While much has been spoken of the fragmented rebel groups fighting Butcher Assad in Syria, the fairly monolithic term ‘government forces’ is used to refer to those fighting on Assad’s side. A new Guardian feature details how Iran’s proxies—the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq in particular—are recruiting fighters from Iraq and sending them to Syria. They are expanding their operations, and gaining prominence.A taste:
Since the US military left Iraq in December 2011, and within two months of the first national election since then, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq has quietly emerged as one of the most powerful players in the country’s political and public life. Through a mix of strategic diplomacy, aggressive military operations and intimidation – signature methods of its main patron, the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani – the group is increasingly calling the shots in two countries.Its rise to prominence has disturbed many Iraqi political leaders. “Little more than seven years ago, they were just another Iranian proxy used to attack the Americans,” said a minister. “Now they have political legitimacy and their tentacles in all the security apparatus. Some of us didn’t notice until it was too late.”Until early 2007, few outsiders had heard of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, which emerged over several years from a split within the Mahdi Army, the then-dominant arm of the Shia insurgency in Iraq. Its earliest incarnation – stealth tactics and the denial of responsibilty for attacks – was straight from the playbook of Suleimani, an elusive Iranian general whose influence over Iran’s strategic interests has grown sharply in the past 10 years.
In recent weeks, Saudi Arabia and Iran—and perhaps the United States too—have stepped up their efforts in Syria to end the war on their terms. Saudi Arabia is working up support from regional players, including nuclear-armed Pakistan, and supporting proxies. Iran, it seems, responding in kind. Despite the halting rapprochement between Washington and Tehran—or perhaps because of it—the ayatollahs want to make sure that Syria remains with Assad. The Asa’ib Ahl-al-Haq is an important part of that agenda. Do read the whole thing.