Interview by Hayder al-Shakarchi
The following interview is part of a series published by Al Bawaba News, exploring the viewpoints, convictions, partisanship and consensus that exists in Washington D.C. around Middle East issues.
This author of this series will speak to analysts, policymakers and experts in their own words. Our aim is to provide a sense of the discussions taking place in the world's most powerful capital. This does not in any way imply an editorial edorsement of the individuals or policy proposols put forward. Al Bawaba is indepenent and does not align with any existing political party or ideological group.
Hayder al-Shakarchi is an Arab-American journalist and an international news analyst based in Washington, D.C.
al-Shakarchi: What is the West’s most common misconception on Shia militias?
Smyth: “There are a few! Many in the U.S. believe that since the Iranians have a certain level of absolute or fuller control, that all Shia militias are beholden to Tehran. There are still tensions between groups and splinters that have developed within many groups between leadership elements. Then there’s this other misconception when it comes to “integration” of Iranian-controlled and other groups into state apparatuses. Take a look at Lebanese Hizballah… They made their way into the Lebanese government and are essentially controlling the Lebanese government now, which they were still doing beforehand, but still was there “moderation?” Nope.
They never moderated their ideological quests, they never moderated their militant goals, they never moderated when it came to intra-Lebanese tensions. This is the same issue in Iraq where countless militia/political groups are running major ministries, yet keep up their militancy and their transnational ideological goals.”
al-Shakarchi: Do militias in the Middle East contribute to one another?
Smyth: “In terms of cooperation, many groups will work with one another—Sometimes it’s based on mutual affection (ideological or other reasons). Other times it’s out of necessity. Both Shia and Sunni militias will sometimes mirror each other in terms of organization and/or ideology.
For instance, there are Palestinian groups—Sunnis—that are supported and paid for by the Iranians and don’t necessarily follow the same the ideology that the Iranians buy into (Absolute Wilayat al-Faqih) and there are many Shia militias, particularly the Iranian-backed groups, that are modeled on Lebanese Hizballah and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.”
al-Shakarchi: Compared to Sunni militia, how do Shia militia go about using social media as a weapon?
Smyth: “Shia militias have a very effective strategy when it comes to posting very well-manicured pages with great graphics on social media. Thus, they have been advancing much more than many Sunni militias. So much less attention was being paid to them. Thus, they were given the opportunity to grow that social media realm more than nearly all the other groups. They understand how it works and now with the mix of local government recognition and lack of attention from elsewhere, they can get away with more.
It’s interesting to see how a lot of these Iraqi groups have official pages for their militias in which they would use to report news, take advantage of photo ops, etc. It’s most important to note that social media has been used for direct recruitment. What better way to get young people to join than by putting up a phone number on a social media page saying, ‘Come to this office and we can talk about recruitment.’”
al-Shakarchi: Has Iran been assisting Syria through Shia militias?
Smyth: “The Iranians have provided the bulk of the forces that have allowed Bashar Al-Assad to re-secure Syria. Along with Russian air power, Iranian-backed Shia militias were the most important element. On top of that, they are now trying to secure the entire passageway through Deir ez-Zor, in Syria and Al Qaim, in Iraq, through the Iraqi-Syrian border. Reports of tensions were out there between Assad and these groups, but we’ll see what will come of that.”
al-Shakarchi: What role is Russia playing?
Smyth: “They’re playing many roles. For instance, they’re currently trying to claim to the Israelis, ‘Oh, we’re just trying to keep those Iranian-backed Shia militias away from the Golan Heights.’ However, the Russians have fought alongside Iran’s Shia militias and need their forces to help control Syria.”
al-Shakarchi: What are your thoughts on Shia militias intertwining with governments?
Smyth: “Sometimes when a group will go into politics, people automatically assume that they are moderating in some way and that is a truly fanciful notion. These groups don’t operate that way… Lebanese Hizballah’s influence over the Lebanese government has allowed them to continue forcing their and Iran’s policies not just on Lebanon, but the entire region.”
al-Shakarchi: Could the PMF have any positive impacts under the Iraqi governments umbrella?
Smyth: “Not every PMF group is completely under the Iranians’ control. Saraya al-Salam, for example, is its own relatively independent body with its own independent cooperation with the Iraqi army…There are also groups controlled by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. These sorts of factions can put pressure on the PMF. But it’s only so much pressure they can exert.”
al-Shakarchi: “What is Iran’s objective with all these Shia militias?
Smyth: “What the Iranians are really interested in is a fundamental transformation—Pushing their Islamic Revolution; how a group thinks of itself ideologically is important. Iran wants a commitment to pushing absolute Waliyat al-Faqih. The Iranians are fighting for the long run. They make sure groups across the region fight for this cause. Look at the Badr Organization in Iraq, they also believe in the concept of Waliyat al-Faqih.
These radical organizations are all fighting to create a theocracy which would eventually lead to a larger Imamate. They will take their time because they understand that eventually, through patience and their work, the time will come—but it takes a long-term effort. With us (the United States), we're just looking forward to what’s going to happen at the end of a two/four year run of administration and that's not how these militias operate.”
al-Shakarchi: What should we be expecting in the future?
Smyth: “In the next five years, there’s the possibility of a larger conflagration with the Israelis involving Iraqi groups and other regional Shia militia fighters. I think that’s what’s shaping up for us now. Thus, we have to look at the political dynamics that are affecting Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, and understand the influences that are affecting these militias; how they are being used to gain more power for the Iranians and how they’re growing their capabilities as armed groups.”
al-Shakarchi: How is the U.S. handling this situation?
Smyth: “The Iranians are very calculating… This doesn’t mean that the U.S. isn't calculating or that we don't have our own strategic interests, but it does mean that putting more thought into countering the Iranians in a longer-term strategic fashion would be a much better solution. The U.S. needs to understand that we are very reactionary when it comes to policy in the region… We are not long-term thinkers. If there's a problem, the first solution we jump to is, “We can bomb it!” or, “We can make it go away!”
The financial sanctions that the Trump administration is placing on Iran, Hizballah and many more of these organizations, is a good start when it comes to countering them.”
Phillip Smyth is a 2018-2019 Senior Fellow at The Washington Institute. He has studied Shia Islamist militarism in the Middle East as a researcher at the University of Maryland and created the blog, Hizballah Cavalcade. Smyth is also the author of the 2015 Institute monograph, “The Shiite Jihad in Syria and Its Regional Effects."
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