BEIRUT: Iraqi Shiite militias are deploying in increasing numbers in Syria in support of President Bashar Assad’s forces, following a massive recruitment drive in Iraq.
Highly religiously and ideologically motivated, the volunteers originally deployed in Syria ostensibly to protect Shiite religious sites and shrines but are now increasingly coordinating with the Syrian armed forces in active combat, particularly around Damascus, but as far as Aleppo, experts and opposition fighters say.
Reports that Iraqi fighters were in Syria first emerged in October 2012. Recruits were enlisting from Shiite strongholds in Iraq such as Najaf, motivated by reports that religious shrines were under threat from Sunni rebels.
Since then, evidence has mounted of a surge in numbers. Videos of martyr burials in Iraq are appearing on the Internet with increasing frequency, while there has also been a proliferation in the number of Facebook and other social media pages advertising and glorifying the fighters’ battles.
Also indicating a growing role of Iraqi Shiite militias in Syria are increasing reports from opposition fighters claiming the Iraqis have been responsible for mass killings during combat operations. A number of videos have also emerged of Iraqi Shiite militia members who have been captured or killed by Syrian opposition rebels.
In the latest video to emerge, a Syrian rebel fighter interrogates three men he claims are captured Iraqi mercenaries who “came from Iraq to kill Syrians in Syria.”
The men “confess” to belonging to organized Iraqi military brigades and tell their interrogator they traveled from Iraq to Syria after receiving religious instruction and salaries. The men say they are fighting alongside regime forces in Damascus and near the Sayyida Zeinab shrine south of the capital.
One of the men, who says he is a driver with the Asaib Ahl al-Haqq group, claims he transported groups of Iraqi fighters between Syria and Iraq “every 10 to 15 days” and also participated in fighting.
He tells his interrogator that Asaib al-Haqq paid fighters $500 a month and that they are trained in military camps in Iran. Other groups, he says, fight in Syria unpaid.
“They pay their own expenses, they came to Syria for their ideology and belief,” he says in the video.
Asked about a photograph found on his phone, the driver identifies Qassem Tai, an Iraqi preacher and spiritual guide for the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, the Shiite militia attracting thousands of fighters from different countries.
“He is a [spiritual] authority in Iraq. He provides assistance, he preaches religiosity,” the man said.
Tai’s website says that he opened an office in Syria in Sayyida Zeinab in December.
Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland and an expert on Iraqi Shiite militias, estimated there are now a minimum of 5,000 Iraqi Shiites fighting in Syria, but added that was a conservative estimate. Others suggest the numbers may be closer to 10,000.
The largest groups fighting in Syria include Asaib Ahl al-Haqq, which was formed in 2006 after it split with Iraqi Shiite preacher Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army and has enjoyed extensive support and training with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Another leading group is Kataeb Hezbollah (Hezbollah Battalions), an Iranian-backed group modeled on Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and Kataeb Sayyed al-Shuhada, established in May 2013 to “protect the holy sites,” according to Smyth.
Smyth said that while most were volunteer groups, some of the brigades were receiving advance payments and salaries to fight in Syria. All have been coordinating with the Syrian armed forces, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, he continued.
Often they are deployed in mixed units along with other militias including local paramilitary “popular committees,” stationed at checkpoints and military sites.
“Just because they are volunteers doesn’t mean they are just jumping on the bus and heading to Syria, without coordination,” he said. “They are unified by training and ideology.”
The volunteers either travel to Syria on pilgrimage tours, or go to Iran for training before being flown to Syria.
Their numbers have grown because of an increase in recruitment efforts, particularly during Ashoura, which fell in mid-November. They also received a boost the following month when a leading Iran-based grand ayatollah, Kazim al-Haeri, one of the mentors of Sadr, issued a fatwa that said it was legitimate for Shiites to fight in Syria’s civil war alongside Assad’s forces – and that the mission went beyond one of guarding holy places.
“The battle in Syria is not for the defense of the shrine of Sayyida Zeinab, but it is a battle of infidels against Islam and Islam should be defended,” Haeri said in comments posted on his official website.
“Fighting in Syria is legitimate and those who die are martyrs.”
The religious appeal, Smyth said, was being used by Syria and Iran to drive up the fighters’ numbers, speculating that the added forces were being used in operations to consolidate control of territory around the capital ahead of scheduled international peace talks.
“This is all undercutting Geneva II, ratcheting up forces and securing more territory in the lead up,” he said, adding that the policy was also worsening the sectarian character of the war.
Iraqi fighters were reported to be fighting in the thousands, along with Lebanon’s Hezbollah, in a government-led offensive to dislodge rebels from the strategically important Qalamoun Mountains and along the Homs-Damascus highway in November and December.
Rebels accused Iraqi militias from the Dhulfiqar Brigade of committing massacres of civilians in the town of Nabk, where ferocious and bloody fighting was underway last month. Pictures and videos appeared on Iraqi Facebook pages, gloating over the killing of “takfiri terrorists.”
In one, a photo showing Iraqi fighters standing next to the bodies of rebel fighters is accompanied by a message reading: “Immediate execution of ISIS terrorists; we will get you, desert’s dogs; Iraqi army has more to show you,” referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, an Al-Qaeda branch in Syria consisting of thousands of foreign jihadists.
One Free Syrian Army rebel fighting there, Abu Hussein, told The Daily Star that the Iraqi militias were presenting a bigger challenge than Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
“There are thousands of them,” he said.
In the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Moadamieh, which has been under a monthslong blockade by the regime, residents and opposition activists noted that Iraqis were manning checkpoints at the entrance to the town.
A local council member involved in the negotiations told The Daily Star that Iraqis were involved in the arrest of hundreds of men after they were promised safe passage out of the town.
“The regime is inviting these groups to come and kill, rape and arrest us, then taking credit for the truces,” activist Qusai Zakariah said.
While Baghdad maintains that it is neutral in the Syrian war, the government of Nouri al-Maliki, embroiled in its own bloody battles against Sunni fighters who accuse it of pursuing a sectarian agenda, rights abuses and repression, is doing little to stem the flow of fighters to Syria.
Maliki’s office declined to comment on the matter.
“They are not stopping the recruitment efforts, which are very public. They are on billboards,” Smyth said.