Hashd al-Shaabi forces near the Iraqi-Syrian border, June 2017. Photo: Hashd media office.
The recent killing of an estimated 22 Iraqi Shiite paramilitaries in Syria in an airstrike, possibly carried out by Israel, comes as both Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are reiterating their aim to bring all Iraqi Shiite paramilitaries fully under state command and control. The reminder of the presence of Iraqi Hashd forces in Syria could therefore constitute a slap in the face for their respective efforts.
While Baghdad did condemn the attack near the Iraqi border, arguing no force engaged in battle against the Islamic State (ISIS) in the region should be targeted, the incident did nevertheless demonstrate the lack of control it has over some of these paramilitaries – of which all are formally integrated under the Iraqi Government’s control.
Iraq is currently carrying out airstrikes
against ISIS in Syria’s eastern frontier region and likely has few qualms about the Iraqi fighters on the ground – just so long as they keep ISIS away from the border.
The Israelis, on the other hand, fear an Iranian land corridor through Iraq and Syria to Beirut. The Syrian coastal province of Latakia could potentially threaten them in future. Israel has routinely bombed weapons systems in Syria since January 2013, fearing the equipment could fall into the hands of Iran-backed Hezbollah.
Just before the killing of these Iraqi paramilitary fighters, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed Israel is targeting Iranian backed Shiite fighters, claiming Tehran has brought 80,000 Shiite fighters into Syria, originally from places like Afghanistan and Pakistan – though he did not mention Iraqi fighters.
Kyle Orton, an independent Middle East researcher, argues that the Iraqi Hashd presence in Syria “underlines where their instructions come from – namely Tehran.”
“Prime Minister Abadi has specifically said Iraqi troops are not involved in Syria, yet the Hashd is formally part of the Iraqi state under his command,” Orton told Rudaw English.
“Muqtada al-Sadr, too, has tried to prevent his followers getting involved in Syria to defend the regime – al-Sadr has even called for Assad to leave – but Iran has been able to peel off Sadrists, either by convincing them al-Sadr and Ayatollah Sistani support for Shia jihad in Syria or by converting them to wilayat al-faqih” – the Shiite theory of scholarly authority.
Orton was referring to the theocratic system devised by the late Ayatollah Khomeini that governs Iran, which stands in striking contrast to the school of Shiism practiced by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who does not believe clerics should govern the state but rather advise the Shiite faithful and the powers that be.
The presence of Iraqi Hashd fighters in Syria is not necessarily conclusive evidence of overt state-sanctioned Iraqi collusion with Iran, or Tehran using Baghdad as a vassal, to bolster Assad or consolidate strategic Iranian goals in the region, such as the establishment of the aforementioned corridor.
“The Iraqi fighters in Syria are considered outside the Hashd and outside Iraq’s protection, but their unauthorized expedition into Syria is tolerated by the government,” Michael Knights, a noted Iraq expert and Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute, told Rudaw English. “They will only be pursued for crimes undertaken inside Iraq, if at all.”
“Iran tries to reduce the embarrassment of the Iraqi government by routing most Iraqi faction fighters via Iran, not across the border,” he concluded.
Joel Wing, author of the Musings on Iraq blog, pointed out that many of the Iraqi Hashd groups in Syria were actually formed there “and then came back to Iraq after the 2014 fall of Mosul” to Islamic State.
“They have never stopped fighting across the border,” Wing told Rudaw English. “Despite the Abadi government’s statements about the Hashd being integrated under the authority of the state, it actually has little say over these groups.”
“They continue to recruit and send Iraqis to fight in Syria,” he added. “Sadr has also condemned these groups because many are his political rivals, but he has sent his own men to take part in the war as well.”
“Until Tehran stops its effort to support the Assad government these Iraqi groups will continue to be involved in the conflict and there is little Baghdad can really do about it,” Wing concluded.