TSG IntelBrief: The Role of Shi’a Militias in the Battle for Aleppo
October 5, 2016

The Role of Shi’a Militias in the Battle for Aleppo

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• Foreign Shi’a militias form the core of the pro-Assad ground force that is attempting to expel rebel forces from their strongholds in eastern Aleppo.

• The Shi’a militia fighters are paid, supported, and commanded by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and have few direct ties to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his military, or to Russia.

• Iran and its Shi’a recruits perceive the fight to keep Assad in power as an existential struggle to protect all Shi’as, and particularly Iran’s main regional proxy, Lebanese Hizballah.

• The Shi’a militia involvement in the Russian-backed Aleppo offensive is likely to further inflame already heightened sectarian tensions in the region.

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The collapse of the U.S.-Russia brokered cessation of hostilities in Syria has evolved into an all-out effort by Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime to capture the rebel-held portions of Aleppo. The three allies believe that expelling opposition groups from Aleppo could deal a ‘knock-out blow’ to the rebellion and, at the very least, force a political settlement on their terms. However, that objective cannot be achieved through Russian and Syrian bombardment alone; retaking Aleppo will require ample ground forces to seize and hold territory in the city. But defections, combat deaths, and a limited recruiting pool have reduced the size and capability of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), rendering the Assad regime dependent on Iran-backed Shi’a militia forces for ground combat troops. Estimates of the number of Shi’a militia fighters reportedly assembled for the Aleppo battle vary from 6,000 to 10,000, consisting of Hizballah, Iraqi Shi’a militia fighters, and Shi’a recruits from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Most estimates of the total number of Shi’a militia fighters in all of Syria now exceed 60,000, with Iraq furnishing the largest contingent—over 15,000. Foreign Shi’as outnumber the SAA not only on the Aleppo front, but possibly in all of Syria.   

Neither SAA commanders nor Russian special forces have operational control over the foreign Shi’a fighters in Aleppo—that role is solidly in the hands of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force (IRGC-QF) and its commander, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani. It is the IRGC-QF that recruits the Shi’a militias to fight in Syria; the IRGC-QF trains these groups, arms them, and pays fighters’ salaries, as well as benefits to the widows and orphans of those killed. Iran encouraged one Iraqi Shi’a militia, the Harakat Hizballah al-Nujaba (HHN) to contribute an additional 1,000 fighters to tighten the re-imposed siege on Aleppo in early September. HHN formed in 2013 as a breakaway from a major Iraqi Shi’a militia, Asa’ib Ahl Al Haq, with the singular purpose of assisting the Assad regime against the rebellion. It has always been among the largest single Iraqi contingent in Syria, and its role in the current Aleppo battle is to secure areas of the city captured from the rebels. HHN is led by Shaykh Akram al-Ka’bi, who visited his forces on the Aleppo front just prior to the failed U.S.-Russia initiated ceasefire. As the Iran-backed forces were building up in Aleppo, HHN displayed its fighters on social media alongside Soleimani, who is not only in command of Iranian and foreign Shi’a units, but directing SAA forces in Aleppo by default. 

A core goal of Iran’s intervention in Syria has always been to secure Hizballah’s future, and Iran sees Assad as the only Syrian leader who can be trusted with that mission. As Assad’s battlefield fortunes were waning in 2013, Iran’s main Shi’a proxy, Lebanese Hizballah, entered Syria not only to help the Assad regime, but also to secure the border areas of Lebanon from infiltration by extremist Sunni rebel groups. Other foreign Shi’a forces in Syria—which first deployed to the country as part of a movement to protect Shi’a shrines and holy sites from the Sunni-dominated rebellion—share Iran’s view of the stakes in Syria for Hizballah, as well as for Shi’as more broadly. Like Iran, these groups share the belief that the rebellion is a Saudi-led Sunni plot to topple Assad and oppress the minority Alawites, who practice a religion akin to Shi’ism. Iraqi Shi’a militias also believe that a Sunni-ruled Syria would support efforts by Iraq’s Sunni minority to recapture the power they held in Iraq during the rule of Saddam Hussein. This perception has fueled an ideological commitment amongst Iraqi Shi’a militiamen that has caused them to fight very effectively in Syria, defying predictions that such groups would be unwilling to battle vigorously outside of their home country. Recent U.S.-backed gains in Iraq against the so-called Islamic State have freed up Iraqi Shi’a militias for duty in Syria.

The battle for Aleppo is certain to aggravate already elevated sectarian tensions in the region, particularly if it results in the capture of the entire city by the regime and its allies. The Russian-backed offensive in Aleppo has already caused Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies to supply Syrian rebel factions with more advanced weaponry. The further displacement of eastern Aleppo’s civilian population—coupled with the looting by government and Shi’a militias that would likely ensue—could easily lead to wider sectarian driven retaliation in conflicts in Yemen, or fan internal sectarian flames towards Shi’a minorities in the Gulf states.

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