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Iraqi militias aspire to be like Iran’s Revolutionary Guards

Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units consider themselves as an "alternative" state institution, like the IRGC; Russia-Turkey "reset" stumbles on Syria; United States and Russia need to conclude agreement on Syria.
Vehicles of the Hashid Shaabi (Popular Mobilization) take part in a military parade in the streets of Baghdad, Iraq July 12, 2016. REUTERS/Khalid al Mousily - RTSHJ8K

Iraqi militia leaders cite government "corruption"

Iraq’s popular militias have no plans to merge with the army, Jean Aziz reports from Beirut, where a meeting was held among Western diplomats and representatives, nongovernmental organizations and officials from Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). 

“We will be a military force that is part of the Iraqi state, but not part of the Iraqi army. This is due to many reasons that we explained to them, namely the corruption spread within the Iraqi government institutions, and I think they understood our point of view. We made it clear that we will be an alternative army subordinated to the state, just like Iran's [Islamic] Revolutionary Guard Corps,” an Iraqi militia leader told Aziz.

The PMU official sought to downplay the perception of the militias as sectarian and instead stressed the PMU’s bona fides as Iraqi nationalists, rather than Shiite partisans. 

“We have no other enemy in Iraq but terrorism and extremist organizations represented by the Islamic State [IS], and we have no problem with any other party,” said the PMU official. “In terms of our relations with the various components of the Iraqi people, we stressed that the PMU emerged from all spectrums of the Iraqi people. The Western participants noticed from the start of our meetings that our delegation is composed of members representing the various spectrums of the Iraqi people, as we included Shiite officials, two commanders from the Sunni factions within the PMU as well as a commander of a Christian faction. As for the neighboring countries, we explained that we want our country to be sovereign and stable and to open up to its regional surroundings. This is what we will seek to achieve.”

Russia-Turkey "not easy partners"

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met Aug. 9 to bury the hatchet over Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian Su-24 in November 2015, but Paul Saunders writes that “notwithstanding the important common strategic interests that have energized Russian-Turkish relations for more than a decade, Moscow and Ankara are not easy partners.”

No surprise that despite talk of increased economic cooperation, the biggest hurdle to improved ties remains differences over Syria. Maxim Suchkov reports, “Erdogan’s position on other forces fighting in Syria reflects his domestic concerns. He [Erdogan] called it a 'wrong approach' to list Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization while not doing the same with the Syrian Democratic Forces [which include Syrian Kurdish armed groups]. 'If fighting [the Islamic State] is the criteria of an allied group, then Jabhat al-Nusra shouldn’t be considered a terrorist group.'"

The same day of the Putin-Erdogan summit, Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, said, “Turkey needs to understand that including the Kurds in the discussion is one of the things that should be important for sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria. And Turkey has a vested interest in the territorial integrity of Syria. There are some complicating factors in the mind of the people in Ankara, but this is something that we believe should be done as quickly as possible.” 

At a closed meeting of the UN Security Council on Syria, Churkin reportedly scolded Turkey for not doing more to shut down supply lines for terrorist groups in Syria, according to Foreign Policy.

The reset in Russian-Turkish relations, whatever its limits, also can’t be separated from a broader decline in NATO-Turkey ties, as reported by Metin Gurcan. A flashpoint is Turkish Vice Adm. Mustafa Zeki Ugurlu, who had been posted to NATO's Allied Command Transformation in the United States. On July 12, three days before the failed military coup against Erdogan, Turkey issued a warrant for Ugurlu’s arrest because of alleged ties with the Gulen movement. NATO did not end Ugurlu’s assignment, and even allowed him to represent Turkey at a NATO industrial workshop on July 26, more than a week after a second warrant after the coup attempt. Ugurlu has since gone missing, fueling suspicion in Turkey of US and NATO complicity in the failed coup.

Gurcan concludes, “The coup attempt has certainly opened a new existential fault line in Ankara-NATO ties, already made shaky by the Syrian crisis, refugees, combating the Islamic State and the Kurdistan Workers Party, and power balances in the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea. NATO appears to prefer a low profile in its relations with Turkey. In turn, Ankara interprets that as lack of adequate support. It's no surprise that the Turkish public has adopted the same position.”

Time to finish US-Russia deal on Syria

The Pentagon warned Damascus Aug. 19 to avoid striking US and coalition-backed forces after Syrian airstrikes targeting Kurdish positions in Hasakah, which prompted the United States to scramble its own fighter jets to protect them.

The incident represents the latest, compelling reason for the United States and Russia to conclude, as soon as possible, negotiations to deepen military and intelligence coordination over Syria. Both countries seek to avoid any potential accident or miscommunication that could lead to an escalation. In this specific case, it also seems to us that the United States and Russia might have a shared interest in preventing the Assad government’s attacks on Syrian Kurdish positions, given that both Washington and Moscow — to varying degrees and for different reasons — back Syria’s Kurds.

Another reason to get the deal done is US concern over Russian airstrikes on IS positions in Syria from Iran, which some US officials speculate may violate UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which requires Security Council approval for supply, sale or transfer of combat aircraft to Iran.

While the interpretation of the resolution may require a “very detailed, legal analysis,” according to a State Department spokesman, it might also be worth recalling UN Security Council Resolution 2249, passed in November 2015, which “calls upon Member States that have the capacity to do so to take all necessary measures, in compliance with international law, in particular with the United Nations Charter, as well as international human rights, refugee and humanitarian law, on the territory under the control of ISIL [IS] also known as Da’esh, in Syria and Iraq, to redouble and coordinate their efforts to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by ISIL also known as Da’esh as well as ANF [Jabhat al-Nusra], and all other individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with Al Qaeda, and other terrorist groups, as designated by the United Nations Security Council.”

So while there may be some dispute over Resolution 2231, it seems to us that coordination by Iran and Russia to “prevent and suppress” IS through military action falls within the spirit if not the letter of Resolution 2249, and overall US and coalition interests in Syria. 

This column has consistently argued that the United States should seek to leverage Russian and Iranian shared interests in combating terrorist groups in Syria and throughout the region, as called for in Resolution 2249 and numerous other resolutions. In September 2014, commenting on the emerging Iran-Syria-Iraq counterterrorism axis against IS, we acknowledged that while “the United States and Iran cannot formally link arms in Syria … the trend to watch is the tentative emergence of what may be a truly regional counterterrorism coalition, with potential for a transformation in regional security, if managed carefully.”

Nearly two years later, the “potential for a transformation in regional security,” brokered by the United States and Russia, working through the United Nations, seems both within reach and more urgent than ever. 

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