Ok just to make this point clear as people keep bringing it up to me again and again: the Iraqi “militias” in Syria are all part of the “Hashd al-Sha’abi” (Popular Mobilisation Forces) which in turn is an *official* part of the Iraqi armed forces. Indeed, since their recent legalisation and integration as an official part of the Iraqi military (though they were always effectively the bulk of what constitutes the Iraqi state’s “military” before then anyway) some of the brigades don’t even like being called “militias” anymore, saying that they’re now official army soldiers salaried by the government. Indeed, even when you watch a BBC or Sky report from the frontlines of Mosul you will almost always see the reporter saying that they are with the “Iraqi army” whilst the flags of the militias fly clearly in the background.
Furthermore, whenever I bring this point up I am told that the groups are “Iranian-backed” in Syria. Yet just because they are Iranian-backed does not preclude them from also being Western-backed, as they are both. You don’t stop saying that they are “Western-backed” once they cross the Iraqi-Syrian border. Indeed, believe it or not the Americans and British who back them in Iraq know full well that they’re flying to Syria (from the US-monitored Baghdad airport) to fight for Assad – it’s been happening since 2013.
There are few policy recommendations from this:
1) It is better to refer to these militias as Iraqi army [paramilitary] brigades, as that’s what they actually legally are. Continuing to use the term “militia” gives the wrong impression that these actors are “out of control” or “non-state” actors, when they’re not, and allows Western governments to get away with backing them in Iraq whilst saying that “we’re not responsible for them” once they cross the border into Syria. Furthermore, acknowledging these forces as *state* actors opens up a whole lot of legal opportunities. The US destroyed Iraq when it invaded “sovereign” Kuwait, whilst it is effectively supporting the “sovereign” troops of its closest regional ally (barring Israel) occupying Syrian territory.
2) There *must* be an emphasis on distinguishing the Iraqi groups clearly as *Iraqi*, and not just bracketing them under the category of “Iranian militias”. Putting them in the latter severely limits any influence you can have in campaigning about them and demanding policy action of Western governments. If we categorise them simply as “Iranian” Western governments can simply say that they are not military backers of Iran (as they are by contrast with pro-Assad Iraq or pro-Assad Egypt) and are not responsible for their actions. Again the paramilitary groups may be “sponsored” to fight in Syria by Iran but that does not stop them also being an official component of the Western-backed Iraqi state. The commander in chief of the PMF is the Iraqi Prime Minister, not an Iranian general. Indeed, the main reason the Iraqi militias have increasingly flooded into Syria is arguably not Iranian support, but the fact that Western governments have supported them so strongly against ISIS in Iraq which has freed them to go fight for Assad in Syria.
3) Syria solidarity groups need to make it a clear and coordinated campaigning point that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 brought a declaredly pro-Assad regime to power in Baghdad, with the invasion justified in the name of “bringing democracy” to the region now “ironically” helping to crush the genuine indigenous democratic revolt in Syria.
Conclusion: The role of the Iraqi army brigades in Syria is the single most important leverage point that you have with Western governments and Syria. For years Syria solidarity groups have been lost in not knowing how to demand anything of Western governments shorn of direct military intervention, with Western governments (falsely) declaring that there was nothing else to tie them to Assad – and unfortunately erroneously getting away with it.
There must be a strategic (and much belated) reorientation towards demanding: a) the ending of support to pro-Assad regional proxies, such as Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon, including the cessation of military support to the Iraqi government against ISIS until the withdrawal of all Iraqi brigades to Iraq; b) the ending of intelligence-sharing with the Syrian regime and the military intervention of Western airforces sharing the same skies as the Syrian Airforce (with each bombing different territories in coordination with one another for the past 2-3 years); c) the ending of all Western interference with and blockading of weaponry and ammunition provided to the Syrian resistance by regional allies.