Who are Iran's 80,000 Shi'ite fighters in Syria?

PEOPLE SHOUT slogans during a protest near the Iranian Consulate in Istanbul in December against the Islamic Republic’s role in the battle for Aleppo in Syria. (photo credit: REUTERS)

There are 80,000 Shi’ite militiamen, trained and recruited by Iran, in Syria. Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon displayed a map Thursday at the UN, asserting that some of them were being trained several kilometers from Damascus. “They are trained to commit acts of terror in Syria and across the region,” he said.

Danon’s map shows the Imam Hossein Iranian garrison on the road from Damascus to Lebanon near Dayr Qanun.

The figures presented by Danon have been picked up throughout the world. Asharq al-Awsat, Sputnik, The New Arab, The Daily Star in Lebanon and others have reported on it. Eighty thousand Iranian-backed militiamen in Syria affects the entire region and is a concern for countries that oppose Iranian influence spreading. Danon calls these fighters “extremists from all over the Middle East who are members of Shi’ite militias in Syria under Iranian control.”

Who are these fighters?

Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a Fellow at the Middle East Forum, said that “80,000 or so seems more like the number of foreigners and Syrians in various groups that are working with the Iranians in Syria.”

That would include members of the Fatemiyoun Division and the Followers of Zainab Brigade, Shi’ites recruited from Afghanistan and Pakistan, respectively, and, as well as Hezbollah fighters and members of the Local Defense Forces.

“On paper the LDF number was around 88,000 last year, but I am sure some of those people only exist on paper,”

Tamimi said. Hezbollah cycles its fighters in and out of the Syrian war to give them leave back in Lebanon. Their forces might number 5,000-8,000 at a time in Syria over the last years. There are also elements of Iraqi-based Shi’ite militias fighting in Syria alongside the regime.

The origins of the Iranian training program lie in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps recruitment of Iranians for advisory roles in Syria. By December 2015 there were 500 advisers undergoing training, according to an article at Foreign Policy. Maj.-Gen. Qassem Suleimani sought to expand the mission, and brought in volunteers from “all six branches of the IRGC.” There were so many recruits between 2013 and 2015 that they had to turn many of them away. By May 2016, as many as 700 Iranians had died in Syria.

By November 2017, Iran’s web of Shi’ite fighters in Syria had grown as regime leader Bashar Assad’s army had suffered casualties. “The Lebanese Hezbollah was the among the first to arrive, and Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Afghan, Pakistani, Yemeni and Iraqi Shia militias are among the fighters that Iran has been relying on in gaining control in Syria,” argued a paper at Chatham House. Iran preferred foreign Shi’ites because it found the Local Defense Forces less reliable. These included Iraqis from the Abou Fadel al Abbas Brigade who journeyed to Syria before 2014 to help defend the Sayyida Zeynab Shi’ite shrine near Damascus.

EXAMINATIONS OF the number of Shi’ite militias fighting in Syria all involve estimates.

Even casualty figures for them are often unknown. An article at the Washington Institute of Near East Studies in February 2018 by Jackson Doering noted that the estimate for Hezbollah fighters killed in Syria was 1,214 over six years of fighting. Thousands largely known Shi’ites from Afghanistan and Pakistan have allegedly been killed, as well as hundreds of Iranians and Iraqis.

The major concern about these militias is not just that they are connected to Iran but that they are putting down roots. “Iranian militias in the south are keeping the territory they conquer instead of handing it over to the regime,” Doering asserted.

The militias have been pulled back from some frontline positions as the conflict in Syria becomes more frozen, with rebel areas under Turkish influence in the north and the regime seeking to solidify gains around Damascus. Many observers have suggested the militias are part of Iran seeking a “land bridge” or corridor of influence from Tehran, via Baghdad, to Damascus and Beirut. This consists of a network of these groups controlling roads throughout Syria and Iraq with the ability to transfer their people from place to place outside the say of Baghdad or Damascus. They fill the power vacuum created by ISIS and the civil war over the last several years, and then they stay.

For Jerusalem this is a concern if and when these fighters might be directed against Israel. It’s also a threat to have Iranian training bases so close. But the idea of 80,000 militiamen on Israel’s border is, as Tamimi argues, a bit of an exaggeration. Some of the fighters exist only on paper and others, like the Afghans are not well armed and have been used as cannon fodder by the regime. They aren’t equipped to fight an enemy like Israel, rather they’ve been dying in the hundreds fighting Syrian rebels and ISIS.

It appears the number of recruits has decreased as their home communities have become reticent to send young men to Iranian recruiters to end up dying in Syria. In the beginning, religious devotion and wanting to defend holy shrines in Syria was a motivation. Those shrines are now safe and the Sunni jihadist threat that motivated the recruitment drive has been beaten back.

The lasting influence and infrastructure of the Iranian militias will be felt long into the future.

Regardless of their exact numbers, they have deeply affected the region, and the networks that they carved out, from far-off Pakistan to the Golan, are part of Tehran’s quest for hegemony.