Sectarian Tensions
Source: AFP

Qadir Khan Yousafzai 

Iranian aversion to the US and its presence in the Middle East, is endless. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, has demanded of Iraq to send American soldiers back from its soil as soon as possible. According to Khamenei, the longer America stays, the more entrenched it will become, and evicting it would be difficult. Certainly, the longer foreign troops remain deployed, things get from bad to worse. Something similar happened with the advent of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. Though scattered, the large number of people who believe in its ideology, are a constant reminder of the lingering threat posed by the group to regional peace and stability. More dangerous is the presence of those warring militia groups who play an important role in the civil war due to their ideology and financial interests.

Though the ISIS lost in Iraq and Syria, the real danger continues to emanate through militia groups. These groups were created on the basis of sectarianism and with continuous recruitments in droves, their strength has propelled to thousands of individuals. The inability of the enfeebled Syrian Army to mount a strong resistance against Bashar al Assad, paved the way for the ISIS to capture swathes of territory in Syria. Chances of winning wars recede when the public and army are not on the same page. In a bid to quell rebellion against his regime, President  of Bashar al-Assad and his allies decided to make warrior militias who were not recognized politically. These warrior militias were made on the basis of specific sectarian beliefs. In 2013, a group ‘Abu al-fadhal alAbbas’ came into limelight. It was declared as a volunteers’ force but a name was given to it in order for it to partake in the civil war. It was wooed to join the civil war by being called as the protectors of the sanctity of Holy Prophet’s family. This unit that was responsible for the protection of the shrine of Syeda Bibi Zainab, is known as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Al Haq Brigade in Iraq. Created in Iraq, “Zulfiqar” and “Abu alfadhal al-Abbass” brigades comprised Iraqi militia in Iraq, Syrian warriors and foreign fighters. These brigades fought against Al Qaida groups “Al Nusra Front” and “ISIS” in Syria. The National Defense Force was created in Syria, that constituted the main support base of the Assad regime in Syria.

Such a security architecture has helped Assad prevail. According to the Faras News Agency that is widely believed to be an offshoot of the IRGC, Mehmood Nabuyan the Iranian member of parliament said while addressing a gathering of a student union in Tehran “Syria is ready to hand American supporters with the worst defeat inside Syria.” In this regard, 300,000 Syrians were trained on the Syria-Iran border. They said that Lebanon’s Hezbollah has eighty thousand missiles which will be hurled on Israel whenever the need arises. Instead of resorting to negotiations, foreign powers used force in the Syrian Civil War. This approach was dangerous as there was a continuous increase in the strength of the warring militias.

Iran emerged as the biggest ally of Syria and the Assad regime. Iran was in the know about the creation of Assad’s private militia force, and later assured the facilitation of the group.This led to the start of a brutal sectarian war. Militant organizations on the lines of Iran’s semi- military outfit, Basij, were created. ‘Fatmiyon’ with internationally renowned Afghan fighters in its ranks, gained prominence out of these groups. According to sources, militants from Afghanistan’s Hazara tribe are part of it. Allegedly, they received formal war training from a private militia.

In order to exert pressure on its nemesis, IRGC, the US Treasury Department slapped sanctions on the Fatmiyon Division and the Zainabiyon Brigade. Both of the groups were blacklisted in January. Sanctions were meant to stop the groups’ access to international financial institutions ,and stop their activities.

Militia groups have enjoyed the support of some countries. To propel their nationwide popularity, proper legislation was done and financial benefits dished out. Military advisers and trainers also confessed to the presence of militias in Iraq and Syria. Refugges and migrants were specially recruited in Karbala Brigade, Khatim Unit, Fatmiyon Division and Zainabion Brigade; later they were sent to Syria to fight for Bashar Al Assad. In the Middle East, Mahaan Air was used for transporting weapons and foreign fighters. Blaming Iran, US Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin said that “it uses refugees as human shields in the Syrian dispute.” According to him, targeting militias and foreign proxies is part of efforts to stop these proscribed organizations. According to the Treasury Department, thousands of illegal Afghan migrants and refugees are the victim of Fatmiyon Division, and are blackmailed with the threats of arrest and deportation. They are forced to go and fight in Syria. It is said that many militants of the Fatmiyon Division including children less than 14 years of age have been killed in the Syrian war. President Trump designated the IRGC along with its Quds force as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) under article 219 of Immigration and Nationality Laws. This was preceded by Washington’s sanctions on many of IRGC’s affiliates. The decision by President Trump was the first of its kind, for it declared an entire wing of a foreign country’s military as a terrorist organization. As expected, Iran has not taken it lying down, and responded in the same coin.

The Syrian army lacks manpower, yet it is fulfilling the needs of the militants who were enlisted from our region. The Afghan militants-filled Fatmiyon Division is likely to become a security risk in southern Afghanistan. The clout of militants in Afghanistan is increasing. Durable peace in Afghanistan cannot be achieved without eliminating hardcore Syria trained militants. Ace Political Scientist, Dr. Hassan Askari Rizvi believes that the Fatmiyon Division and Zainabiyon Brigade will cause geopolitical and sectarian tensions in the region.

The noose is tightening around the two groups due to constant pressures exerted by the US Treasury Department. Cautioning Pakistan’s policymakers, Dr. Rizvi asserted that there is a need to eliminate groups which are under foreign influence. He said that “we will have to prove our young generation wrong about the war in Syria. It is not a holy war but one of acrimonious geopolitics.”

One should heed the words of Ali Khamenei regarding the continued presence of foreign troops. Indeed, the presence of any foreign proxies will damage peace and stability in the region. In Syria and Iraq after the defeat of ISIS, Daish’s scourge is spreading around the globe. Similarly, militia-led land wars and their dreadful results have instilled fear among people. Till date, groups like Black Water have been used as a hired gun by the powers that be. In the same way, groups like the Zainabiyon Brigade, and Fatmiyon Division are fast becoming wage-killers to achieve specific goals. The US and UN are imposing restrictions on many military militias but it has no effect on them because they are not present in the form of any force. There is a lesson: these groups become a threat for even their benefactors and supporters. Local militia groups like these are also formed on the basis of sectarianism and other global interests. It directly benefits those countries that have a robust war economy. Certainly, the military-industrial-complex has a part to play in how countries make some foreign policy decisions at the expense of the other.

Such is the interplay, that countries ravaged by war, are compelled to follow the diktats of big wigs of international politics. Wars are not brought to an end till the time the power brokers have achieved their goals and objectives. The creation of militias is one such tool that will result in anything but peace and stability in the region and beyond.

Qadir Khan Yousafzai is a Columnist at Jehan Pakistan.