News / Middle East

    Number of Shia Fighters in Syria Could Rise Following Fatwa

    Hezbollah fighters, center, carry the coffin of their commander Ali Bazzi who was killed in Syria,Dec. 9, 2013.  (AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari)
    Hezbollah fighters, center, carry the coffin of their commander Ali Bazzi who was killed in Syria,Dec. 9, 2013. (AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari)
    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.

    You May Like

    Video Obama Remembers Fallen Troops for Memorial Day

    President urges Americans this holiday weekend to 'take a moment and offer a silent word of prayer or public word of thanks' to country's veterans

    Upsurge of Migratory Traffic Across Sahara From West to North Africa

    A report by the International Organization for Migration finds more than 60,000 migrants have transited through the Agadez region of Niger between February and April

    UN Blocks Access to Journalist Advocacy Group

    United Nations has rejected bid from nonprofit journalist advocacy group that wanted 'consultative status,' ranking that would have given them greater access to UN meetings

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trendi
    X
    May 27, 2016 5:57 AM
    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.
    Video

    Video Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trend

    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.
    Video

    Video Reactions to Trump's Success Polarized Abroad

    What seemed impossible less than a year ago is now almost a certainty. New York real estate mogul Donald Trump has won the number of delegates needed to secure the Republican presidential nomination. The prospect has sparked as much controversy abroad as it has in the United States. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Drawings by Children in Hiroshima Show Hope and Peace

    On Friday, President Barack Obama will visit Hiroshima, Japan, the first American president to do so while in office. In August 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city to force Japan's surrender in World War II. Although their city lay in ruins, some Hiroshima schoolchildren drew pictures of hope and peace. The former students and their drawings are now part of a documentary called “Pictures from a Hiroshima Schoolyard.” VOA's Deborah Block has the story.
    Video

    Video Vietnamese Rapper Performs for Obama

    A prominent young Vietnamese artist told President Obama said she faced roadblocks as a woman rapper, and asked the president about government support for the arts. He asked her to rap, and he even offered to provide a base beat for her. Watch what happened.
    Video

    Video Roots Run Deep for Tunisia's Dwindling Jewish Community

    This week, hundreds of Jewish pilgrims are defying terrorist threats to celebrate an ancient religious festival on the Tunisian island of Djerba. The festivities cast a spotlight on North Africa's once-vibrant Jewish population that has all but died out in recent decades. Despite rising threats of militant Islam and the country's battered economy, one of the Arab world's last Jewish communities is staying put and nurturing a new generation. VOA’s Lisa Bryant reports.
    Video

    Video Meet Your New Co-Worker: The Robot

    Increasing numbers of robots are joining the workforce, as companies scale back and more processes become automated. The latest robots are flexible and collaborative, built to work alongside humans as opposed to replacing them. VOA’s Tina Trinh looks at the next generation of automated employees helping out their human colleagues.
    Video

    Video Wheelchair Technology in Tune With Times

    Technologies for the disabled, including wheelchair technology, are advancing just as quickly as everything else in the digital age. Two new advances in wheelchairs offer improved control and a more comfortable fit. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Baby Boxes Offer Safe Haven for Unwanted Children

    No one knows exactly how many babies are abandoned worldwide each year. The statistic is a difficult one to determine because it is illegal in most places. Therefore unwanted babies are often hidden and left to die. But as Erika Celeste reports from Woodburn, Indiana, a new program hopes to make surrendering infants safer for everyone.
    Video

    Video California Celebration Showcases Local Wines, Balloons

    Communities in the U.S. often hold festivals to show what makes them special. In California, for example, farmers near Fresno celebrate their figs and those around Gilmore showcase their garlic. Mike O'Sullivan reports that the wine-producing region of Temecula offers local vintages in an annual festival where rides on hot-air balloons add to the excitement.
    Video

    Video US Elementary School Offers Living Science Lessons

    Zero is not a good score on a test at school. But Discovery Elementary is proud of its “net zero” rating. Net zero describes a building in which the amount of energy provided by on-site renewable sources equals the amount of energy the building uses. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, the innovative features in the building turn the school into a teaching tool, where kids can't help but learn about science and sustainability. Faith Lapidus narrates.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora