The chaos in the Middle East we are witnessing is more complex than a simple foreign conspiracy to destabilize the Middle East. We have already discussed in the Greater Middle East Project and the Genesis of ISIS as to how the current conflicts in Middle East Region have emanated. While there have been ample write ups on the Wahhabi Sponsored Ultra Jihadists like Jabhat Ul Nusra and ISIS in Syria/Iraq, the writers have tended to ignore the other side of conflict, which is the Shia Militias fighting from Lebanon to Syria to Iraq and Yemen. The covert backing of Shia Armed Militias by the Religious Theocracy in Iran is the other side of conflict, which is an equal participant in the present conflict in Middle East if not less than the Wahhabi Terror Machine. The Conflict in Syria-Iraq and the wider region in Middle East have more of sectarian undertone of a Shia-Sunni conflict than just the foreign participation in the conflicts. While the Sunni Arab States primarily GCC (Saudis, Qatar etc.), Turkey are covertly backing Syrian Rebels, ISIS and Nusra; Shia Iran is backing Militant Groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria; Shia Militias in Syria and Iraq and Houthis Rebels in Yemen.
The Shia-Sunni Faultlines
The Shia-Sunni conflict that we see in Middle East today is not current but one that has lasted for centuries from the Epic Battle of Karbala in then Mesopotamia or currently Iraq. The roots of current conflict also lie in Post WW1 Era where imperial powers like the British Empire fused the regions of Mosul and Baghdad as Sunni Dominated Areas to balance out the Shia Dominated area of Najaf, Karbala and Basra in Southern Iraq. The Fusion of 2 Sectarian Groups in one state has time and again lead to conflicts. Shia mobilisation and activism in Iraq intensified with the Baathist coup in 1968 and the regime's collective suppression of the community, although some Shias were co-opted. After the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, Shia actors, like the Islamic Dawa Party (of Iraq's former Prime Minister Maliki), mobilised the Shia community to try to overthrow the Baath regime but the attempt failed.
The 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war then saw various Shia groups take up arms against Saddam Hussein, with patronage from Iran, but this was to no avail as neither side was able to defeat the other during the costly war of attrition. Another rebellion was launched in 1991, following the first Gulf War. Looking to capitalise on a weakened Iraqi army, as well as an apparent endorsement from then US President George HW Bush, Iraqi Shias launched an uprising in mainly Shia provinces of the south. But no US support materialised and the regime's indiscriminate crackdown on the population saw tens of thousands killed. Shia shrines, centres of learning and communities were also destroyed. The scene in Syria was no different with a 70% Sunni Dominated Syria being ruled a Dynasty from the Minority Sect of Alawite (Shia). The Syrian city of Hama was the scene of a massacre in 1982 when President Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president Bashar al-Assad, razed the city to crush a Sunni rebellion lead by Muslim Brotherhood, slaughtering an estimated 20,000 of his own people. The 1982 massacre is regarded as the single bloodiest assault by an Arab ruler against his own people in modern times and remains a pivotal event in Syrian history. There was also a series of car bomb attacks in Damascus culminating in an attack on a shopping centre in which more than 100 people died. Post the quelling of 1982 Revolt Bashar’s father banned Muslim Brotherhood whom ironically Bashar Released post 2011 uprising that contributed to the escalating violence thereafter. Assad regime’s brutal crackdown unlike his father’s time has resulted in a Civil War where nearly 1, 70,000 Syrian have been killed owing to indiscriminate regime bombings of rebel areas.
After the American Troops left in 2011, thousands of Iraqis, nearly all of them members of the Sunni Arab minority, had been gathering to rail against Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government for almost a year. Although the protests were mostly peaceful, security forces responded harshly, detaining thousands of Sunni men without charges and, in one encampment, setting off a spasm of violence that left hundreds of civilians dead. Across the Sunni heartland, north and west of Baghdad, the town squares filled with angry crowds and the rhetoric grew more extreme. A wave of car bombers and suicide bombers struck Baghdad; in January 2014, more than a thousand Iraqi civilians died, the overwhelming majority of them Shiites, making it one of the bloodiest months since the height of the American war. In the effort to put down the upheaval, Maliki ringed the province’s two largest cities, Falluja and Ramadi, with artillery and began shelling. Forty-four Sunni members of parliament resigned. In Falluja and Ramadi, Sunni police abandoned their posts. Maliki, apparently realizing that he had miscalculated, ordered the Army to leave both cities. The Iraqi PM Maliki was not only a Shia, but also served on the committee charged with purging the Iraqi government of former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. Maliki had fled Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war and, except for forays into areas held by Kurdish rebels, he did not return until the Americans invaded, in 2003. The years of his exile were difficult for Shiites in Iraq. Later Maliki moved to Iran, from where he commanded a camp, in a border town called Ahvaz, to train Iraqi fighters for missions against Saddam’s invading Army and stayed in Iran for 7 years.
Post 2010 Elections, Maliki met Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force, the Iranian paramilitary corps. Suleimani’s conditions for help in forming the new government were sweeping. Maliki agreed to make Jalal Talabani, the pro-Iranian Kurdish leader, the new President, and to neutralize the Iraqi National Intelligence Service, which was backed by the C.I.A. Most dramatically, he agreed to expel all American forces from the country by the end of 2011. What followed post 2011 American Withdrawal was a series of massacres of Sunnis across Anbar and Northern Iraq which contributed to rise of ISIS and Qaeda in response to Shia Govt and Militias backed by Iran. He also forced out a number of senior officials, notably Sinan al-Shabibi (a Sunni), the governor of the Central Bank of Iraq. Then Iraqi PM Maliki also allowed airlift of guns and fighters unchecked through Iraqi airspace.
Rise of Shia Militias in Iraq
Badr, founded in the 1980s in Iran,( its continued supporter) is not only the most important of the various armed groups composing of the Popular Mobilization Forces (Hashd). Badr’s military commander, Ameri who tried and failed to get an appointment as minister of defence or interior, in part due to U.S. opposition has been transportation minister since Maliki’s second cabinet and is now a parliamentarian. Ameri’s military pre-eminence continued in March with the launch of the operation to liberate Tikrit and northern Salahuddin. Iran, through Badr, initially played more of a role in the offensive than Iraqi leaders did, and photos of the infamous Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani sometimes appeared alongside Ameri himself, dominating media coverage. Badrists carried the Iraqi flag and their own militia’s flag, a yellow-and-green design of a rifle overlaying a picture of Iraq, reminiscent of Lebanese Hezbollah. Former Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki also belonged to Badr leadership. Badr and other militias sustained criticism that they were engaging in retribution attacks and attempting to cleanse the Sunni population from these areas. Local Sunni families and survivors claimed that members of four prominent Iraqi Shiite militias - Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Badr Brigades, the Mahdi Army, and Kata’ib Hezbollah were behind many abductions and killings of Sunnis in the country while in the battle against ISIS in Northern Iraq.
Shia Militias in Syria
It is known that the Syrian Armed Forces or Assad’s Army has lost its military capabilities in the last two years and most of the military bases and airports have been captured by Syrian rebel forces, many of their tanks, armoured vehicles and aircraft are either destroyed or captured by Syrian rebel fighters which is a big loss to the Syrian Armed Forces. Most of his sectarian elite forces like 4th Armoured Division, Republican Guard, Intelligence security forces are among the heavy casualties of the Army that are dead, wounded, captured or have escaped. To recover his military loses Assad needed to recruit Shia fighters from abroad to cover up the losses of his army and to have a strong assistance to his troops.
Some reports suggest that the numbers of foreign Shia fighters are around 40,000. They came from around the world, and are mostly recruited from Lebanon and Iraq with others from Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. They are being motivated religiously and politically to come to Syria to defend the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad and the Shia holy sites in Syria; all of the Shia foreign fighters are supported by Iran and Iranian Revolutionary Guards who pay and trains them regularly in Syria.
Iran has being supportive of the Syrian Regime military by sending weapons and Shia fighters where Iranian Revolutionary Guards have formed and trained 42 Brigades and 138 Battalions to face the “enemies” in Syria and to defend the Assad Regime. Many Shia fighters use religious slogans such as Ya li Tharati Hussein which means “revenge for Hussein,” and Zaynab la Tusba Marratayn which means “Zaynab, you will not be held captive twice,” showing the belief that the current conflict is simultaneously a defence of Shiite holy sites and an attempt at taking revenge on the Syrians and the Sunnis for their role in the massacre at Karbala, which took place around 1,400 years ago.
Iran has completed the sectarian recruitment for the Shiites around the world to fight in Syria for the Assad Regime, the new recruited militia fighters underwent a fast and intensive military training course, confined to the weapons that have been supplied in the training camps under supervision of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard and with the participation of Syrian officers from the Syrian elite forces. Sometimes those fighters are needed to go to Iran where they will have to enrol on a 45 day training course in order to specialize in using weapons like AK-47, RPG-7, Dragunov Snipers and RPK machineguns and after the completion of the course they will be sent to join a brigade in Syria.
The training camps are many and are located in different countries. In Syria, they have the Yarfour training camps in Rural Damascus, Sayyidah Zaynab training camp in Damascus and Zahra training camp in Aleppo. In Lebanon they train inside Hezbollah training camps in southern Lebanon and in Iraq they train in Iraqi military training camps in Baghdad in addition to Iranian revolutionary guard training camps in Iran; all of these training camps are being used to prepare the Shiite fighters militarily before sending them to Syria. Assad regime ensures the providing of supplies to its soldiers and foreign fighters, including paying the salaries for most of them and the rest of them are being paid by Iranian and Iraqi Government. The salary range is between $500 - $2,500 depending on the front they are fighting in and the power of the militia they belong to. Major General Qassem Suleimani leads the operations on the ground.
Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard or sometimes called as Iranian Hezbollah was formed in 1979 when Khomeini established the Islamic republic of Iran. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is the Founder of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps which was used to protect the Revolution, defend the Islamic republic of Iran and to assist the ruling clerics in the daily enforcement of the new government's Islamic codes and morality in the Iranian society.
The Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard participated alongside the Syrian Assad regime in the suppression of the Syrian Revolution in 2011 from the start by sending its military commanders and did not delay sending its members to fight alongside the ranks of the Syrian Assad regime apart from providing training and forming brigades made up of foreign Shia fighters to help the Syrian Armed Forces fighting the rebels across Syria. There are around 1,500-3,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guard Offices active in all across Syria, their primary duty is to gather intelligence and manage the logistics for the Syrian regime and assisting training of local soldiers and managing supply routes of arms and money to neighbouring Lebanon.
Iranian Quds Force: Quds Force “Jerusalem Force” is a Special Forces unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard; this well trained and equipped Iranian force is led by Major General Qassem Suleimani personally. The responsibility of this force is to ensure the safety of Bashar Assad and his family and it accompanies him wherever he stays and goes, they wear civilian clothes and are equipped with small firearms and there are around 1,200 soldiers of this unit in Syria.
Hezbollah: Hezbollah “Party of God” is a Shia militant group and political party in Lebanon and it was formed when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. Now Hezbollah is led by Hassan Nasrallah who has sent more than 8,000 fighters to Syria to defend Assad regime and to combat the rebel fighters there, most of Hezbollah fighters are Lebanese Shiites from the south of Lebanon.
Liwa Abu Fadl Al Abbas: Liwa Abu Fadl Al Abbas “Abu Fadl Al Abbas Brigade” is a Syrian Shia militant group that was formed in 2012 to protect the shrine of Sayyidah Zaynab, which is located in Damascus. The Brigade consists of 10,000 fighters (7,000 Iraqis) and is led by the Iraqi Abu Hajer and the Syrian Abu Ajeeb.
Liwa Fatemiyoun: Liwa Fatemiyoun [Fatemiyoun Brigade] is an Afghan Shiite militia that was formed in 2014 by Iranian IRGC to fight against the Syrian revolutionaries. They have participated in many battles in Daraa, Idlib and Aleppo provinces alongside Syrian Arab Army and other pro-Syrian regime militia against Syrian revolutionaries. Liwa Fatemiyoun has around 3,500 fighters and they are led by Alireza Tavassoli (also been observed and commanded by Iranian Officers). The Afghan Shiite fighters are Persian speaking from Iran; it’s the Hazara refugee population.
In addition to the above main groups there are other Shia militias in the region like Kata'ib Hezbollah (Harakat Nujabaa), Haidar al-Karar Brigades (Asa'ib Ahl Al Haq), Liwa Saada, Badr Organization, Sarriya Al Talia Al Khurasani, Faylak Wa’ad Al Sadiq and Liwa Assadu Allahi Ghaleb.
Rise of Hezbollah
Hezbollah was created by Iran in 1982 as an offensive to aggressively export the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s “Islamic Revolution” among Shiites in Lebanon, Arab countries and throughout the Muslim immigrant communities in Europe. Hezbollah made its mark carrying out its earliest terrorist acts by attacking Westerners and Israelis in Lebanon. Since the mid-1990s Hezbollah has focused increasingly on Europe as a convenient launching pad for terrorist attacks within Israel. Hezbollah has used Europe-based nonprofit front organizations to funnel money from Hezbollah supporters in Europe to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Europe is also a transit point for Hezbollah money derived from drug trafficking and money laundering.
Hezbollah Operatives have targeted Israeli, U.S. and UK diplomatic installations for surveillance in preparation for planning attacks. In a number of cases, advanced plans for imminent attacks were thwarted by local police in cooperation with international intelligence agencies. Most recently, one such attack was barely averted in Cyprus, but another, a suicide bombing in Bulgaria, killed Israeli tourists. Highlights of Hezbollah's record of terror attacks include suicide truck bombings targeting US and French forces in Beirut (in 1983 and 1984) and U.S. forces again in Saudi Arabia (in 1996). It has a record of suicide bombing attacks targeting Jewish and Israeli interests such as those in Argentina (1992 and 1994) and in Thailand (attempted in 1994), and a host of other plots targeting American, French, German, British, Kuwaiti, Bahraini and other interests in plots from Europe to Southeast Asia to the Middle East.
Iran is believed to fund Hezbollah to the tune of at least $100 million per year. Recently, Western diplomats and analysts in Lebanon estimated Hezbollah receives closer to $200 million a year from Iran. Hezbollah has also employed Narco terrorism by using the proceeds of drug money for a significant part of its funding in Lebanon since the 1980s. Hezbollah’s main narcotics trafficking route until the late 1990s was focused on the Mediterranean. Delivery of heroin from Lebanon and Syria was made to European mafia groups, which would distribute it throughout Western Europe, with the proceeds funnelled back to Hezbollah in Lebanon. In recent years, Hezbollah has increasingly used Europe as a delivery point for cocaine from South America, brought to Europe via Caribbean and Libyan routes. Funds from the sale of cocaine have similarly been transferred via Europe to Lebanon to fund Hezbollah.
In 2008, the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel reported that German police discovered 8.7 million euros in the luggage of four Lebanese men at Frankfurt airport. An additional 500,000 euros were found in their apartment in Speyer. The money contained traces of cocaine. A year later, German police arrested two Lebanese men who had transferred large sums of money to Lebanese relatives connected to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and the Hezbollah leadership. In December 2011, the U.S. indicted Ayman Joumaa, a Hezbollah financier and Lebanese drug trafficker, with heading a money-laundering and narcotics smuggling network that transported tons of cocaine from South America to the U.S., Africa and Europe.
Shia-Sunni - The Spinning Vortex
The Rise of Shia Crescent in form of Iran, Shia Govt in Iraq post 2003, Syria (Assad) and Lebanon have opened the Faultlines of the centuries old sectarian conflict between Shia and Sunnis once again. The Rise of ISIS and Nusra cannot simply be attributed to Gulf Arab States but also the Persecution of Sunnis at the hands of the governments in Shia Crescent and their sponsored Shia Militias. This very fact was corroborated when Al Qaeda was pushed into Iraq by Assad in 2006-07 the American Troops along with Sunni Tribes successfully leading the surge and pushing Al Qaeda back but post the American Withdrawal in 2011, the Maliki Government acting in cahoots with Iran targeted Sunni’s in Northern Iraq which precipitated the crisis in 2013-14 leading to rise of ISIS in Iraq.
The Shia-Sunni conflict is not only limited to Syria-Iraq but has also spread over to Yemen where Houthis (another armed Militias backed by Iran) are fighting the Saudi backed Yemenis’ Government. Even other Sunni players in the region like GCC, Egypt, Sudan and Cameroon have joined the Saudi coalition in Yemen which also has the tacit backing of western powers. It’s become a self-sustaining spinning vortex.
Ali Younesi who was Chief of Intelligence for former Iranian president Khatami has recently stated that Iran is back to empire building with Baghdad as its capital. He defined the territory of the Iranian empire, which he called “Greater Iran,” as reaching the borders of China and including the Indian subcontinent, the north and south Caucasus and the Persian Gulf. He said Iraq is the capital of the Iranian Empire a reference to the ancient city of Babylon, in present-day Iraq, which was the center of Persian life for centuries.
The ancient battle of Karbala and the killing of Ali's sons could become very real and very powerful in the modern setting, especially when both sides are game for the fight. The World Powers, be it United States backing the Sunnis or Russians backing the Shias in Middle East are only adding fuel to fire. The rhetoric on both sides is extremely inflammatory, extremely sectarian, and the atrocities that are happening every day are just furthering this agenda. In all this conflict while humanity pays the price, it is no surprise that once again, the Military Industrial complex of West and Russia is ringing in big bucks by supplying arms to its respective players and sometimes even to both the sides.