Iraqi and Syrian moderates must join forces to quell extremism
Numerous statements have emerged from various Iraqi quarters that indicate that extremist Shia groups with loyalties to Iran plan to move their fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) from Iraqi territory to Syria.
In a seeming attempt to reassert himself in a gambit to regain Iraq’s top job, former prime minister and current Vice-President Nuri al-Maliki made provocative statements that the battle for Mosul would extend to Syria and Yemen.
While Maliki’s statements may be brushed aside as bluster, the most recent to make similar comments, however, was the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), an umbrella organisation of predominantly Shia paramilitaries backed by Iran. PMF spokesman Ahmed al-Asadi said the PMF will side directly with Syrian President Bashar Assad. Assad is slaughtering his own people and has tallied up a kill count of more than 400,000, according to the United Nations.
The PMF has been accused of war crimes by international human rights organisations. As such, its declared intent to transfer its fight from homeland defence to an offensive war in a different country smacks of the same standards employed by ISIS when it bombastically declared an end to the Sykes-Picot borders between Iraq and Syria. Both ISIS, which is counted as a Sunni extremist group, and the PMF, representing various Shia extremist groups, have been responsible for atrocities and it seems their strategic vision shares many commonalities, too.
This poses an incredibly dangerous problem for moderate, anti-establishment forces in both countries.
Syrians yearning and fighting for democracy for the past six years have already had to square off against Shia militants fighting at Iran’s behest, from Lebanese Hezbollah to the Iraqi Hezbollah and Afghan Shia mercenaries fighting under the banner of the Fatemiyon Division, a subordinate unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Adding to their woes, ISIS has been used as a perfect excuse to justify a Russian intervention that has inflicted severe political and human costs on the revolutionaries, now branded conveniently as terrorists.
In Iraq, a peaceful protest movement arose in late 2012 following years of Sunni Arab disenfranchisement and discrimination at the hands of the Shia-dominated, Iran-backed Baghdad regime. Maliki, who held the reins of power at the time, was virulently sectarian in his approach and even likened Sunni protesters to the killers of Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, loved by all Muslims but claimed as a religious symbol by the Shia.
Such sectarian rhetoric encouraged militias and the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) to use massive violence to quell the demonstrators, as the protesters were accused of harbouring terrorists. This was again used as an excuse to violently disperse protest camps. This led to Sunni demonstrators taking up arms to defend themselves, a chaotic and violent environment that allowed ISIS to find a new foothold in Iraq.
Once ISIS is defeated, it seems natural for these other factions to reappear in one form or another, as the underlying social and political issues that led to the rise of ISIS have not been resolved. When that does happen and if Iraqi officials make good on their promise to move the fight to Syria in support of the Assad regime, Iraqi and Syrian moderates need to work together.
Much as the Shia militias, Assad’s regime and Iran work together across borders due to their shared interests, so too must Iraqi and Syrian moderates, who are the increasingly silenced majority in this long-term struggle for self-determination and emancipation from the grip of dictators and sectarian hegemons.
The moderates cannot allow groups such as ISIS to simply filter back and forth across their borders. If that is allowed to happen, they will always be used as an excuse to inflict enormous brutality against them and as a tool in order to co-opt the international community, primarily the United States.
Both Assad and Iran have masterfully positioned themselves as the “lesser of two evils” and the West has bought it. Essentially, they are saying that either the West deals with them, the so-called rational (if distasteful) state actors, or they deal with extremist non-state actors, such as ISIS, bombing their cities.
However, moderate forces on both sides of the border must join forces in preventing the flow of men and materiel designed to further a sectarian war that has to end now before it is too late. Shia militias cannot be allowed to move from one country to another, just as their Sunni extremist counterparts must be stopped. In many ways, they are similar to each other, and both ISIS and the Shia militias threaten the futures of the people of Iraq and Syria, who want nothing more than peace, freedom and security.