 2012, Iranian advisors arrived in Syria and in 2013 militia groups started sending troops to Syria to fight alongside the Assad regime. These groups were organised and coordinated by a larger group called Liwa Abu Fadl al‐Abbas (LAFA), primarily under Iranian control.
With the rise of ISIS and its incursion in the northern provinces of Iraq, some of these militias were redeployed back to Iraq. At this point, Iranian-backed militias had about 10,000 fighters. In June 2014, however, an important event happens: Iraq’s highest Shia authority, Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani calls on all Iraqis to fight ISIS to defend their country.
This call had a massive effect on recruitment. Overnight, 100,000 Iraqis enrolled in the largest militias to fight ISIS, allowing significant push back against it. These Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) as they are known, were largely successful in leading the fight against ISIS in Iraq.
Why fight for Iran?
One major issue for Iran in both the Syrian and Iraqi campaign has been to mobilize the militias it supports. Indeed, if the leaders of these groups are usually appointed by the Islamic Republic, what about the troops themselves? What motivates them to fight for a foreign power?
This is not an obvious choice, especially as Assad remains largely hated by most Shia Iraqis. He is remembered mostly because of his support to foreign Sunni fighters to destabilize Iraq’s government during the Iraqi civil war (2006-2008).
To bridge these and other difficulties, Iran has deployed a propaganda focused on the defence of holy sites. The most important shrines for the Shia are found in Syria and in Iraq. In Syria for example, the shrine of Sayyeda Zainab has been threatened and attacked by different groups since the start of the civil war.
Among other things, ‘defending holy sites’ became the perfect excuse for Iran to justify its involvement in the conflict. As will be analysed in the following blog post, this emphasis on the defence of holy shrines has attempted to facilitate mobilisation by downplaying national identities in favour of a broader pan-Shia identity more suitable to Iran’s interests in the region.
Image: Militia posters and martyrdom pictures next to a cemetery. Source: New York Times.
 Cronin, “ISIS Is Not a Terrorist Group. Why Counterterrorism Won’t Stop the Latest Jihadi Threat”, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2015.
 Smyth, The Shiite Jihad in Syria and its Regional Effects, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Focus 138, 2015, p. 1.
 Cigar, Iraq’s Shia Warlords and their Militias: Political and Security Challenges and Options, United States Army War College Press, Strategic Studies Institute, June 2015.
 Smyth, The Shiite Jihad in Syria and its Regional Effects, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Focus 138, 2015.
 Isakhan, “The Islamic State Attacks on Shia Holy Sites and the ‘Shrine Protection Narrative’: Treats to Sacred Spaces as a Mobilization Frame”, Terrorism and Political Violence, 2018, p. 12.
 ibid., p. 15.
 Mansour and Jabar, “The Popular Mobilization Forces and Iraq’s Future”, Carnegie Middle East Centre, April 2017.