The New Shiite Crescent
While the world watches ISIS, a more serious threat metastasizes.
(/sites/default/files/uploads/2015/02/102507-IranGuards-500.jpg)While the Obama administration’s agenda and policies with regard to fighting the Islamic State have been counter-productive, the administration is ignoring other larger threats in the region.
The profusion of Iran-trained Shiite militias in the region (particularly in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen) is unprecedented and represents the height of Iran’s support to militia groups. The incentives to recruit Shiite fighters can be either driven by financial means or religious/sectarian motives.
The emergence of this new Shiite Crescent has unintended consequences for regional and global powers. Currently, an estimate of 120,000 Shiite militants are fighting in Iraq and Syria including fighters from Abo Al-Fadl Al-Abbasbrigade, Al-Imam AlHossein brigade, Tho Al-Faqar brigade, Kafil Zainab brigade, Asaib Ahl Alhaq, Ammar Bin Yasser brigade, Hezbollah Al-Nujaba’ movement, to name a few.
The use of these Shiite militia groups are not only restricted within a boundary of one state. As transnational non-state actors, they are mainly intertwined across borders. For example, several of Iraqi Shiite militias have been utilized in Syria to fight alongside President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and vice versa.
In addition, the employment of militants are not limited to solely Arab Shiite groups. Most recently, Pakistani and Afghan Shiite fighters, which are part of the Iranian-backed “Operation Quneitra Martyrs named for Gen. Ali Allah Dadi,” have been brought to the Golan Heights in Syria, near the border of Israel.
The Success of the New Shiite Crescent
While the international community, primarily the United States, has been putting all of its eggs in one basket in regards to the Islamic State’s fighters, the growth and increasing number of pro-Iran Shiite militias can pose a daunting, long-term task to tackle in the future.
In other words, the international community might succeed in defeating the Islamic State, but they will lose Iraq and other parts of the region to the Iranian-supported Shiite militias.
There are several reasons for the growth and success of Shiite fighters.
First of all, while dozens of countries are relying on aerial attacks to address the threat of the Islamic State, or other extremist groups that might pose instability to the security of the region, the Iranian-supported Shiite militias are among the few groups that are actually fighting on the ground.
The Shiite militias can be seen on the front lines of the battles in Syria and Iraq fighting other oppositional groups. As “boots on the ground,” these militias groups become much more appealing to the leaders of countries who like to consolidate their power and obtain military support. One cannot ignore the fact that these Shiite militia groups have often made significant advances in Iraq and Syria, outperforming the Iraqi and Syrian armies and security forces.
As a result, the Iraqi government is more likely to tilt towards the Islamic Republic than the United States (or other governments) due to the fact that Tehran can provide Baghdad with forces on the ground. In addition, solely airstrikes have shown to be ineffective and often counterproductive to increasing territorial gains.
Secondly, Iran’s proximity to Iraq and Syria, as well as the transnational nature of these Shiite militia groups, make it much easier for Tehran to support the emergence of Shiite fighters across the region. Third, Iran has been successful at building close ties with both Arab and non-Arab Shiite populations in various countries in the region.
Shiite Jihad and the “Hezbollzation” of the Region
Although the Iranian-trained Shiite militias have made advances in territories in Iraq and Syria, ignoring the profusion of these militants in the region could pose a long-term security dilemma to regional nations.
The common argument made by Iranian leaders and some of Shiite militia groups is that these militias are protecting the religious Shiite shrines, including Sayyida Zaynab, Sayyida Ruqayya, and shrines in Najaf.
Nevertheless, the operations of these groups in various countries reflect their effective role in tipping the balance of power in favor of the Syrian government, as well as taking over the security and military operations of both Iraqi and Syrian governments.
Secondly, as pawns for the Islamic Republic’s regional hegemonic ambitions, the continuing support of Iran to organize, coordinate and financially support the Shiite militants will create formidable Iranian-backed Shiite proxies in the region in the long-term. This might be called the “Hezbollazation” of the region. As time passes, defeating these organized proxies will be a much more strenuous task.
Finally, in the future, the growth of Iranian-trained Shiite militias will further instigate and sharpen the sectarian and the Sunni-Shia split. For instance, recently, Iraqi Sunni lawmakers have announced that they will boycott the Iraqi parliament until the government controls the growing influence of the Shiite militia groups.
If the international community succeeds in defeating the Islamic State, they will soon encounter a much more taxing challenge: The long-term security threat posed by the Shiite militias. Even if many countries are capable of driving the Islamic State out of Syria and Iraq, they will soon come to the realization that they have lost Iraq, Syria, and other territories in the region to the Iranian-trained Shiite militias.
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