The piece was published on Eurasia Diary.
“Today marks the start of a safer world, one that we hope will remain safer for many years to come,” said on Sunday U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, while announcing the Implementation Day of the Iranian deal. “We understand this marker alone will not wipe away all the concerns the world has rightly expressed about Iran’s policies in the region. But we also know there isn’t a challenge in the entire region that wouldn’t become much more complicated, much worse, if Iran had a nuclear weapon,” he added.
This shows how little understanding there is in the Western political circles of the Sunni, the Shiites and the Middle East in general. The Middle East is complicated enough without an Iranian nuclear weapon, it’s true. But the truth is that, neither Tehran nor any other Sunni theocracy, including Saudi Arabia, needs any nuclear weapons and has an interest in building one. Proxy wars work too well.
At this point, a stronger Iran means more strife in the Middle East and it is not something the Middle East is looking forward to. Over the years, Tehran has armed enough proxies to become a dominant regional player, leaving rival Sunni autocracies feeling a lot of resentment towards the Western powers that made the deal with Iran.
A pan-Arab Iranian-backed Shiite militia network
According to a report of the Institute for the Study of War, Iran has been trying hard to keep Bashar al Assad in power in Damascus: the Revolutionary Guards have been providing training and intelligence support to the Syrian army; Tehran also provides supplies by land, sea and air, using its influence on the Iraqi government to fly military equipment to Syria despite international embargoes; but it also involved its armed Iraqi and Lebanese proxies in combat; Hezbollah and the Iraqi Shiite militiamen have also provided training to the Syrian army troops that did not have the experience of urban or guerilla warfare. Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, Syrian Sunni activists talked about Iranian Revolutionary Guards involved in the crackdown on protesters and videos of captured Iranian military emerged from Syria. In 2012, Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade was formed: a Shiite pro-government militia which includes both Syrian and foreign Shite fighters.
But, as far as Iran is concerned, the story is much older than the Syrian crisis; it goes back to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the war that followed. It’s difficult to trace the money flow between Tehran and Basra or Beirut. But it’s easier to look at the cooperation between Hezbollah and the Iraqi Islamic Resistance groups, such as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kataeb Hezbollah. That is an old story. In 2008, US officials warned the Iraqi government that Lebanese Hezbollah fighters were training Iraqi Shiite militia fighters in the vicinity of Tehran. The info, they said, came from interrogations. The presence of Lebanese Hezbollah advisers in Iraq became obvious when Hezbollah’s senior member, Ali Mussa Daqduq, was captured in 2007 together with Qais al-Khazali and his brother Laith al-Khazali, the leaders of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, an Al Mahdi Army splinter that refused to disarm. The Iraqi Shiite group had claimed in the past responsibility for several attacks on the US troops in Basra as well as kidnapping and killing at least 5 US soldiers in Karbala.
Qais al-Khazali was freed from prison in 2009. Hezbollah’s Daqduq remained in detention until November 2012, when he walked free from his house arrest in Baghdad and travelled to Lebanon. His whereabouts are still unknown, but given the Lebanese state authorities reluctance in searching Hezbollah-dominated territory, that was to be expected. Khazali is now a politician in Iraq and had asked his group to lay down weapons, just as other Iraqi militias had done . In the 2014 elections his group won a seat in the Parliament. It seemed that there was no need for the Shiites in Iraq to mobilize. However, Syria was a game changer.
The Islamic State
Iraqi Shiite militiamen got involved in the Syrian war alongside Hezbollah and the Syrian army. According sources in Iraq, Asaib Ahl Al Haq maintained around 2000-3000 fighters in Syria since 2013, fighting in Al-Ghouta, particularly in Jobar, in Aleppo and Homs.
But when the Islamic State (former ISIS) takeover of Mosul and several other northern Iraqi cities in June 014, many Iraqi Shiites, fighters or former militia fighters volunteered and became the main factions fighting the Islamic State alongside the Iraqi Army. Asaib Ahl al-Haq’s spokesman Ahmed al-Kinani said that the group’s forces were again active: in the eastern Diyala province, areas around Samarra and in the western and southern outskirts of Baghdad. He said they had “thousands of fighters” on the ground. The group had “fought side by side” with security forces as well as “at the forefront.”
In videos emerging from the conflict, the gore executions displayed by the Islamic State extremists were somewhat matched by quite cruel displays of ruthlessness by Shiite militants: they pose with the corpses of dead ISIS militants or carve the flesh off the charred body of ISIS fighters burned alive.
Recruiting in Central Asia
With Hezbollah overstretched on the Syrian front and desperately recruiting untrained youth in Lebanon and employing minors on the battlefields, the Iranian efforts to keep its influence in Syria reached to Shiite communities in Afghanistan and Pakistan in order to reinforce pro-Assad militias.
The Zeinabiyoun, a unit of Pakistani fighters named for a granddaughter of the prophet Mohammad buried in the shrine, is the latest contingent in an Iranian drive to recruit Shiites from Central Asia to fight in Syria. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards websites praise the “martyrdom” of Pakistani fighters in Syria, and a posting in mid-November 2015 on a Twitter account bearing the group’s name displayed the pictures of 53 men, described as fighters killed in battle.
The number of Shiite fighters coming from Afghanistan is much bigger. The AfghaniFatimiyun Brigade fights under Hezbollah Afghanistan. Over 10,000 Afghan Shiites fightfor the Assad regime alongside Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iraqi militias. According to a military analyst who studies the Afghan Shiites, it is not a surprise that this brigade counts many casualties, as most of the Shiites in Afghanistan have no experience in warfare, however poor they might be. But he also said that the Iranian recruiters offer a good amount of money for the fighters, making the trip to Syria more attractive. Once they get there, they’re thrown directly into the battle.
According to the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, General Ali Jafari,Tehran has succeeded in recruiting thousands of proxy fighters thanks to the sectarian conflicts have increased the “revolutionary awareness” of the Middle East’s Shia youth. He stated that over 200,000 recruits come from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan. With economic sanctions lifted, Tehran will be able to recruit even more Shiites to fight its war in Syria or ensure its political influence across the region the way Hezbollah has for over three decades.
A spiral of escalation
There are many elephants in the room after the Iranian deal and many politicians in the West simply look the other way. Liberal Arabs who hoped that Iran would break under the Western pressure and would give way to secularism feel let down. As Lebanese journalist Hanin Ghaddar, herself a Shiite liberal criticized by Hezbollah for her opposition to the group’s autocratic practices, points it out, the Iranian deal is the Arab liberals’ worst nightmare. For the Shiite liberals, it means that the theocracy in Tehran not only survives, but it’s strengthened and will spread across the region, strengthening groups in the likes of Hezbollah in Lebanon or Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq in Iraq. It also means that the Sunni theocracies will give way to more radicalism to fight off Iran’s influence, will fund Islamist proxies across the region to use them against Iran. At this point, the danger is that a country like Saudi Arabia, where the monarchy feels let down by its alliance with the US, stops hunting down Al Qaeda militants and facilitates their trips to Syria and elsewhere, where they can fight Iranian proxies.
For Europe and the United States it’s all about keeping this war in the Middle East, letting the Sunni-Shiite conflict consume itself. But the truth is that, this conflict will consume much more than itself, because it is not really a Sunni-Shiite conflict. It’s a confrontation between the Sunni Islamism and Shiite Islamism that’s radicalizing and sucking in more and more groups from across the world. And no one can be kept safe of that.