Syria’s Assad and Iraq’s PMF at the service of Iran
Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces has demonstrated in Iraq and Syria why its presence in politics matters.
The Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) upheld its promise of fighting for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s ailing forces in Syria following Mosul’s recapture from the Islamic State (ISIS), binding Assad and the Iran-backed PMF closer together.
Iraqi national security adviser Falih Alfayyadh arrived in Damascus on April 14 for talks with Assad concerning joint security in the phase after ISIS.
Alfayyadh is the former head of the PMF and is a close ally of Iran. His recent nomination as Interior minister divided parliament because of his vocal allegiance to Tehran. Despite withdrawing his nomination, Alfayyadh has demonstrated an ability to influence the Iraqi government, conducting regular visits to Damascus on its behalf.
Last December witnessed similar meetings between Alfayyadh and Assad. Two months prior, Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem met to raise their glasses in celebrating “the taste of victory” against ISIS. The two officials discussed reopening trade borders and joint efforts to combat terrorism.
In parallel to those conversations were talks of continued military support from the PMF to Assad, which analysts viewed as the sole purpose behind Alfayyadh’s visit.
What unites the two powers is their reliance on Iran. However, relations between Iraq and Syria were noticeably strained under former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s rule. Maliki blamed Assad for allowing foreign fighters to cross from Syria into Iraq, a force that formed the genesis of ISIS. After the 2011 Syrian uprising, Maliki, like Iran, has backed Assad.
In meetings past and present, safeguarding sovereignty has been a focal point in talks between Alfayyadh and Assad. Syrian state television reported the shared need to safeguard the independence of both countries from “foreign interference” in light of regional developments.
“Syria’s strength and victory is a triumph for Iraq” as much as it is for Syria, Alfayyadh said and “any Iraqi military achievements will be” in Syria’s interests too, the Syrian Arab News Agency reported.
The persistence of these talks has been celebrated in the media as warming relations between two neighbours, when, in fact, the latest talks reaffirmed Assad’s indebtedness to the PMF — and Iran by extension — for having helped rescue the regime from collapse.
Iraq’s constitution celebrates the sovereignty of states and prohibits cross-border interference but laws are no deterrence in Iraq. Since 2003, governments have struggled to effectively command loyalty from all armed groups and reassert themselves against US and Iranian domination. Despite that, Baghdad happily ousted certain countries — namely Turkey and Saudi Arabia — for meddling in its affairs, while downplaying the encroachment of bigger actors such as Iran and Russia.
Former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s wavering stance on the PMF’s extraterritorial reach is a thing of the past. Current Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi exhibits a more relaxed approach, allowing figures such as Alfayyadh to do Iran’s work in Syria.
America lost even more sway after US President Donald Trump ordered the surprise withdrawal of 2,000 US troops from Syria in December, allowing Iran to deepen its reach. If the record of the past ten years is anything to go by, a stronger Iran does not necessarily translate into a stronger Syria or Iraq.
By sending legions of fighters to Syria and propping up Assad’s regime, Baghdad hopes to rehabilitate its image internationally as a weak state. In practice, however, the government is seen to be backtracking on its earlier commitment to neutrality in relations with its allies.
The threat of ISIS over which Assad and Iraq’s PMF united suggests a lack of options for weak governments that Iran exploits, as opposed to warming relations.
While Iran uses the tragedies of the Arab world to justify its broad extraterritorial activities, a far more compelling explanation lies in the threat of regime collapse that could reverse much of its political fortunes in Syria and Iraq.
What makes Alfayyadh an important choice to lead official visits to Damascus is his relationship to Iran and its proxies in Iraq. The controversy surrounding the choice of Alfayyadh rages on, despite criticism from across the political spectrum of the growing alliance between Assad and Iraqi militias.
Assad’s alliance with Iraq’s militias predates Alfayyadh’s appointment and the institutionalisation of the PMF. In 2014, new militias were formed in Iraq with the aim of fighting for Assad.
The alliance is not about the ways Iraq and Syria have united independently to protect their sovereignty. It speaks to Assad’s and the PMF’s continued support of Iran that in exchange guarantees the survival of weak states.