Recently, a very serious phenomenon has surfaced widely in this enflamed part of the world, namely the armed militias, which is an imminent threat to the whole region, not only because of the unspeakable massacres committed against civilians in the ravaged countries, neither because of their existential threat to the historically and politically significant concepts of the national state and the national army, but they also threaten the unity of the communities which have been already proven to be very fragile and fragmented by the Arab spring. These militias were based mainly on the ideological dimension and were armed with extinct historical causes, matched by emerging political causes, produced by tyranny, which controlled the region after modern colonialism, and both causes fed from a particular sectarian depth, which usually emerged from time to time when major historical storms swept the region; this demonstrates the national state’s failure to fortify the unity of their communities and heal its fractures, this state itself is a victim of tyrannous authoritarian military regimes, dominating countries and marginalizing communities, and violating public freedoms, and undermining the idea of common law.
Straight after the success of Khomeini’s revolution in February 1979, Iran sought to marginalize the regular army, and worked on setting it aside, adopting irregular formations, attracting the young pro-religious stream in Iran. The first formations to appear were the “public mobilisation units- Basij” which were used by the Iranian regime to crush each of its internal opponents who participated in the revolution to overthrow the Shah’s regime, and in the forefront, “PMOI” and the Iranian Communist party (Tudeh). Today, the Basij militia is still an important pillar and essential tool in the installation of the foundations of the theocratic Iranian regime; one of most notable achievements was its role in the suppression of the Green uprising in Iran in 2009, which broke out following claims of rigging the presidential election at the time, and the imposition of the Ahmadinejad’s winning over Hussain Mir Moussaoui, the real winner. The Basij forces, who are controlled by the Iranian conservatives headed by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, have killed and arrested tens of thousands of revolting young Iranian supporters of the reformist movement in Iran; the powerful presence of these forces in the Iranian scene is confirmed by the words of its leader, Mohammad Bagheri, at the opening of a festival last month: “the number of members of the Basij is 25 million out of 80 million people, which is Iran’s population, and those forces are fully ready to send hundreds of thousands of its members to fight in Syria, if approved by the Supreme leader,” and this census equally proves the depth of militarization experienced by the Iranian society, along with how this militarization is disabling the energies of the creative community.
The second line adopted by Khomeini is exporting the revolution to surrounding countries. This trend was a major cause of the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war, which lasted eight years, during which the capabilities of both countries were destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of fighters were killed, before Khomeini was obliged to drink the “poisoned chalice” – as he put it- and accept to stop the war that Iran had failed to win. But Khomeini, and his mullahs, have not given up the idea of exporting the revolution, so they changed their tactics and mechanism, and relied on the formation of sectarian militias, in countries where societal structure tolerated such effort, with these militias becoming the tool and arm for Iranian’s expansionary project, disguised in a doctrinal vale – and trained and armed and funded by Iran.
The first manifestation of this trend was the formation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, from Basij fighters, who participated in the Iran-Iraq war and gained combat experiences. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards, were meant to be the largest and most powerful Iranian militia parallel to Iran’s regular army and the intelligence and police, and better armed than them all, controlling the security and even the economic decision, and becoming the internal tuning tool of the community outside the state and the law. The second major unit (Corps Jerusalem), led by the well-known Qassem Soleimani, was meant to be an Iranian arm working outside the boarders, providing the formation, training and directing to various militias linked to Iran, especially in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and other countries in the region, including some of the Gulf cooperation Council (GCC), where these cells may still be in the latency state.
Iran also proceeded to assemble Iraqi opponent Shiites fleeing from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein’s regime in military formations, who participated in fighting the Iraqi army alongside Iranian forces in the first Gulf War, the most notable of these formations are: “Badr militia” which followed the “Supreme Islamic Council,” and is currently headed by Ammar al-Hakim, and the Iraqi “Hezbollah” which follows the Iraqi Islamic Dawa Party and its most prominent leader was Nuri al-Maliki.
After the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the siege imposed in the summer of 1982, which ended with the departure of the PLO from Lebanon to Tunisia and South Yemen, and the withdrawal of the Israeli army to the south of the Litani, Iran began its project to establish “Hezbullah” by creating Shiite groups, and Shiite activists who were fighting with and by Palestinian organizations. Three thousand of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards were spread in Lebanon for long time, taking over the organization, training and funding with the help of the Syrian regime which was dominating Lebanon at the time; and dedicating “Hezbollah” as the single resistance force in the south, monopolized the idea of the national resistance and its activities, on behalf of the Lebanese people and state, by force and without permission. After the signing of the Taif agreement and the end of the civil war, “Hezbollah” became an independent armed group, outside the legitimate authority of the state. With the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon unilaterally in 2000, the party went to interfere in the Lebanese political affairs internally and externally, becoming a state within the state, deciding on war and peace, and disrupting the state, and imposing its views and positions unchecked; on top of that, it took over the veto power in the Lebanese government structure based on the Doha agreement, having invaded West Beirut in 7 May 2008, directing its weapon for the first time inside Lebanon, which is something the party had always dismissed, claiming that its weapons were to defend Lebanon against Israel.
After the 2006 war, and the imagined “divine victory”, and the isolation of his troops to the north of the Litani, Iran’s support for Hezbollah has increased, tasking it with foreign missions, including training and transferring of expertise to the old and the emerging Iraqi militias that played a role in Iraq’s civil war between 2004 operations and 2006, the war that broke out after the bombing of the shrines of Imams Ali al-Hadi and the military al-Hassan in Samarra, Iraq.
“Hezbollah” is a successful Iranian experience in the field of creating sectarian militias, in the context of extending its national expansion project, as it is the right military arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Iran has plunged this party in the conflict in Syria, to subdue the Syrian Revolution and enhance the Syrian regime. It started under the pretext of “protecting the Shiite shrines,” turning after occupying Qussaor in 2012, to a public and wide presence along the Syrian territory, to the extent that they entrusted the party’s leadership to coordinate the work of all the Shiite militias sent by Iran to help the Syrian regime, with all its multiparty nationalities from Iraqi and Afghan, Pakistani and Yemeni and at a certain stage in the revolution. “Hezbollah” has become the spearhead in the Syrian regime’s war on its own people, committing massacres and crimes, and carrying out demographic changes in the areas adjacent to the Lebanese border, to secure the lines of its supplies and to entrench its influence. But the size of the large losses it incurred, and the bleeding suffered by the cadres of its leadership, summoned to redraw the boundaries of the Party’s work, limiting it to the leadership of the other sectarian militias in the south of Syria, and therefore shrinking participation in other areas, where Iraqi “Badr militia” and “militia of Nujaba” would bear the primary burden in Aleppo and the Syrian North in general, leaving the leadership of the militia groups in the north to the leadership of the Revolutionary Guards directly.
“Hezbollah” surprised all parties involved in the Syrian conflict on 11 November this year, in the Syrian City of Qussair, with the largest military parade of its forces outside the Lebanese land for the first time, showing off their heavy and sophisticated weapons, including US-made weapons and private combat units. Apart from the propaganda dimension of this show, where the party wanted to assert its effective presence, they also wanted to send a message to international parties, and to the Lebanese Aoun’s presidency, and other messages to Syria, and there is no doubt that some of these messages is Iranian with distinction.
Perhaps the first and most important of these messages are those addressed to the international community, which is two-dimensional, the first focuses on fighting terrorism represented by extremist Sunni Jehadist organisations such as “Daesh” and similar ones, hopping that the party would be nominated as one of the parties in this fight, as long as it has the ability and combatants and experience, bearing in mind that if that happened, even if it is very unlikely, it would be within the recital of the rehabilitation of the Syrian regime and recruiting it in the fight against terrorism, in coherence with the newly elected US President Donald Trump’s statements during his election campaign, and the Russian efforts in this direction, as “Hezbollah” was previously included in the list of parties accused of terrorism, by the US State Department.
The second dimension aims to register a pre-emptive step towards the negative positions of the new US administration regarding Iran nuclear deal, insinuating that hostility towards Iran would have serious repercussions on the US interests and projects, now that Hezbollah can take pride in its army, per Naim Qassem, the general deputy secretary of the party.
Direct messages are probably addressed to the Lebanese parties which is witnessing a new re-alignments and repositioning after the Hariri and Aoun understanding, which led to Aoun’s election as a president, following two years of Hezbollah directly disabling the process, leaving the president’s position vacant. The party fears these alignments, most likely because the others may proceed to change the rules of the game laid down by the Party after the invasion of the seventh of May, and the Doha agreement. There is a message also to the sectarian incubator that their sacrifices have paid off in power and dominance inside and outside Lebanon, and an Iranian message to the Syrian regime, saying that Iran, with its instruments, has become an influential reality, which the regime should take into account when talking about sovereignty, previously mentioned by its “president” when he said: “Syria belongs to those who defend it.”
The vanguard of the Iraqi Shiite militias, such as militia Badr, were formed in Iran in 1983, then followed by the Iraqi “Hezbollah”, and both moved to Iraq, playing a military role alongside the US and British troops which invaded mid-March 2003, and imposed the American occupation, resolving the Iraqi army by Bremer’s decision, the governor of occupied Iraq then, and creating a security vacuum which destabilized Iraq and cost America dearly.
After the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the Iraqi Arab Sunnis took upon themselves the task of resisting the occupation, a decision which cost them the whole ruling political equation. Iraqi Shiites rarely resisted occupation, based on a fatwa from the Shiite cleric in Najaf, Ali al-Sistani, who issued a fatwa in 2003, prohibiting the resistance of the occupation. Shiite activists were free to form militias, supported and armed by Iran, and a financial cover from Baghdad’s government, during the presidencies of Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Nouri al-Maliki, who both followed the Iraqi Dawa extremist party. Alongside the old militias, 40 new formations emerged, most famously “Abou El Fadl Abbas” and “Nujaba” and “League of the Righteous” and “Mahdi Army”. These militias have played a major role in the civil war that followed the bombing of Samarra’s two mausoleums, and committed disgraceful crimes and atrocities against Iraqis from the other party, enhancing the sectarian division, creating counter formations such as the “Islamic State of Iraq” and “Army of the Mujahideen” and “Followers of al-Zarqawi”. Some of these Sunni formations were defeated by some US backed leagues, but some of them came back under the name of “Daesh.” In the meantime, the Mehdi Army – allied to the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr – who tried to differentiate from the context of the Iranian hegemony, or may be its struggle with al-Maliki came in the context of an internal power struggle within the Shiite house – has received a severe blow in 2008 by the Iraqi army and with US support, a decision of the then Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, has led to the resolution of this army, but the repercussions of that conflict is still simmering in the Iraqi political arena.
The second boost of militias in Iraq, found its chance when “Daesh,” suspiciously in 10 June 2014, occupied about a third of the of Iraq, and declared an Islamic Caliphate in Iraq and the Levant on the territories it occupied without any resistance from the Iraqi army. This was a golden opportunity for a second fatwa from Iraq’s top Shiite clerk, Ali al-Sistani, to invite Shiite youth to engage in a holy crowd called the “Shiite crowd”, reaching eighty thousand, and he later softened the name to the “popular crowd”. Did Maliki facilitate Daesh’s control to justify this trend?
The “popular crowd” has played a prominent role in the restoration of Diyala, which borders Iran, Tikrit and areas of the province of Salahuddin, and consequently Anbar and Fallujah, and committed unchecked massacres against civilians and lootings and displacement of residents of these territories. The “crowd” is currently involved, despite the objection of all the parties involved, in the battle of Mosul, and in Tal Afar after occupying the airport in order to reach the Syrian border, according to Hadi al-Ameri, commander of Badr militia, who told Reuters that “we will make Tal Afar’s airport a base to liberate the rest of the territory up to the Syrian border and beyond”, as Tal Afar secures an Iranian passage to Syria (Diyala in the direction of the Hamrin mountains, north of Tikrit down to Tal Afar, on the road to Sinjar on the Syrian border). Iran believes that there are many secure ways inside Syria reaching Qussair, where “Hezbollah” dominates, and then to the Mediterranean, the dream of the Iranian project. Perhaps this path is not very important to the Iranians in terms of transferring of weapons or goods, but it carries great moral significance to confirm the Iranian hegemony, and a message to the international community that Iran will do whatever is necessary to secure this land corridor to the Mediterranean.
Perhaps the most dangerous move threating the unity and stability of Iraq, came when the Iraqi parliament with its majority of Shiite members approved a law to convert the “popular crowd” militias to be part of the Iraqi army, but still ensuring its independence within a committee taking orders directly from the Prime Minister, giving it the means to contain the Iraqi army in the future, or marginalize its role in the state. The “popular crowd” will be a test and a challenge for the future of Iraq the day Jawad Talabani, one of the leaders of the crowd, refuses to integrate in the military action of the Iraqi state security services, and sees that his mission is to eliminate the Sunni extremist organizations, and that he will fight anyone trying to disarm him by force. Hence, we can realize why Abadi failed to fulfil his repeated promises to contain the “popular crowd”, and turn off the Sunni-Shiite raging strife, that is if he was sincere in his declared intentions. The crowd penetrated the structure of the state, including the army, and became impossible to contain.
The purpose from the new law is to secure immunity for crowd’s members from prosecution for the crimes they committed or would commit against the Iraqis; but the most important and most dangerous element is how all Iraqi militias were combined and integrated into the crowd, making them the Iraqi Revolutionary Guards similar to its Iran sibling in installing the Shiites domination on Iraq, and take care of the Iranian interests in the region, meeting the request of Qassem Soleimani months ago when he said: “We are the founders of the popular crowd.”
Syria is following Iraq’s steps, enhanced by the Iranian expertise and excellence in the militias industry; it has announced the formation of the “Fifth Corps – raids” which will feature volunteers with salaries equivalent to ten times the ordinary soldiers’ salaries ($ 300), while retaining the volunteer original salary if employed, and entire militias will be joined, and it is destined to be the same pattern of the Iraqi “Shiite crowd” or the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, so that the financing will be Iranian, as it seems.
Announcing the formation of the corps, which is some kind of special forces to counter the opposition forces fighting in the cities, comes up to fill the terrible shortage of manpower in the regular army, after six years of bloody fighting, and attrition due to defections, arrests and liquidations, which affected many personnel of various ranks, and the disappearance of many brigades and battalions that only exist on paper.
The announcement of the formation of the “Fifth Corps” is not unplanned; since 2012, senior officers and intelligence officers were assigned to form a militia of loyal and trusted volunteer, enhanced by military elements of the Republican Guards, and the fourth Battalion, and intelligence services, to be entrusted with the training and leadership. Thus came the “Tiger Forces” led by Colonel Suhail Al-Hassan, which has participated in most of the articular battles involving the regime’s army in the countryside of Hama and Idlib, Aleppo and Palmyra, and the militia “Nafez God’s Lion” led by Brigadier Issam Zahreddine, fought opposition forces alongside the regime’s forces, and finally fought “Daesh” when the later took control of Deir al-Zour. Also there are “Desert Falcons” militia, which was in charge of guarding oil sites in the central region, and then turned into fighting, especially in the fronts of the coast and Aleppo. In addition to that the “popular committees” which were formed at the beginning of the revolution in the “national defence militia,” and all similar militias will be integrated in the framework of the “Fifth Corps,” which will probably include local Shiite militias present in the Sayeda Zeinab, and some villages in West Homs, and in Kefraya and Foua, and elements from the Syrian “Hezbollah” that Iran was working on making for years.
Authoritarian regimes do not really trust the regular armies who are usually inclined to coups, and by which they came to power in the first place, they are more inclined to this type of military formations whose loyalty is guaranteed, to install its control in the face of internal challenges, having no ability to face them but with violence and destruction.
The phenomenon of militias is not completely new in the Baath Syria, as it witnessed a similar trend previously, at least in terms of the role and purpose, namely “the Défense Brigades,” which were formed in the early seventies of the last century, and played a crucial role in the eighties incidents in Aleppo and Shagour bridge and Hama, and the massacre of Palmira Prison, but was replaced later in the army by what is called “legion 14”, as well as “Baathist armed battalions” in the eighties.
Amid the militias frenzy that is sweeping the region nowadays in the abyss of ugly sectarian incitement, everyone is obsessed with being their own militia, with a terrible decline of the values of coexistence and citizenship rights, and the declining role of the state, and a suicidal inclination of entire communities towards deadly chaos. Iran has infected all the countries in the region, and launched its dangerous pandemic. Shiites have their militias, and Sunnis and Kurds and Christians have militias too, as well as in Yemen, and spreading. These militias will lead to the marginalization of the regular armies and weakening them, and will become a heavy burden on countries that facilitated their existence for temporary goals, with the exception of Iran of course, and they will become immune to control and subjugation, and uprooting them will be an expensive process.
Also, they will be a heavy burden on the incubating communities, and a tool of division and never ending fights within the family, because it is based on a sectarian ideology, not necessarily on the same grounds, and each side will kill in God’s name!
Extremism and terrorism feed each other’s, but these militias will not only harm the other party’s communities, but will quickly extends their offences internally, with murder, kidnapping and robbery to fund their existence and continuation, or in anticipation of reaping riches.
There is no doubt that the phenomenon of militias is very serious and dangerous, spreading death and destruction, deepening grudges, obstructing the progressive course of history, it is an expression of the path of regression based on predisposition, and waking up pre-national identities, at a time when mankind is globalized.
The question that arises in this context; have these militias become inevitable fate? It may be hard to say that it is possible to contain this flood in the near future, as the sponsors have an interest in circulating and strengthening them, as a tool to preserve their powers and privileges, as well as the international community’s indifference on the basis of “let them finish each other’s” contributes in the spread. But, as communities, naturally hate chaos and always tend towards stability, it is possible to say that the militias would be a passing phenomenon feeding from the chaos, and this could be accelerated by getting the communities out of this situation, which they were unwillingly forced into, to preserve the future generations and their homelands and to promote participation, coexistence and recognition of rights of citizenship and values, and the rejection of injustice and uphold the law, and the expansion of the national public space and trapping isolationist and sectarian ideas. Before all of this could happen, the Iranian expansionist project’s need to be defeated, Iran is a source of this disease, and working to defeat its project and supporters, is the first step towards the recovery of countries and communities.