As regime and Hezbollah forces experience manpower and projection problems in Syria, Iran-backed Iraqi Shiite militias may be reassuming a greater combat role.
Over the past few months, Iraqi Shiite fighters have once again expanded their role in defending the Assad regime in Syria. Beginning in late 2012, these fighters -- some of them experienced, others newly recruited -- formed some of the most dynamic foreign units in the war. By spring 2014, many of them had been pulled from the Syrian front to handle increasing pressure from the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Iraq. Today, however, despite continued fighting in Iraqi hotspots such as Tikrit and Ramadi, these Shiite militias are increasingly adopting new responsibilities and reassuming older ones on many fronts in Syria.
Meanwhile, certain newer Iraq-based Iranian proxy groups have expanded their recruitment activities to bring fighters to Syria. This represents another ongoing shift: recruitment and deployment for Iraqi Shiite fighters is being handed over to more recently created Iraqi fronts within the expanding Iranian-controlled network of "Islamic Resistance" organizations. These efforts, which have been in process for months, demonstrate both positive and negative developments for Iraqi Shiite fighters in the recruitment and deployment arenas.
LAFA'S THINLY SPREAD FORCES
Groups that emerged from Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas (LAFA) -- the first foreign-fighter-manned Shiite militia to set up camp in Syria, composed primarily of Iraqis -- have been very active over increasingly larger stretches of Syrian territory. For the most part, their wider employment indicates further stress within the pro-Assad ranks.
From February to early March 2015, one of the LAFA network's most active militias, Liwa Dhulfiqar, was deployed to the Latakia area in northern Syria. The group had primarily fought battles in and south of the Damascus area since 2013, so the northern shift indicated the regime's stretched manpower and its need to use experienced fighters against renewed rebel and Sunni jihadist offensives.
In mid-April, some Liwa Dhulfiqar forces were moved south into a mountainous zone near the Lebanon-Syria border, despite the fact that Lebanese Hezbollah was already heavily deployed in the area. Conducting operations in Yabous and then Zabadani, Liwa Dhulfiqar claimed to have killed hundreds of rebel forces. This was not the first time the group had helped Hezbollah in one of the latter's primary areas of operation -- in December 2013, during the first combined Hezbollah/Assad regime offensive in Qalamoun, it was involved in battles near al-Nabak.
More recently, Liwa Dhulfiqar fighters claimed on May 24 that the militia had moved north to Idlib in order to help free regime troops besieged at the Jisr al-Shughour hospital. The group's leader, Abu Shahid al-Jabbouri, was shown ordering rocket salvos and infantry operations in the field. Despite these efforts, the remnants of Assad's forces had fled the area by May 27 as the hospital was overrun.
Liwa Dhulfiqar's sister organization, Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib (LAAG), has also been active in the Alawite heartland. In January, photos were posted on social media claiming that sections of the group and its commander, Abu Fatima al-Musawi, were present in the Banias area. As this foray to the north ended, LAAG reportedly returned to more rural sections of Rif Damascus. Between April 21 and 25, the group publicly claimed to have lost six members during internecine battles in the area.
Around the same period, Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein, another LAFA-affiliated group, claimed to have sent fifty fighters to support operations in rural Latakia. This coincided with a visit by the militia's leader, Sheikh Abu Karrar al-Bahladi, to the Assad family hometown of Qardaha. Joining Bahladi on the trip was Ahmed Hajji Sadi, commander of the so-called Rapid Reaction Forces (RRF or Afwaj al-Kafil), who had previously been setting up and commanding branches of his militia in Iraq.
CROSSPOLLINATION BETWEEN THE FRONT GROUPS
Another development within the LAFA network has been the increasing traffic inside Syria of fighters and commanders belonging to the Iraq-based Qaeda Quwet Abu Fadl al-Abbas (QQAFA). Led by Sheikh Auws al-Khafaji (a Sadrist splinter figure) and Sheikh Abu Kamil al-Lami (affiliated with the group Asaib Ahl al-Haq), QQAFA was formed in Iraq following the June 2014 IS advance. The militia, which is part of Iraq's so-called Popular Mobilization Units/Committees (PMUs/PMCs), also includes leading fighters and commanders belonging to Liwa Dhulfiqar, the RRF, and Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein. Leadership elements from Liwa Dhulfiqar have even donned the group's uniforms in Iraq and Syria, demonstrating their close links. In a December 2014 interview with the Lebanese daily an-Nahar, Khafaji claimed that QQAFA was a "natural extension" of LAFA, and he maintains links with major leaders of the network today.
According to Shiite militia social media feeds, Khafaji has been visiting Shiite foreign fighters in Syria since mid-2013, a period of time that witnessed growing publicity for Iraqi Shiite militias in that country. His visits increased in 2014, and he has made the trip this year as well. When an-Nahar asked him why Iraqi Shiite fighters were continuing to arrive in Syria, he declared that the "failure" to fight in Syria "was the cause of [the Islamic State's] entry into Iraq."