Some regional experts and U.S. officials are warning that a collaborator in the fight against the so-called Islamic State militants could prove less friendly in the future.
Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria have proved to be formidable foes to the radical Sunni militant group, and their rise is having short term impact on the wars raging in Syria and Iraq.
Phillip Smyth, author of the report “The Shiite Jihad in Syria and its Regional Effects,” said that in the short term, the Shiite jihad has been “the number one factor” in propping up the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and stemming the advances of IS in Iraq.
Smyth, who is a researcher at the University of Maryland and author of the blog "Hizballah Cavalcade,” says Shiite jihadists have come by the thousands, mostly from Lebanon and Iraq, but from other countries as well.
“It was a multipronged approach,” he said. “It was extremely effective. They have really turned the tide.”
But in the long term, Smyth said the Shiite jihadist militias could provide Iran opportunities to set up Hezbollah-like groups to spread Tehran’s “radical ideology more intensively” and project Iranian power into Shiite communities worldwide.
“Their long-term plans make ours look like a blink of an eye,” said Smyth. “They’re building two pincers around Saudi Arabia in the gulf and another around the Israelis.”
Complex and obscure
The growth of the Shiite militias has been “complex, obscure, and hardly linear,” wrote Smyth.
“What may have appeared to be a disjointed or even organic flow of Shiite fighters into Syria, ostensibly to defend the country’s Shiite holy sites, was actually a highly organized geostrategic and ideological effort by Iran to protect its ally in Damascus and project power within Syria, Iraq, and across the Middle East,” he wrote in his paper.
While IS has a reputation for a sophisticated recruiting campaign, Smyth said the Shiite militias “have a far more polished approach.”
Recruitment techniques, Smyth wrote, range “from tents set up on Shiite pilgrimage routes to advanced Internet and social media methods.”
There are various reasons the Shiite jihad has gone under the radar.
First, understanding the scope is very difficult because there are so many militias which are constantly morphing and transforming. For example, Smyth said there are 50 Shiite militias in Iraq alone.
Another reason Shiite militias might not be getting much U.S. coverage is a possible rapprochement with Iran over that country’s nuclear ambitions, said Smyth.
Smyth said that might lead to downplaying just what the Shiite militia are doing.
And the Shiite militias have been accused of violence on a large scale.
After U.S. airstrikes helped Shiite militias break the siege of the Iraqi town of Amirli last summer, there were reports that Sunni houses were then burned down.
“Our team went to more than 20 predominately Sunni villages and heard consistent accounts of systematic destruction by Shia militias that are determined to prevent villagers from returning,” said Sarah Margon, the Washington Director of Human Rights Watch in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee on International Operations and Organizations, Human Rights, Democracy and Global Women’s Issues.
“Hundreds of families were left homeless, searching for shelter in abandoned factories, graveyards, and under cars and trucks,” she added. “This tactic intensifies sectarian tensions throughout the country and appears to be flourishing in the absence of any larger strategy for civilian protection.”
One man she interviewed told her “I am no more afraid of [IS] than I am of the Shia militias and the Iraqi government.”
On Monday, Iraqi lawmaker and paramilitary commander Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Badr Organization, Iraq’s powerful Shiite militia, defended Shiite fighters from accusations of mass executions and burning homes.
Another reason less is known about Shiite militias is that they are not as media minded about their crimes, said Smyth.
IS atrocities, which are blasted around the world through social media, provide good cover for the Shiite militias who often are guilty of similar levels of barbarity, Smyth said.
Myopic focus on IS may also be why the Shiite militias fly under the radar, said Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon.
“There is less interest in looking at the Shia militias fighting against ISIS, he wrote in an email. “And maybe also raising questions about who is doing the fighting on the Baghdad government's side would lead to uncomfortable questions about the whole strategy being cobbled together in Iraq, such as it is.”
Those questions have to do with Iran’s role in supporting Shiite militias in both Iraq and Syria, with the former having been responsible for attacking U.S. troops during the Iraq occupation.
In written testimony prior to his confirmation hearing, Ashton Carter, President Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, expressed alarm at Iran’s activities in Iraq.
"I have concerns about the sectarian nature of Iran’s activities in Iraq," Carter wrote. "The United States must continue to make clear to the Iraqi government that Iran’s approach in Iraq undermines the needed political inclusion for all Iraqi communities, which is required to ultimately defeat [IS]," he added.
U.S. officials have said that Shitte militias have been fighting IS, but that there have also been reports of them working with Iraqi security forces to target Sunnis.
According to a report in Bloomberg News, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq offered air support to the leader of the Badr Organization, Iraq’s “oldest and most powerful” Shiite militia.
Smyth said a big concern is the “militiaization” of the Iraqi army, and his concerns were echoed by a former military general, according to Bloomberg.
“We built an Iraqi military to defeat all the enemies of Iraq and groups like the Badr Corps represent enemies of a stable, secure, and inclusive Iraq,” said Michael Flynn, a special operations general who served in Iraq and retired leader of the Defense Intelligence Agency. “As soon as we get done helping them with ISIS, they will very likely turn on us.”
Some information in this report came from Reuters.