Battle for Aleppo How Syria Became the New Global War
Part 4: The Shiite Jihad
The official explanation for Russia's involvement in Syria remains to fight international terrorism, not prop up the Assad regime. Unofficially, though, Russian politicians own up to the real goal: achieving geo-political parity with the US. Assad's political survival is merely a means to that much larger end. He is the only political actor who can preserve Russian influence in the region. Should he topple, Russia would have to bid farewell to its dream of wielding influence over the Middle East and the Mediterranean from its military bases in Tartus and Latakia.
Leonid Asayev, an expert on the region at the Moscow Higher School of Economics, has warned that Russia is increasingly taking sides with the Syrian regime and could be made liable for the crimes Assad is committing. He says that Assad is masterfully playing Russia off against the US.
When Russia entered the conflict a year ago, Moscow said the intervention would last but "a few months." Now, the Kremlin is openly saying that Russia will have an extended presence in Syria.
In the last 12 months, Russia's air force has flown 13,000 attacks in Syria and Moscow has spent 58 billion rubles on the conflict, or around 830 million euros -- according to calculations made by Russia observers on the strength of official data. Yet Moscow has not been able to boost Assad's troops to victory over the rebels. This would have given Assad the ability to dictate his conditions for a political settlement. But Russian military leaders say that the military capabilities of Assad's forces are far too limited. Indeed, from the very beginning, the former argued for a much more significant intervention in Syria. But if Russia had begun suffering heavy casualties, it would have been difficult to assuage the Russian population.
Putin's Shady Strategy
That helps explain why Russia is relying on an instrument in Syria that has only been developed by the Kremlin in the last several years: private military firms in the model of Blackwater, the private US company that was heavily involved in the war in Iraq. Moscow has deployed its mercenary units as ground forces to spare its regular troops from the risk. "What we do there? We are the first wave attack," wrote one of the men on the Saint Petersburg Internet portal Fontanka.ru. "Syrian special forces courageously follow us before they are immediately interviewed by Russian state television." The general public in Russia is told virtually nothing about the deployment of the Russian mercenaries and it is unknown exactly how many of them are active in Syria.
Now, Moscow is preparing for the US to implement plan B and perhaps begin attacking Syrian government troops directly. That would leave the Kremlin with no other choice than to increase its military support of Damascus.
Already, it looks as though the Kremlin has decided to increase the number of planes it has stationed at Khemeimim air base southeast of Latakia. Additional Su-24 and Su-34 bombers as well as Su-25 warplanes are being prepared for deployment in Syria, according to the newspaper Izvestia. The latter model, designed to provide close air support for ground troops, can fly up to 10 sorties each day, thus enabling them to "attack fighters almost without interruption," the paper wrote. In addition, the Admiral Kuznetsov -- the Russian navy's only aircraft carrier -- will set sail for the Syrian coast in mid-October along with the rest of its battle group.
Moscow has denied involvement in the Syrian ground war, but experts believe that several thousand Russian officers and soldiers are in the country. The website By24.org has collected photos of Russian soldiers from Latakia, Hama and Homs that have been posted on social media.
On occasion, reports emerge in the Russian media that include the names of casualties. The army leadership is quick to claim in such instances that the victim "hadn't been in the military for some time." When it came to the 19-year-old soldier Vadim Kostenko, the military claimed that he had committed suicide due to "lovesickness." His parents, however, refused to believe the explanation because of the number of injuries on their son's body.
THE SHIITE JIHAD
The strict focus on Russia and the US leaves out an extremely important party to the conflict. After all, Assad's most important ally isn't Moscow, it's Tehran. Though even if both Russia and Iran back Assad, the two countries view each other with mistrust and jealousy.
What is currently taking place in Syria is nothing less than the first international Shiite jihad in recent history. Largely unnoticed by the global public, tens of thousands of Shiite fighters have been recruited from half a dozen countries, trained and sent to Syria. It is a shadow army with fighters from Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Around 10,000 of them are standing at the gates of Aleppo.
In the last weekend of September, an airplane landed at an airport near Aleppo with great pomp. It was carrying an Iraqi cleric named Akram al-Kaabi, the founder of the Nujaba Movement, a Shiite militia that is thought to have 1,000 Iraqi fighters on the frontlines surrounding the city. "Youth like you are conducting jihad inside Iraq and outside Iraq," he said in an address to his fighters that was filmed and later posted on social media channels.
He didn't say anything about Assad or about the political situation. Instead, consistent with fundamentalist Shiite dogma, he sought to declare the deployment as being part of a religious war. He told the men they were fighting the same "monster" as Hussein once did, a reference to the venerated grandson of the Prophet who fell in the year 680 during a battle in the southern Iraqi city of Kerbala.
Nujaba is just one of around 60 Shiite-Iraqi militias that arose in the wake of rapid IS advances in Iraq. They are fighting in that country as well as in Syria. And they are part of a much larger network whose chains of command come together not in Iraq, but in Iran. Over 30 years ago, thousands of Sunnis joined the jihad in Afghanistan against the country's Soviet occupiers, and now it is Shiites who are going to war in a foreign country in the name of religion.
Revolutionary Guards Strategy
This stream of mercenaries is being organized by the Quds Force, a military branch within Iran's Revolutionary Guards, the Pasdaran, who are responsible for foreign operations. Over the course of the last 30 years, the Revolutionary Guards have developed into a state within the state, an army with its own business empire that only reports to the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a leader in the Iranian revolution. The Iranian government under the leadership of President Hassan Rohani essentially has no influence over Tehran's Syria policies.
The Revolutionary Guards developed an internationally active network of militias, schools and charity organizations over the years that pursues but a single goal: committing Shiites from myriad countries to the goals pursued by Iran's Islamic revolution. Troops for foreign deployments in Iraq and Syria are recruited from this network.
When Islamic State conquered Mosul and large swathes of western Iraq in the space of just a few days in June 2014, a number of Shiite militias joined together to form a parallel army called the Popular Mobilization Forces or, in the Arabic abbreviation, Hashd. They include up to 100,000 fighters from dozens of groups and there is apparently no clear command structure. Most of the militias were founded by the Quds Force and remain under its control.
On Feb. 22, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi even provided them with official authorization in his "Decree 91" as a long-term "independent military formation" belonging to the state. The units, the decree stated, will be "allied" with the commander in chief of all armed forces, meaning the prime minister himself. The decree does not indicate that he will have command authority over the militias. In other words: The Iraqi government will finance a gigantic power made up of numerous militias, but will not have control over them.
That means that the Revolutionary Guards has managed to establish an ideologically pure bridgehead in Iraq, comparable to the 1982 founding of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Now, the third such bridgehead is to be established in Syria.
From a demographic point of view, it seems like a hopeless task to find enough loyal fighters from among the Shiite and Alawite minorities to cling to power against the Sunni majority. Indeed, this probably helps explain why the Revolutionary Guards is trying to convert Syrians with money and jobs. Houses in areas abandoned by Syrian rebels are also being given to Shiite fighters, who are being encouraged to have their families join them.