Analysis

Aleppo and Mosul Residents Anxiously Await Murderous Shi'ite Militias

Since the Syrian army conquered Aleppo, daily life has been controlled by bloodthirsty fighters acting in the military's name. Does Mosul await the same fate?

Displaced Iraqi women and children from the embattled city of Mosul arrive at a camp for displaced persons about 35 km. outside the city, on Dec. 16, 2016.
JM Lopez/AFP

Two Middle Eastern cities are now tensely awaiting their fate. Aleppo has already been conquered by the Syrian army, but daily life is controlled by the militias acting in its name. These are murderous groups, some of which have no particular feelings for the civilian population.

The fighters in these militias come from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. They raid houses, looting whatever they can get their hands on, murdering randomly and dividing the spoils. They were recruited by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards from among the many refugees who themselves had fled their homelands, found refuge in Iran, and are now "paying their dues" for being allowed to live there.

Some of these individuals were forcibly conscripted, some enlisted to finance their families’ expenses in Iran, and others were ideologically motivated.

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As for the beleaguered residents of Aleppo – that is, those who managed to leave the city – they can only dream now of getting their property back in the foreseeable future.

Eight hours’ drive away (during peacetime, of course), is another terrified city. Some two million people live today in Mosul, Iraq, compared to 200,000 remaining in Aleppo. Most of these Iraqis are living under the reign of terror of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Some people, residing in the eastern neighborhoods that have been retaken by the Iraqi army, are under its control. Others, in the city’s western outskirts, anxiously await the arrival of the Shi’ite militias known by the general name Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi – the Popular Mobilization Forces – which are steadily encroaching on the area east of Mosul.

Conquering Mosul is no easy feat. ISIS recruits local guides to help its forces make their way through alleys known only to the locals. Aerial bombardments are not effective in this area unless the Russian strafing method is used – a method that, for their part, Western coalition forces have avoided using because of the large number of civilian deaths it causes.

As in Aleppo, in Mosul the fear is not just of ISIS, but also, perhaps primarily, of the settling of scores expected to occur when the Shi’ite militias enter the urban battlegrounds. These militias have already demonstrated their cruelty toward civilians in other cities that they liberated. Although the Iraqi government has declared that, to prevent yet another massacre, the militias will not be allowed to participate in the fighting in Mosul, these groups are funded and trained by, and essentially do the bidding of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

In November the Iraqi parliament passed a new law aimed at regulating the status of the militias and subordinating them to the army. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has been trying to convince the public that this is a good law that will rein in the militias’ wild behavior, because they will be subject to the dictates of the defense ministry and the prime minister.

The problem is that when both the prime minister and the militias support the same legislation, there’s room to suspect just how effective it will be.

Indeed, a look at the wording shows that all the militias have to do is coordinate their activities with the Iraqi chief of staff; however, it seems that this supervision will be relaxed enough to allow them act independently.

Moreover, the financial benefits these groups can expect under the law are impressive. They will become an integral part of the Iraqi army when it comes to salaries and benefits for the disabled and the families of the fallen.

Ostensibly, equalizing the militias' status to that of the other fighting forces is a necessary and proper step. The problem is that anyone carrying a gun – estimates are between 80,000 to 140,000 fighters, including tens of thousands of Sunni fighters in the ranks of the militias – can now register as a militiaman and get good terms.

This presents both a budgetary and a political problem that’s liable to threaten the stability of the regime: The Sunni representatives in Iraq's parliament oppose any law that would formally recognize the status of militias that are in practice subordinate to Tehran.

The coalition of Sunni parties walked out during the vote on the law. Its members accuse the government of helping to establish an independent military force similar to the Revolutionary Guards, which Tehran will finance and which will not be committed to obeying the Iraqi government.

The Sunni bloc in that government represents a minority of the population and the law passed – even though the Kurds also opposed it – by a vote of 328 to 208. But the degree to which it is implemented and enforced will be determined by the response in the field.

Thus, for example, the Sunni tribes in the Mosul region could stand aside and not join the war against ISIS, or they could launch their own war against the Shi’ite militias. Some Sunni groups have fought with ISIS in the Ramadi district, not out of ideological identification but primarily because they hated the regime of the former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Similarly, one important factor in ISIS’ success in seizing Mosul in 2014 was the active cooperation of Sunni residents of the city on the backdrop of clashes with the Iraqi army. It seems that the war against ISIS in Mosul will merely be a promo for the ensuing struggle over control of all of Iraq.