The struggle between regular armed forces and paramilitaries in Iraq, Iran and Syria

by Paul Iddon.

Today, in a span of territory stretching from Iran’s frontiers with Afghanistan and Pakistan to Lebanon’s Mediterranean coast are states in which paramilitary forces have formidable power either competing with, or exceeding, the power of regular conventional armies. Of particular note is that this relevant paramilitary forces have often a Shiite background. While Lebanon has long been the most conspicuous example of a state where a paramilitary armed force, Hezbollah, exceeds the power of the state army this piece focuses on the present power of paramilitaries compared to state armies in Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) troops back in the 1980s during the war with Iraq.

Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) troops back in the 1980s during the war with Iraq.

In Iran when the Shah fled the country ahead of the 1979 revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini killed the Shah’s army generals. Khomeini then formed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a paramilitary force to safeguard the revolution and keep his regime in power. It has successfully done so ever since. The conventional army was weakened in favour of the guards who acted as the regime’s enforcers and protector, eliminating any possibility that the army could one day mount a substantial coup.

The IRGC has since amassed great military and economic power, protecting Iranian regimes interests and assets at home and, through its extraterritorial Quds Force, beyond Iran’s frontiers across the Middle East. “While the IRGC has superior access to the political leadership; a higher budget, including vast economic resources beyond the military budget, and prestige; enjoys access to the best recruits; and is subjected to a lower degree of subjective control mechanisms of the civilian leadership; the Army has — with the exception of the nuclear program — access to fairly sophisticated military hardware”, wrote Ali Alfoneh, a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at The Atlantic Council, back in 2011.

An Iran army draftee helps the other one to wear his uniform.

An Iran army draftee helps the other one to wear his uniform.

The only thing Alfoneh believes has changed since then is current efforts being made by incumbent Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to shore up the army again. He told that “Rouhani is trying to give greater significance to the army and there are rumours that he is appointing an Army general as defense and armed forces logistics minister”. Rouhani is doing this to give himself leverage over the IRGC, his political rivals. “This breaks the long tradition of IRGC officers getting that cabinet position,” Alfoneh noted.

In addition to the UN embargo on Iran (United Nations Security Council Resolution 1747), the power of the guard corps over the conventional military has prevented Iran from acquiring modern armaments for its relatively antiquated army and air force. In 2015 there was talk of Iran purchasing 300 T-90 main battle tanks from Russia for the army and 30 advanced Su-30 Flanker air superiority fighter jets for the air force. This didn’t happen largely due to the power structure in Iran. As Tom Cooper noted on War Is Boring, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s “power depends on support from dozens of rival cliques, most of which are part of or at least associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps”. Such a power structure has resulted in “a completely dysfunctional chain of command and totally unworkable decision-making processes”. In relation to the T-90 deal, which would have given Iranian Army a formidable tank fleet, “different IRGC cliques pulled strings to have Khamenei cancel this order”.

Iran has since said it will instead build its own version of the T-90, the Karrar. But even here Cooper predicts that “there’s almost no chance” Iran will build a substantial number of these tanks due to this power system in Iran, which sees these different branches undermine each other. The same will more likely than not prove the case for the Su-30 deal, even though Iran’s air force consists almost entirely of 1960s and 70s American tech – complemented only by some old Iraqi Air Force warplanes which Saddam Hussein evacuated to Iran during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and a few additional MiG-29 Fulcrums Tehran purchased from Moscow, also in the early 1990s.

Consequently, Iran will continue to operate hardware inherited from the Shah’s military for its defense needs. It is a striking example of how having a loyal paramilitary can come at the expense of having strong well-equipped conventional armed forces.

Iraqi Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitaries marching in a parade in the city of Najaf.

Iraqi Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitaries marching in a parade in the city of Najaf.

When the Iraqi Army failed to prevent Islamic States’ (ISIS) takeover of Mosul in June 2014, and its subsequent genocidal rampage across Northern Iraq and attack on Iraqi Kurdistan, a largely Shiite group of paramilitaries, known as the Hashd al-Shaabi, was formed. They stood their ground and prevented ISIS from attacking further south while the Iraq got its act together.

Since then, however, some analysts fear they have eclipsed the power of the Iraqi Army. “The Hashd does have greater numbers than the national army, but more importantly it hasn’t been damaged so badly by the recent operations against the Islamic State,” Kyle Orton, a Middle East researcher at the Henry Jackson Society told “So the Hashd is better positioned to exert power. […] [It’s] position within the Iraqi state has been compared by some of its own leaders to the situation vis-a-vis the IRGC and the Iranian state”, Orton added. “I think they have that correct”.

The decision by the Iraqi parliament in November 2016 to recognize the Hashd al-Shaabi as an official armed force in Iraq “helps entrench Iranian influence in official institutions”. Orton argues that this same model “can be seen with Hezbollah in Lebanon and the National Defence Forces (NDF) in Syria. It is a model that allows Tehran the best of all worlds: It avoids a lot of responsibility for the failings of these governments, but it is as powerful – and over time becomes more powerful than – the state, which means that on the key folders of security and diplomacy, Iran is able to dictate terms”.


In the northern autonomous Kurdistan Region similar divisions among the Peshmerga also exist. Different Peshmerga forces are loyal to the two main parties there, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). “Although they have created unified KDP and PUK brigades, these units largely function jointly only on paper”, noted Aliza Marcus and Andrew Apostolou in an editorial in The New York Times. “When the fighting starts, one experienced officer remarked, the PUK and KDP soldiers often answer to separate commanders”.

Interestingly, in ISIS’s last stronghold in Iraq, Hawija, the Peshmerga say it is difficult to coordinate operations with the Hashd al-Shaabi, due to the group’s various leaders and party affiliations. On the other hand, Iraqi President Haider al-Abadi says it’s hard for the Iraqi Army to coordinate with the Peshmerga given the fact Peshmerga loyalties are divided between the two different Kurdish parties.

Steps are being taken to rectify this state-of-affairs. The United States-led coalition against ISIS is keeping advisors in Kurdistan to professionalize and unify the Peshmerga in a project which might last a decade.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad meeting with National Defense Force (NDF) paramilitary troops in December 2014.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad meeting with National Defense Force (NDF) paramilitary troops in December 2014.

Sapped of manpower from the depleting internal war that has raged in the country since March 2011 the Syrian regime has at times relied heavily on militias to compensate for this lack of manpower. David Axe wrote on Reuters in December 2014 that Iran was helping transform the Syrian military into a militia force along the lines of Hezbollah in neighbouring Lebanon. As Axe put it, at the time, the aforementioned NDF “draws many of its volunteers from the Alawite religious group – the regime’s main supporters – and also requires minimal training and support to function. What the volunteers lack in expertise and experience, they make up in patriotic fervor”.

Presently, however, there are signs that the regular Syrian Arab Army (SAA) is making a comeback and is weaning itself off its reliance on such militias. “Militias were at their most important a few years ago when the Syrian army was losing ground and unable to bear the weight of battle on so many fronts. Iran stepped in and helped train and subsidize many of these”, Professor Joshua Landis, a Syrian expert and head of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told “Today, the Syrian military is regaining strength as it becomes clear that the Assad regime will prevail and that the international community is closing ranks around the notion that the survival of the Syrian government is for the best, or at least, is better for them than the alternative”. Landis assesses that the growing strength of the regular Syrian military means that “the militias are becoming less important”. He instances the SAA’s breaking of ISIS’s siege on the eastern Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor in September 2017 as an example, pointing out that “regular military special forces, the Tiger Brigades, are leading the way. […] Many are saying that the militias are being incorporated into the military. […] The Syrian government will be concerned lest the militias become an independent power reliant on Iran, as many of their Iraqi counterparts have become. The Syrian government is very jealous of its sovereignty and will move quickly to make sure that the militias do not retain too much latitude to act independently from the government. […] Of course, in the short term, they will be able to act as warlords, raising their own taxes from local peoples because central government is so weak and the state so incapable of paying military salaries,” Landis concluded.

It is no coincidence that powerful paramilitary forces in the region between Iran and Lebanon’s Mediterranean coast often have a Shiite background. Since the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the paramilitary IRCG keeps the conventional forces in check for power-political reasons. With the Iranian influenced Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq, there is a similar competing situation involving the regular Iraqi Army. Even though the Hashd al-Shaabi is an institution belonging to the Iraqi government and taking orders from the Prime Minister, its leading components – the Badr Organisation, Kata’eb Hizbullah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq – are closely aligned with Iran. Their operations on the ground are co-ordinated by the head of the Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani. What it will mean for the longterm security situation in Iraq is presently unclear, but during the Kirkuk Crisis between 15th and 20th of October 2017 the Hashd al-Shaabi along with the regular Iraqi Army retook the entire Kirkuk Governorate from the Kurdish Peshmerga. In Syria, the situation is different. In 2012, the creation of the NDF was personally overseen by Qasem Soleimani, but the government quickly took control of the militia, paying salaries and supplying military equipment to its members. In fact, regarding the NDF, the Syrian government still holds the reins.

This entry was posted in Armed Forces, English, International, Iran, Iraq, Paul Iddon, Security Policy, Syria.

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