Iraqi Shia dilemma in Syria
Talk about the involvement of Iraq’s Shias in Syria could be inflated, but their strategy in the country’s war-torn neighbour also seems to be in doubt, writes Salah Nasrawi
Reports that Iraq’s Shias are joining Lebanese Hizbullah fighters and Iranian advisors in the war in Syria to support President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime are mounting amid increasing concerns that the conflict in Syria is turning into a regional sectarian struggle between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
The news came as the crisis in Syria has been escalating and driving western powers and regional Sunni heavyweights more decisively into the civil war in Syria by arming and training the mostly Sunni rebels who are waging a struggle to topple Al-Assad’s Alawite regime.
Yet, the scope of the Iraqi Shias’ involvement in the Syrian quagmire remains a mystery amid accusations of exaggerated reports and signs that the Baghdad Shia-led government is lacking a coherent and a well-defined strategy to deal with the conflict in the neighbouring country.
Since the uprising against Al-Assad began, the Iraqi Shia-led government has been uneasy about dangers that the Syrian crisis might spill over into Iraq. Baghdad has been worried about the prospect of the opposition in Syria winning a victory over Al-Assad’s regime could widen the sectarian divide in a nation still dealing with its own confessional strife.
The Baghdad government has repeatedly said that it remains neutral in the conflict and has urged a peaceful solution to the uprising. This policy has seemed to be designed to prevent the growing instability in Syria adding to concerns over Iraq’s own volatile situation.
But the increasing reports about Iraqi Shias flocking to Syria to fight Al-Assad has raised questions on whether the Iraqi Shia-led government is being gradually drawn into the conflict, contradicting its policy of neutrality.
In recent weeks, various press reports have suggested that Iraqi Shias are joining the government side in the war in Syria in increasing numbers. They say that Iraqi Shia volunteers are receiving weapons and supplies from the Syrian and Iranian governments, and that Iran has organised travel for Iraqi Shias willing to fight in Syria on the government side.
According to the reports, three main hardline Shia groups, the Mahdi Army, the Asaib Ahl Al-Haq and the Kataaib Hizbullah, are all sending volunteers to Syria, some by road from the Shia holy city of Najaf and others via Baghdad airport.
Estimates put the number of Iraqi Shia fighters in Syria from 600 to more than 1,000, with around 50 fighters crossing the border every week.
Iraqi Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki told Al-Arabiya satellite news channel on Sunday that his government did not sanction the movement of Iraqis and weapons supplies to the Al-Assad regime.
On Monday, Syria’s foreign minister Walid Al-Muallim also denied movements of Iraqi Shias into Syria, although he acknowledged the Lebanese Hizbullah’s participation in the fight against the rebels.
Iraq’s Kurdish Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said the numbers of Iraqi Shia fighters in Syria were inflated.
Last week, a key Iraqi Shia minister warned that thousands of Shias from Iraq would take up arms against Sunni extremists if Shia shrines in Syria came under attack.
Hadi Al-Amiri, also head of a small Shia movement, said in an interview with a Western news agency that it would be impossible for Iraqi Shias to “sit idly by” while the United States and its western and Arab allies were arming and financing the mainly Sunni Syrian rebels.
Al-Amiri seemed to be speaking the minds of many Iraqi Shias who have criticised Western and Arab countries for increasing their weapons delivery and training of the rebels, while deeming the sending of Iraqi men to fight Al-Assad to be unacceptable.
Indeed, just as the Western media was rushing to publish reports about Iraqi Shias flocking to Syria to fight on Al-Assad’s side, the news about Syrian rebels receiving arms supplies was also particularly abundant.
Syrian opposition groups have been receiving weapons from some Arab countries, namely Qatar and Saudi Arabia, with the assent of the Americans and other Western powers.
Recent studies have also shown that thousands of Sunni jihadists, mostly affiliated with the extremist Jabhat Al-Nusra Front, are taking part in the fight against the Al-Assad regime.
On Saturday, the Friends of Syria Group, which includes the US, Britain, France and Germany, as well as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and Jordan, announced that it would provide urgent support to rebels fighting Al-Assad.
Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al-Thani, who hosted the meeting in Doha, interpreted the decision as “providing arms” to the rebels.
The New York Times unveiled last week that Qatar had been busy shuttling arms stockpiles to the rebels in Syria from Libya. It said that Qatari C-17 cargo aircraft had made shipments from Libyan airports to the US built Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, before the cargos were flown to Turkey to be delivered to the rebels inside Syria.
The British Daily Telegraph also reported that Saudi Arabia had been providing the militants in Syria with heavy weapons, including anti-tank missiles which have already been used to destructive effect and may have held up a promised regime assault on Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city.
On Friday, the Los Angeles Times reported that CIA operatives and US special operations troops had been secretly training Syrian rebels with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons since late last year, saying that the US had increased its assistance to the rebellion.
The covert US training at bases in Jordan and Turkey began months before US President Barack Obama approved plans to begin directly arming the opposition to Al-Assad.
Iraq’s critics seem to be outdoing themselves, since their intervention in Syria is now far-reaching and decisive and entails strategic goals such as influencing events and reshaping the map of the entire Middle East.
This leads to the inevitable question of whether the Iraqi Shias have a strategy on the complex situation in Syria, or whether they are following haphazard and uncontrolled reactions, as they increasingly feel threatened by the prospect of a rebel victory in Syria.
It is important to remember that Iraq’s Shias are no fans of Al-Assad, who they accuse of helping to fuel Iraq’s civil war by permitting weapons and fighters to stream across the border following the removal of the former Saddam Hussein regime.
Also, and contrary to common misconceptions, Twelver Shias, the followers of the mainstream Shia branch in Iraq and Iran, do not recognise the Alawites as their co-religionists, and some even believe they are heretics.
Most Iraqi Shias have no love for the Baath Party that ruled Iraq during the Saddam era, and they associate it with Al-Assad’s ruling Syrian Baath Party.
It is equally necessary to underline that while Iraqi Shias could be seen as aligned with Iran to face up to perceived threats by Sunni Arabs, they can hardly be accused of being Iran’s stooges or even of seeing eye-to-eye with Iran on all issues.
If mutual interests or political bonds between the Iraqi Shias and the Syrian regime are excluded, a major reason for the Iraqi Shias aiding the Al-Assad regime remains their fear that a collapse of Syria would fragment Iraq along sectarian lines, possibly bringing to power extremist Sunni rule hostile to Baghdad.
In the light of this, the Iraqi Shia strategy vis-à-vis Syria over much of the past two years has sought less to be directly involved in Syria’s civil war than to fend off its sectarian spill-over.
Unlike the Lebanese Hizbullah group, which has a powerful and well-trained military machine, as well as obligations to fight alongside the Al-Assad regime, the Iraqi Shias are short of the military capabilities required to influence events in Syria and they are less motivated to take such risks.
The Iraqi Shias in Syria are mostly unorganised small groups of volunteers inspired by fiery sectarian rhetoric or driven to defend Shia holy shrines in Syria, some of which have already been vandalised by extremist Sunni rebels.
As for the Iraqi Shia-led government, it does not seem inclined to become heavily involved in Syria, a move that would exacerbate sectarian tensions in Iraq and complicate its relationships with the United States and other western and regional powers that are leading efforts to topple the Al-Assad regime.
While the war in Syria remains a critical issue for the Iraqi Shias, as it continues to sharpen sectarian divides, their dilemma remains the lack of options to forge a creative vision and a workable strategy that could help them to deal with the inevitable end of the Al-Assad regime.