Since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Tehran has been managing a network of militias inside Iraq, which in 2014 were formally organized into the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). As the Islamic Republic has tightened its grip on Baghdad, these militias—responsible for the deaths of hundreds of U.S. troops, countless massacres of Iraqis, and the suppression of protests in 2020—have come to play a role in the Iraqi government and often work alongside the country’s military. The recent earthquake along the Turkish-Syrian border, explains Erik Yavorsky, has now enabled them to team-up with their fellow Iranian proxies in Syria:
Previously, if PMF forces were in Syria, they were doing so without legal orders from Iraq’s commander-in-chief, as required by Iraqi constitution, the chain of command, and the military code of discipline. The earthquake has opened up a significant opportunity for the PMF to work openly in Syria and for Iran to transport weapons to Syria and Lebanon inside aid convoys.
The PMF, which is led by the U.S.-designated human-rights abuser Falah al-Fayyadh and the U.S.-designated terrorist Abdul Aziz al-Muhammadawi (Abu Fadak), quickly established a humanitarian-aid campaign for Syria. . . . The assistance operations are undertaken by Abu Fadak, who was dispatched to Syria to . . . oversee the aid effort. On the Iraqi side of the border, the convoys are facilitated by Qasem Muslih, the PMF’s head of operations in Anbar, who in 2021 was arrested by Iraqi officials in connection to the 2020 murder of an activist. . . . On February 16, . . . Falah al-Fayyadh, met with Bashar al-Assad, [a loyal ally of Iran], in person.
While some rank-and-file PMF members undoubtedly have genuine empathy for the Syrian population and are delivering aid of real value, the [pro-Iranian] leadership of the PMF—comprising U.S.-designated human-rights abusers and terrorists—and their Iranian partners are likely to use the earthquake to improve substantially their cross-border coordination with Assad and Lebanese Hizballah, and to legitimize themselves inside Iraq.
The result is the further advancement of Iran’s plan to create a contiguous sphere of influence that stretches westward to the Mediterranean, and abuts Israel’s northern border. In practical terms, Iraq-Syria coordination makes it easer for Tehran to position advanced weaponry aimed at the Jewish state in Syria and Lebanon.