Iran’s battle in Syria and the dangers of unwanted wars

Shia militias pursue their own agendas, may involve Tehran in conflicts in their homelands.

A 2105 file photo shows Iranian mourners carrying the casket of Islamic Republic’s Revolutionary Guards Corps’ member Abdollah Bagheri, who was killed fighting in Syria.


2016/05/29 Issue: 58 Page: 15


The Arab Weekly
Ali Alfoneh



Washington - Throughout the 5-year-old war in Syria, Tehran has mobilised, trained, armed and deployed foreign Shia militias in that country to secure the survival of President Bashar Assad’s regime.

However, the foreign Shias, in­cluding Afghans, Iraqis, Lebanese and Pakistanis, do not necessarily see themselves just as instruments of the Islamic Republic. These mili­tias pursue their own interests and agendas.

Therefore, what Tehran may have considered as a burden-sharing mechanism or a means of establish­ing a pan-Shia force at its disposal could drag Iran into debilitating con­flicts in the countries where these militiamen come from.

The utility of the Shia militias for Iran is beyond any doubt. Since Jan­uary 2012, at least 307 Afghan Shias of the Fatemiyoun Division, 903 Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, 66 Pakistani Shias of the Zeinabiyoun Brigade and an unknown number of Iraqi Shias from various militias have been killed in combat in Syria. By comparison, Iranian forces suf­fered the relatively modest total of 400 combat fatalities over the same period.

In view of the negative public re­action in Iran to the May 6th killing of 16 Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps personnel in heavy fighting in the village of Khan Tuman, south-west of battle-ravaged Aleppo, with another 21 wounded and several reported captured, the concept of having other Shias share the burden of casualties in Syria clearly pro­vides Tehran with an advantage.

Iranian authorities would have an infinitely tougher time explain­ing to their people the necessity of sacrificing almost 2,000 Iranians for the sake of Assad rather than a few hundred because non-Iranian Shias were being used as cannon fodder.

But the inferno in Syria provides a training ground for inexperienced and poorly trained Shia militias, forging these men into what could turn out to be a pan-Shia force ca­pable of fighting Tehran’s external proxy wars from the shores of the Mediterranean in the west to Central Asia in the east.

Insurgencies in Syria, Iraq and Yemen coupled with the prospects for renewed hostilities in Afghani­stan emphasise Tehran’s require­ment for such a force.

The Shia militias, however, also pursue their own agendas and may involve Tehran in conflicts in their homelands.

In the first decade of the history of the Islamic Republic, major Shia groups such as the Iraqi al-Dawa, played a big role in igniting the war between Iran and Iraq. Saddam Hus­sein certainly desired to take advan­tage of the revolutionary chaos in Iran, just as the revolutionary elites, intoxicated by swift victory over the shah, dreamed of exporting the rev­olution abroad.

However, a flurry of Shia revolu­tionary activity and assassination attempts in Iraq coupled with exiled Iraqi Shias’ constant enticement of their Iranian patrons contributed to the eruption and continuation of eight years of disastrous war be­tween Iran and Iraq.

Also, revolutionary Shia exiles from Sunni majority countries con­tributed to the deterioration of Iran’s relations with other Arab countries, which led to Tehran’s near complete isolation in the 1980s.

By the early 1990s, Tehran had learnt its lessons and the Islamic Republic remained neutral as the Ba’ath Party regime suppressed the Shia rebellion in 1991 but there is no guarantee that Iran will show such a degree of moderation in the future.

The Islamic Republic’s use of Shia militias in Syria could eventually drag it into costly wars in the native countries of these contingents. In Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, Iran is al­ready locked in a sectarian conflict against Sunni Arabs, while trying to manage an uneasy coexistence with the Kurds of Syria and Iraq.

On Iran’s long-troublesome east­ern frontier, battle-hardened Shia Afghan militias of the Fatemiyoun Division may drag Tehran into un­wanted conflict with the resurgent Taliban, a long-time enemy.

In the south-east, the conflict between Sunni radicals and Shia Pakistanis is a source of irritation between Tehran and Islamabad. The Shia Pakistani Zeinabiyoun Brigade could worsen those relations and bring potential disaster rather than strength to their masters in Tehran.


Ali Alfoneh is a non-resident senior fellow at Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.


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