July 24, 2018
Phil Johnson, Ph.D.
The war in Syria has raged for more than seven years and has brought with it the deaths of half a million people, the displacement of millions more and untold suffering and destruction. And it’s not over yet. In 2016, when I was doing research in Iraq, near Mosul, a priest who was helping Christian refugees told me that when the threat of ISIS was gone, (which for all intents and symbolic purposes occurred at the end of 2017) the region would experience something far worse – and that “something worse,” he told me, was going to be the Shiite Militias.
Now, in 2018, Syria is booming with Shiite militias. Trained and controlled by Iran, these military groups are quickly outstripping Syrian forces for the title of most dominant influence in the country. From the way it looks, Iran is poised to become an even greater power player in Syria.
Late Sunday night, using the communication tool of the moment, Twitter, U.S. President Trump and Iranian President Rouhani exchanged strong words. The Iranian president reminded President Trump not to “play with the lion’s tale” and that war with Iran would be the “mother of all wars.” President Trump tweeted back, (in all caps), a warning to “be cautious,” lest you “suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before.”
At the same time, Global Next received a report this weekend from our asset on the ground in Syria, specifically regarding the growing influence of Iran and Shiite militias in Syria. On behalf of Global Next, our asset has spent the last month investigating, interviewing and documenting the role that Iran is playing in the ongoing struggles in Syria and the greater Middle East region and why it matters. Here are some of the highlights of this exclusive report:
Who are the Shiite Militias?
The Shiite militias are made up of many factions, including fighters from Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon (Hezbollah), Pakistan and Yemen. The movement is bound together by their collective sense of Shiite Islamic ideology, victimhood, historic grievances and perceptions of injustices that seems to be the basis of the minority Shiite community’s mentality.
While it’s difficult to get exact figures, according to our sources and interviews, currently there are between 40 and 50 Shiite militias at work in Syria with the numbers of soldiers somewhere between 70,000 and 80,000. The largest faction among these militias are the Iraqis which compose upward of 30,000 soldiers. Yes, the very brutal and violent Iraqi militias that have played a role in Iraq since 2003. These militias are run directly by the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp), a branch of Iran’s armed forces which was founded after the Islamic revolution in Iran by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. The IRGC provides salaries, food and logistics to these militias which are led in Syria by mostly pro-Assad former officers. To be clear, Iran is financing and training a private military in the Middle East apart from the official governments of Iraq and Syria – the recent stomping grounds of ISIS.
Where are the Shiite Militias Being Trained?
According to our interviews, Iran’s Shiite militias – operating in Syria – are receiving training in Syria, Lebanon’s Beqaa and in Iran itself. Iran has recruited tens of thousands of Syrians and organized training camps in Syria which last from 15 to 45 days in length. The recruited militants are receiving training in the use of firearms, machine guns, AK-47’s and RPG’s. The training camps are spread throughout Syria in Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Deir Ezzour, Damascus, Dara’a and Quenitra (the Golan Region).
Advanced training occurs in Lebanon. Those who are deemed as good, fit and loyal pro-Shia members are sent from Syria to Lebanon (in Western Beqaa and the hills around Baalbek). Here they are taught the art of street fighting, planting explosive devices, assassinations, and the use of advanced telecommunications systems.
Following the training in Lebanon, the best of the best – the elite – are then sent to Iran for about three months of additional training in the areas of command and control, advanced weaponry and Shia ideology, with the eventual goal of becoming leaders of brigades of militias.
According to Mohammad Hassan, 35, an Alawite Syrian militia leader who received training in Iran, “There are big numbers of training camps in Iran, and I got trained for three months in a big Iranian military base named, “Imam Ali Camp.” It is about half an hour’s drive from Tehran. It is a very big military base. I met with Syrians, Iraqis and Yemeni trainees. The Lebanese Hezbollah trainers were translating for us, there are some Iraqis who were born in Iran who were also translators. I received training courses on command and control, it was named “Leadership Training Course.” The graduates became leaders and commanders of armed units. The food and bedrooms were good and clean. I visited Shia shrines and spent a good times in markets and in the cities of Tehran and Qum.”
Who’s Financing the Shiite Militias?
According to our sources, much of the financing for the militias operating in Syria comes directly in cash payments from Iran – cash payments in U.S. dollars.
The Iranian, General Sayeed Ridda Mosoui is the financial contact in Syria. He coordinates the transfer of money between Syria and Iran. He has a financial team and accountants who get the money in cash from Iran and delivers it to Syria in big bags where the state-run Central Bank of Syria changes the money into Syrian pounds and pays the salaries of the Syrian militiamen.
Money is also laundered into the country through donations for Shiite shrines or Islamic education into the hands of people like Dr. Hani Murtadda, the current Supervisor of the Said Zainab Shrine in Damascus. Much of the donated money is simply redirected to Iranian-backed militia groups.
On May 12, 2018, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad order a payment of 202 million Syrian pounds (about 392,000 U.S. dollars) to the families of martyred Syrian National Defense Forces members. Interestingly, the SND are not an official Syrian government military organization. They were created by Iran as “auxiliary forces” which have no governmental official stature in Syria. President Assad’s payment to the families of these paramilitary forces only deepens the ties between Syria’s leadership and the leadership of Iran.
Who’s Leading the Shiite Militias in Syria?
While we’ve already asserted that the Shiite Militias – operating anywhere – are a product of Iran, it’s interesting to note the local leadership as well. In Syria, according to various interviews and meetings with Syrian and Iraqi Shiite militiamen, Qasem Soleimani (known in Syria as Haj Qasem) is the Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Forces commander.
Haj Qasem has a big office in the Glass House Head Quarters (Iran’s main HQ in Syria) located just next to the Damascus International Airport. It is here that Haj Qasem holds his meetings with Iran’s militia leaders and Hezbollah’s leaders.
What are Iran’s Goals in this Region?
The first goal of Iran and their militia puppets, is to keep the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad and his Alawite community in power and ruling Syria. Although the Shia scholars do not consider the Alawite sect as an offshoot of Shiite Islam, the Iranian regime has strategic interests in keeping Assad in power. Iran has built Shia Shrines, mosques and Islamic educational centers in order to expand the Shia doctrine over the nation. Iran’s officials and officers continue to express that “Iran’s key role is keeping the government of president Bashar al-Assad.”
The second goal is to open a corridor from Tehran to Baghdad to Damascus to Beirut. This is a very strategic corridor for the “Axis of Resistance” to link Iran with the Lebanese Hezbollah and newly formed Syrian, anti-Israeli armed groups in Golan and Southwest parts of Syria. (The “Axis of Resistance” refers to the anti-Western, anti-Israeli, and often anti-Saudi Arabian militia groups in Iran, Lebanon and Iran.) This land-bridge is crucial for Iran to be able to transport weapons, ammunition and rockets from Iran to Hezbollah. It’s also important for Iran because they want to expand the Shia doctrine in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain. Iran wants to keep its hold on Syria and in particular on the Damascus International Airport in order to transport its high-ranking officials, officers, IRGD officers, advisors and other nefarious people from Tehran to Damascus.
What is the threat to the U.S. and our Allies in the Region?
Of course, along with the afore mentioned goals, there is the explicit goal of driving Western influence – (primarily the U.S.) out of the region. While the threat of ISIS has largely diminished in Iraq and Syria, the presence and threat of Iran has grown. According to Global Next’s source in Syria, Iran is preparing armed sleeper cells inside the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) -seized areas in Raqqa, Hassaka and Deir Ezzour to wage attacks against America and its Kurdish friends. Global Next’s source expects attacks on U.S. positions to occur in Syria if President Trump attacks Iran’s military positions.
The Baqir Brigade – one of the numerous Shiite-backed militias has already announced its intention to attack U.S. interests. In April, on its official website and on a now-deleted Facebook post, the group announced, “We in the Baqir Brigade leadership announce the good news of the launch of military and jihadi operations against the U.S. occupier and all those affiliated with it in Syria.” The statement was signed by Mohammad al-Hendawi, the division’s press officer.
As I was told two years ago in Iraq by Father Douglas Bazi, – when ISIS is gone, and the Shiite militias take over, it will become so dark that one group won’t be able to recognize the other. In light of the recent rhetoric between the U.S. and Iran, the training of Iranian-backed sleeper-cells along with the coming “snapback” sanctions that the U.S. will be reimposed upon Iran in the coming weeks, it might be time to light a candle.
*Many thanks to my source in Syria, for risking his safety and life to bring us inside information and insights. The loyalty of true Globalnexters always amazes me.
*For more information on Global Next, our research and our international conferences, please visit our website at: www.globalnext.org