Moscow and Tehran's support for Syrian 'terror groups'

Moscow and Tehran's support for Syrian 'terror groups'
In-depth: Kataib Hezbollah has been internationally listen as a 'terrorist organisation', but that has not stopped Moscow from providing air cover for its operations, reports Austin Bodetti.
5 min read
19 October, 2017
Russia's fighter jets have been providing aerial cover for Syrian militias, fighters claim [TASS]
Analysts, journalists and policymakers have long debated which of Syria's two primary benefactors, Iran or Russia, would control the outcome of the Syrian Civil War. Though both share a short-term objective - the victory of President Bashar al-Assad - their long-term goals differ greatly.

The Russians want to preserve Assad, one of their few remaining allies in the Middle East after the Americans ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003 and Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The Iranians, meanwhile, hope to expand the "Axis of Resistance" and "the Shia Crescent" to combat what they describe as the expansionism of "the Great Satan" and the "Zionist Entity" - and all that requires Assad to stay in power.

Recent accounts suggest, however, that Russia and Iran may be cooperating more in Syria than the international community thinks.

The Russians even provided us airstrikes as we needed them

"We coordinated directly with the Iranian and Russian forces," Abu Ishaq, a fighter from Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Shia militia based in Iraq but operating on behalf of Assad in Syria, claimed of his brief stint fighting Syrian rebels in Aleppo and Damascus.

"The Russians even provided us airstrikes as we needed them. We only took orders from our own commanders, but there was an operations room in Damascus where the Iranians, Russians and Syrians decided everything. All groups had translators to coordinate operations in Arabic, English and Russian."

Jasim, another Kataib Hezbollah fighter who had travelled to Syria, confirmed Abu Ishaq's account.

The New Arab interviewed the pair outside Fallujah, a Sunni-majority Iraqi city once controlled by the Islamic State group that Kataib Hezbollah helped encircle; human rights defenders accused the militia of massacring civilians on Fallujah's outskirts.

Abu Ishaq and Jasim recounted how Hizballah, a Lebanese political party and militia close to Iran, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), an Iranian paramilitary of special operations forces, had trained them in Iran before sending them to Syria.

While the news media has known of Hizballah and the IRGC's relationship with Kataib Hezbollah and other Shia militias for some time, no news agency has reported on Russia's apparent involvement.

Kataib Hezbollah spokesman Jafar al-Husseini, who spends much of his time travelling between Iraq and Syria to help the militia oversee operations in both, denied that the armed group cooperated with Russia. He did, however, express an interest in Russian close air support in Iraq to Vice News in October 2015.

According to Abu Ishaq and Jasim, al-Husseini got his wish not in Iraq, but in Syria.

Other circumstantial evidence implies growing coordination between Russia, the IRGC, and Iran's proxies in Iraq and Syria. Major General Qasem Soleimani, who leads the Quds Force, an IRGC subunit specialising in extraterritorial operations and leading Iran's campaigns in Iraq and Syria, visited Moscow in July 2015 - just three months before al-Husseini's interview with Vice News - to help Russia plan its Syrian intervention.

Soleimani often works with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Kataib Hezbollah's founder, who doubles as an Iraqi IRGC member and Iran's point man in Baghdad.

Yazan al-Jabouri, a Sunni Iraqi warlord who works with Iran and its proxies, including Kataib Hezbollah, travelled to Moscow "at the official invitation of the Russian government" to represent the Shia theocracy's Sunni allies there. Reached over WhatsApp, he claimed to The New Arab that Kataib Hezbollah was "definitely cooperating with Iran, Russia, and the legitimate government in Syria".

"Kataib Hezbollah is the largest group fighting us," Khalid al-Naqib, a commander in the Free Syrian Army, told The New Arab. "People have come to think that these militias are the reason for the regime's survival - and not Russia."

He expressed little surprise that Russia may be providing Kataib Hezbollah with close air support, noting that Syrian soldiers had been learning Russian since the Cold War and could act as translators between the Iraqi militiamen and Russian military air traffic controllers.

Iraq has the oil, money, and manpower that will be crucial in maintaining the supremacy of the Syrian regime

"I would not be at all surprised if the Russians were coordinating with all the various Shia militias in Syria, in particular the Iraqis," Professor Joshua Landis, who directs the Center of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma and runs the blog Syria Comment, told The New Arab.

"Iraq has the oil, money, and manpower that will be crucial in maintaining the supremacy of the Syrian regime and the Syrian army in the long run. Russia and the other Syrian allies understand this, which helps explain why Russia is not shy about assisting Iraqi militias in Syria."

If accounts of Russia's cooperation with Kataib Hezbollah and the Quds Force prove true, President Vladimir Putin may be facing larger problems than the nightmarish complexity of the Syrian Civil War. Unlike its coordination with Iran and Syria, both sovereign states, Russia's relationship with Kataib Hezbollah and the Quds Force would have little precedent under international law.

The United States State Department has listed Kataib Hezbollah as a "foreign terrorist organisation" for killing American soldiers during the Iraq War, and the US Department of the Treasury has labelled al-Muhandis a "specially designated global terrorist" and sanctioned Soleimani several times.

The IRGC in general and the Quds Force in particular face Treasury sanctions of their own.

Iranian-Russian patronage of Kataib Hezbollah mirrors their joint support for the Taliban in Afghanistan in its benefits and risks. Iran and Russia started arming the Afghan insurgents to antagonise the US, succeeding on that front but courting the possibility that the international community would consider them rogue states.

Backing Kataib Hezbollah in Syria presents Russia the same Faustian bargain that it accepted in Afghanistan. By the sound of Abu Ishaq and Jasim's accounts, the Russians have already made their choice.

Austin Bodetti is a freelance journalist focusing on conflict in the greater Middle East and a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College majoring in Islamic Civilization and Societies and studying Arabic and Persian. 

He has reported from Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, South Sudan and Thailand, and his writing has appeared in Motherboard, The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, Wired, and Yahoo News.