[Midden-Oosten] Assad’s secret ingredient? The Iraq military’s unknown invasion of Syria - Omar Sabbour, Huffington Post

Jeff meisner op xs4all.nl
Zo Jul 23 07:09:15 CEST 2017


Assad's secret ingredient? The Iraq military's unknown invasion of Syria
Huffington Post 07/22/2017 07:52 am ET

Omar Sabbour, Contributor
Omar Sabbour is an independent Egyptian writer and activist.

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: 
sectarian 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 
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".

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. Not all PMU groups have however joined in the 
fighting in Syria, with the _Saraya al-Salam _("Peace Companies") of the 
influential cleric Moqtada al-Sadr notably refusing to do so.

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 

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 
restricting 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._

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