Tehran’s political and military involvement in Syria and Iraq have helped to turn their state structures upside-down.
Tehran’s aggressive interventionist foreign policy in both Iraq and Syria has had an outsized impact in the humanitarian tragedies of both countries.
In Syria, Iran has backed the brutal Assad regime, whose war on its own people killed more than 400,000, according to the UN, and left half of its population displaced. In Iraq, Iran has engineered the formation of Shia militias, which have become a major factor in determining and shifting policies by successive governments in Baghdad.
Experts point out that Iran’s presence across Syria and Iraq has contributed in exacerbating sectarian tensions, which have fomented a large portion of the violence in the region.
Mehmet Alaca, an expert on Iran-backed militias, thinks two major elements play a crucial role in shaping Iran’s Syria and Iraq policies: Tehran’s security concerns and the turbulent political settings in both countries.
“Iran always wants to push back the line of security threats from its core of the revolutionary establishment to other places like Syria and Iraq. Tehran wants to further [push] away security threats from its borders. As a result, it aims to establish its defense line with its interventions in other countries like Syria and Iraq,” Alaca tells TRT World.
The emergence of Daesh, a terror group, which is also fiercely anti-Shia, has paved the way for exerting Iranian influence across the Middle East, Alaca says. With Daesh, Iran has been able to justify its political expansion across a wider region under the guise of fighting terrorism, according to Alaca.
Alaca says Tehran has managed to promote its national interests, strengthening its proxies and deepening connections to each other from Lebanon to Afghanistan while also helping to fight Daesh.
The nature of the political chaos partly fuelled by Daesh has also been something which Iran’s revolutionary state structure has been able to capitalise and manipulate, Alaca explains, referring to the second factor of Tehran’s involvement in Iraq and Syria: political turbulence.
The easiest way for Iran to increase its political presence has been to take advantage of political chaos, Alaca says.
“The political chaos provides a great opening to Iran because Tehran’s political advantages lie in its field strength and its regional connections with Shia proxies. We have seen that in the post-Saddam Hussein period in Iraq by backing its Shia militias fighting with the US,” Alaca says. Saddam Hussein was the former president of Iraq, himself a Sunni, who had long suppressed the country’s Shia majority.
Against Daesh, Tehran mobilised its Shia militias under the militant umbrella of Hashd al Shaabi. That umbrella group backs political parties that have come to dominate the political landscape in Iraq, in a similar manner to Lebanon’s Hezbollah in the 1990s.
“The Iranian model to expand its influences in Iraq and Syria has been the example of Lebanon’s Hezbollah,” Alaca says. After the disastrous end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990, Hezbollah capitalised on social frailties and sectarian divides to extend its political dominance across the tiny Levant country.
The civil wars show how fragile societies are and Iran plays on that sense of fragility to shift social alliances in its favour, Alaca says, in reference to both Iraq and Syria’s civil wars.
Like its support to Shia groups in post-Saddam Iraq, Iran has also supported the Assad family, which is part of the Alawite religious sect, considered to have secure connections with Shia Islam. The Assad regime has ruled Syria, a Sunni-majority country, for the last five decades.
In Yemen, Iran also backs the Shia Houthis against Sunni groups.
“While Iran talks about the Islamic brotherhood, its main foreign political agenda is based on Shiism. Since 2011, [when the Arab Spring hit the Middle East], Iran has approached all Shia groups across the Middle East with such a [sectarian] motivation,” Alaca says.
“Iran sees political chaos as an opportunity to promote its agenda,” he adds.
Iran’s interventions in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon have not been limited to military assistance or political support.
“Iran changes places it has intervened sociologically. For example, it has brought many Shia families from Pakistan and Afghanistan to settle them down in Syria,” Alaca says.
In Iraq, the situation has also been similar to Syria when it comes to Iranian policy. “If you visit the Mosul basin, which used to be a Sunni Arab stronghold with some Kurds and Christians, or the Kirkuk area, an oil-rich region, you clearly sense pro-Iranian Shia culture,” Alaca explains.
Mosul, an old northern Iraqi city, where Daesh leader Abubakr al Baghdadi claimed the group’s caliphate in 2014, used to have a dominant Sunni character.
Using demographic change and other welfare programs developed by Tehran, the Iranian state intrinsically becomes an economic-political sponsor within Syrian and Iraqi societies, becoming a part of the decision-making processes in those countries.
Other experts think similarly to Alaca. “Since the beginning of 2017, Iran has turned some of its focus on infiltrating Syrian society and strengthening its relations with Syrian businessmen,” wrote Navvar Saban, a conflict expert at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies.
“Iran’s focus continues to be infiltrating Syrian society and strengthening its presence in the Syrian economic system in order to ensure its survival in Syria—especially in the event that an international agreement is made to neutralise its military presence,” Saban added.
Turkey checks Iranian expansion
Iran is not happy about Turkey’s operations in both Syria and Iraq, where Ankara is going after an internationally-designated terror group, the PKK, which has launched thousands of attacks across the Turkish border, using both countries’ territories.
"Iran is not interested in any regional powers getting more powerful in Iraq. The military presence of Turkey in northern Iraq is a fact that does not make Iran happy," said Zaur Gasimov, an international relations expert at the University of Bonn.
After many difficult cross-border operations, Turkey carved out a military presence in both northern Syria and northern Iraq, which makes Tehran think that the security of its regional sphere of influence could be put in danger by Ankara’s increasing military role in those regions.
According to one of Ankara’s founding political documents, the National Pact of 1920, both regions, northern Iraq (Mosul Vilayet) and northern Syria (Aleppo Vilayet), were regarded as part of Turkey.
Most recently, Iran criticised Turkey’s Gara operation, where the PKK lost significant figures while the terror group also executed 13 Turkish hostages.
“One of the main reasons Iranians gave a reaction to Turkey on the Gara operation is based on a geostrategic reality. Gara is located in an area between Sulaymaniyah and Sinjar, where pro-Iranian groups are very effective,” says Alaca.
Sulaymaniyah is a northeastern Iraqi city with a heavy Kurdish population. It is where the PKK has apparently incited some protests recently. Sinjar has been heavily populated by Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking religious minority, and the PKK has infiltrated the area by using the 2014 Daesh invasion.
Across the Sulaymaniyah-Sinjar axis, the PKK and pro-Iranian Hashd al Shaabi groups like Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Badr Brigade, Kataib Hezbollah and Harakat Hezbollah al Nujaba seem to be collaborating with each other, according to Alaca and other experts.
Hashd al Shaabi-PKK alliance
Iran’s connections with the PKK has a long and controversial history.
But one of the primary connections between the two happened when the PJAK, the Iranian wing of the PKK, declared a ceasefire with Tehran in 2011, at the beginning of the Arab Spring. The move was followed by the Assad regime’s departure from northern Syria, leaving the area largely to the YPG, the Syrian branch of the PKK, in 2012, at the beginning of the civil war.
After that, another connection was established when the PKK opposed the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG)’s former President Masoud Barzani’s independence referendum in northern Iraq in 2017, assisting Hashd al Shaabi forces to gain parts of the region, Alaca says.
Like Iran, Turkey also opposed the Kurdish independence referendum, but re-established its connections with both the KRG and Barzani after Erbil reversed its decision. Barzani has been historically allied with Turkey against the PKK.
“But the most tangible connection between Hashd al Shaabi and the PKK has been materialised in Sinjar,” Alaca says. In Sinjar, both groups have a military presence while the KRG wants to bring its control back to the region with a UN-backed agreement, supported by Turkey.
Sinjar is a strategic region close to the Syria-Iraq border, which Iran wants to control. For the PKK, it’s also crucial to weaken the KRG’s reach across northern Iraq. Tehran also wants to see a divided KRG to increase its control in Iraq.
“As a result, Iran and the PKK have a consensus over the status quo of the Sinjar region,” Alaca says.
“Salaries of PKK’s local forces in Sinjar have been paid by the Hashd al Shaabi,” said Bekir Aydogan, an Erbil-based political analyst, in a previous interview with TRT World.
Alaca thinks that recent rocket attacks launched by Iran-backed Shia groups to Erbil are a political message to Turkey.
Last year, angry supporters of the Hashd al Shaabi also attacked Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)'s political office in Baghdad, burning it and desecrating KRG flags alongside Barzani pictures.