As Trump administration plans to withdraw US troops from northern Syria, it remains to be seen whether Iran-backed militias will scale back or continue their operations in the region.
As the civil war raged in Syria, the Assad regime was saved by both Russian intervention and Iran’s military support. Tehran helped Assad to rebuild his battered army with the help of Shiite militias, according to many experts.
Now, in the face of an immediate American withdrawal from northern Syria, where Washington’s war against Daesh has reached its end as per US president Donald Trump, all eyes are on Iran, which supports several foreign-origin Shiite armed groups in the war-affected region.
“We know that [since the beginning of the Syrian civil war] Iran has been forming a social base [beyond its armed and political activities] in Syria,” said Cevat Ones, the former deputy director of Turkish intelligence agency.
Ones refers to reports on Iran working toward settling down Shiite militias and their families in several parts of Syria to create a "massive" social structure in the region.
Tehran has reportedly called back some of its forces from northwestern Syria, where Turkey has conducted significant operations against both the YPG and Daesh since August 2016, and areas close to the capital city, Damascus. But for Ones, the withdrawal is insignificant in view of Iran's attempts to penetrate deep into the Syrian society.
“Iran has ideological connections and local alliances in Syria. Iran’s withdrawal of its troops from any particular location does not mean it has truly pulled out,” Ones told TRT World, referring to Tehran's influence over the Assad family, which belongs to Syria's Alawite minority sect. Some religious scholars argue that the Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shia Islam.
Ones also pointed out that any Iranian withdrawal depends upon if Russia and the US agree on some resolution to end the Syrian conflict.
“Iranian militias in the south are keeping the territory they conquer instead of handing it over to the regime," Jackson Doering, who was a former research assistant at The Washington Institute, an American think-tank, wrote in February. "If Assad is still in power by war's end, he will be beholden to Iran because of his army's frequent inability to secure territory on its own.”
The fall of Aleppo to forces loyal to Bashar al Assad, whose forces were supported by Shiite militias, has opened a window for Tehran to pursue what many of its opponents describe as the "Shia Crescent," an arc that Iran considers key to exert its influence from the Mediterranean region to the steppes of Central Asia in Afghanistan.
Iran's Syria policy, however, has translated into large scale human casualties and destruction of cities across the war-torn region. At least 470,000 people have died in the war, and the death toll recorded during the battle of Aleppo is being compared to Srebrenica massacre.
Iran’s Shiite militias
Iran’s presence in Syria, where it has reportedly lost more than 2,000 troops including its eight generals, exposes the country’s military-driven agenda. Its foreign-origin Shiite militias are proving out to be an obstacle for Syria’s long-term stability and peaceful coexistence.
Phillip Smyth, an expert on Shia militias in the Middle East, estimated in November 2016 that the number of militants belonging to the Iranian proxy groups and "foreign legions" in Syria was between 15,000 and 25,000.
"Iran cannot only put its foreign fighters into Syria, but build a lasting influence in the country — one that even Assad would have trouble dislodging," Smyth said, referring to the country's aggravating situation.
Qasem Suleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' elite Quds Force, has masterminded the creation of Assad's National Defence Force. It is a coalition of numerous militias recruited by Iran from countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Lebanon to fight with anti-Assad opposition forces.
Iranian military commanders have also confirmed that "thousands" of Afghan Shia fighters have been recruited by Iran to fight in Syria. Many were Afghan refugees promised monthly salaries and Iranian residency or citizenship in return of being Tehran's hired guns, according to media reports.
Lebanon's Hezbollah, another Iranian proxy, has also played a crucial military role in the Syrian conflict, deploying thousands of its fighters. More than a thousand Lebanese Hezbollah fighters had been killed in action since October 2012, according to Ali Alfoneh, the author of Iran Unveiled.
In addition, they now have a powerful Syrian branch, which controls checkpoints in several districts of Damascus, indicating another sign of influence an Iran-backed foreign militia can have in a foreign country.
The assertiveness of Shiite militias in Syria is likely to push global powers to blacklist them.
“The US considers to put Shiite groups such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba Movement, and others, which are active in Syria, on its foreign terrorist organisations list,” said Mehmet Alaca, a Turkish researcher, who wrote his thesis on Hashd al Shaabi, an Iraqi Shia militia armed and funded by Iran, at Exeter University.
Both Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Nujaba movement are part of the Hashd al Shaabi, an umbrella political organisation, which emerged in June 2014, when Daesh claimed Mosul and marched toward central Iraq, targeting Iraqi capital, Baghdad. The group is also known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).
Last month, the US State Department designated Jawad Nasrallah, the son of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist.
In 2009, Washington declared Kataib Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation. An originally Iraqi Shiite group founded by Iranian army, Kataib Hezbollah now works for Assad in Syria.