WASHINGTON — Up to 5000 Shia volunteers from Iraq are currently believed to be fighting in the Syrian civil war. Analysts say that number could rise now that a leading Muslim cleric has issued a fatwa saying it is permitted for Shia from Iraq to fight in support of President Bashar al-Assad. The religious ruling by Iran-based Grand Ayatollah Kazim al-Haeri is likely to have special resonance in Iraq as the cleric is a mentor of the radical Iraqi Shia Muslim leader Muqtada al-Sadr.
Shia fighters from neighboring countries have played an increasingly significant role in the two-and-half-year-old civil war with much attention being given to fighters from the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement, which took a lead role in recapturing the strategic town of Qusair near the border with Lebanon.
Hezbollah forces have now taken the lead in a government offensive now underway in the mountainous Qalamoun region northwest of the Syrian capital of Damascus. On Sunday a Syrian government spokesman predicted that a major town in the region, Yabroud, would soon fall to Hezbollah fighters and Syrian army units.
But in recent weeks Iraqi Shia numbers have grown too.
Phillip Smyth, a terrorism researcher with the University of Maryland, says the Iraqi volunteers are in many ways Iranian proxies and more often than not report to Iranian or Hezbollah commanders on the battlefield rather than Syrian army officers.
“The proxy groups sending combatants include Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraq’s Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, the Badr Organization, Kata’ib Hezbollah, and other smaller splinters from Iraqi Shia radical leader, Muqtada al-Sadr,” Smyth said recently. Al-Sadr led an insurgency against the U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq in 2006.
“Without the initial push by Iran and the utilization of its proxy-network, Shia armed involvement via the deployment of volunteer fighters and trained assets would likely have had a miniscule role in the fighting,” says Smyth. He argues, “The Assad regime would have been unable to mount most of its successful recent offensives” without this Iranian-driven assistance.
In November, a training video shot at a Syrian military base near Aleppo, surfaced on the Internet of an Iranian military adviser instructing Shia recruits. The video was seized by Syrian rebels and posted online.
Exactly how many Iraqi Shia volunteers are fighting in Syria is hard for analysts to calculate but estimates of those in country ranges from more than 3000 up to about 5000. Fourteen Iraqi Shia factions are engaged with the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade being the biggest.
How fighters are transported to Syria has become clearer recently with many of the volunteers posting online on Facebook and other social media sites how they got to Syria. Volunteers go to Iran initially and train there before flying to Lebanon from where they are taken into Syria with Hezbollah forces. Many of the fighters in their Internet postings say they were motivated to volunteer for Syria because of their determination to protect Shia shrines.
In the spring, militant Sunni Islamists desecrated the tomb of Bin Udai — one of the Prophet Muhammad’s followers prompting a storm of anger across the Shia world.
The Western powers have called on the Iraqi government to prevent Shia fighters from going to Syria. Deputy British Ambassador in Iraq, Robert Dean, in a press conference in the summer said the British government “regretted” the participation of Iraqi fighters in the Syrian civil war and called on Baghdad to implement measures to prevent volunteers from going.
Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari has denied claims of Iraqi government involvement and says Baghdad doesn’t endorse the Iraqi volunteers in the conflict in Syria. But the Iraqi Shia participation is hardly a secret: posters mourning the loss of individual fighters killed in the conflict are mounted in Baghdad’s Liberation Square.
Foreign diplomats say that while the Iraqi government has an official position of non-involvement in the war, individual Shia politicians and parties aren’t so restrained.
A European diplomat, who asked not to be named for this article, says the training in urban warfare of Iraqi volunteers takes place in a camp 15 miles from the Iranian capital of Tehran.
“As well as being trained in guerrilla warfare they are required also to attend religious classes,” the diplomat says.
Iranian officials strongly deny any involvement in the training of fighters, or of having any forces such as revolutionary guardsmen in Syria. Alireza Miryousefi an official at Iran’s mission to the United Nations in New York says Arab and Western financial and military assistance is fueling the Syrian conflict. "The Islamic Republic of Iran has no military involvement in Syria,” he said.