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

Disappointing Report on China's Economy Shakes Markets

In London and New York shares lost 3 percent, while Paris and Germany dropped around 2.4 percent More

DRC Tries Mega-Farms to Feed Population

Park at Boukanga Lonzo currently has 5,000 hectares under cultivation, crops stretching as far as eye can see, and is start of ambitious large-scale agriculture plan More

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Areas are spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, source of livelihood for fishermen and herders who have called the marshes home for generations More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOAi
X
August 31, 2015 2:17 AM
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.

VOA Blogs