The Disruptive Regional Role of Iran’s Ideology
On December 8, 2017, the leader of Iraq’s Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq Qais al-Khazali paid a visit to the Lebanese-Israeli border to inspect Lebanese “Hezbollah” resistance positions and to issue a threat to the southern neighbor.
In a leaked video, he was shown as saying: “We are here with ‘Hezbollah’ and we announce our complete readiness to stand side by side with the Lebanese people and Palestinian cause against the Israeli occupation.”
Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, or Khazali Network, is affiliated with Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).
Khazali’s statement could have been interpreted as a media ploy to divert attention from “Hezbollah’s” lax approach in responding to US President Donald Trump’s decision in early December to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. His statement however demonstrated the common interests of pro-Iran regional militias to allow Tehran to establish a security belt that extends from Iran to Lebanon and which passes through Iraq and Syria.
Iran’s expansion in Syria was based on a dual policy that relied on deploying Shi’ite foreign militias and setting up pro-Iran Iraqi and Syrian factions that are similar to “Hezbollah”. Iran has deployed more than 34,000 foreign fighters in Syria, the majority of whom hail from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Lebanon. The Lebanese “Hezbollah” members alone account for 2,000 to 10,000 of the fighters, depending on the demands of the military operations, said expert on Syria Samir Hassan.
The Iraqi militias and “Hezbollah” played a prominent role in Syria’s Aleppo through commanding the military attacks. According to “Hezbollah” members, the party was involved in the operations command room that was managed jointly with the Iranians and Russians.
Iran has taken advantage of the fragility of the Syrian state to establish, train and support local proxies, similar to what it did in Lebanon and Iraq. Since 2012, the Iranian armed and funded groups have tightened their grip over Syria. Iran’s plans included many factions, such as the national defense forces that were set up under Iranian supervision in 2012 as a counter-rebellion force. According to expert on Syria, Aron Lund, this force later became one of the largest militias in the country. It was later renamed and restructured and a number of popular and local committees and pro-Assad groups were merged into it. Despite this merge, the national defense forces faced difficulties in operating alongside the regime forces due to a number of reasons, primarily military ideology.
Along with the national defense forces, a number of other militias were operating in Aleppo under the banner of the local defense forces. Hassan explained that these factions include some 5,000 fighters. They were also very properly trained by “Hezbollah”. Moreover, they are considered to be the most cohesive and powerful of the factions due to their shared ideology.
Researcher Ayman Jawad al-Tamimi said that the new approach at the moment is to merge the pro-Iran militias with the local defense forces, which are now part of the army. In April 2017, the Syrian armed forces issued a memo that addressed the merger and it is likely that the defense forces will gradually replace the pro-Iran foreign factions currently deployed in Syria.
Such an approach is not new, but it has been previously implemented in Iraq with the PMF and Lebanon with “Hezbollah”. These two groups have become powerful players in their respective countries and they have become involved in political life there in credit to a long-term plan that was based on playing on the hearts and minds of the people.
In Iraq, the PMF as a concept was the product of a religious fatwa, or edict, issued by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on June 13, 2014. In it, he called on all capable citizens to defend the country and people against ISIS. With the end of the war on ISIS and its defeat, the continuation of these forces was no longer justified. On November 26, 2016, the Iraqi parliament ratified a law on the Shi’ite PMF that decreed that it become an independent military entity and also a part of the Iraqi armed forces. This consequently made it part of the Iraqi army. The law in effect permitted the formation of two parallel armies, one is based on the western military creed, while the other is based on local religious considerations. This step was followed up earlier this year with the separation of the PMF commanders from the military factions in order to allow them to run in the May elections.
In Lebanon, Iran-backed “Hezbollah” enjoys wide support from the local Shi’ite population. The party enjoys elected members in parliament and appointed ministers in government, making it very difficult, if not virtually impossible, to separate it from the state.
Add to that the party has transformed into a foreign force that has managed to deploy 2,000 to 10,000 fighters in Syria. Its forces waged military offensives that were coordinated with other armies and it has also played a prominent role in training pro-regime militias, as attested by “Hezbollah” fighters in the past. One fighter said that the party has leaders and advisors operating in Syria’s national defense forces and local defense forces.
The party has also worked on bolstering its surface-to-surface missile arsenal. “Hezbollah”, Iran and the Syrians have sought to develop different versions of the Fateh-110 Iranian rocket. They have also sought to reduce the warheads in favor of increasing the range and accuracy of the missiles. An expert on “Hezbollah” said that it has the ability to accurately strike targets in Israel in case a clash, which will be decisive for the party, erupts between them.
Despite all of the above, the major success that Iran aspires for will remain dependent on the “narrow” ties between the Iraqi, Syrian and Lebanese factions. What sets “Hezbollah” apart from these groups is the ideology of its fighters, said Ahmed, one of its members. He added that the strongest factions in Syria are the ones that are militarily and ideologically managed by “Hezbollah”.
This ideology has its roots in global Iranian Islamic ideology, which is committed to exporting the Islamic Revolution. This goal is stipulated in the Iranian constitution and it ultimately seeks to create a “united and global society of believers.” This commitment has so far been successfully implemented in Iraq and Lebanon.
Has Iran successfully built a cross-border semi-military and ideologically cohesive belt that extends from Iraq to Lebanon and which passes through Syria? Ahmed said that the Lebanese “Hezbollah” is not alone, but it has Syrian and Iraqi versions.
“These are not literal versions, but they are organized entities that share the same ideology and regional goals,” he stated.
“All of these factions in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon will fight side by side with each other in the next war,” he declared.
*Mona Alami is an associate fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies.