The overthrow of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein by the US-led coalition in 2003 destabilised much of the Middle East. Ever since, Iran, where 93 percent of the population is Shia, has positioned itself as an increasingly influential political force in the region. Hussein had been a powerful authoritarian Sunni leader who ruled Iraq for 24 years with the Baath Party apparatus, which sidelined non-Arabs and viewed Shia with suspicion. Hussein had been a dangerous enemy for Tehran, launching a war in 1980 that had been originally intended at curbing Iranian power (the Iran-Iraq War lasted until 1988). With Hussein out of the picture, Iran tacitly backed the Shia militias to gain influence across the Shia-majority country. His downfall also created the circumstances that allowed Iran to expand its influence in the Middle East.
With the outbreak of civil war in Syria, more and more Shia militias surfaced in the region. They engaged in pitched battles with the Sunni armed groups. Since 2012, about 5,000 Shia militants are reportedly fighting in Aleppo alone, both the Financial Times and The Guardian have reported.
The fall of Aleppo to forces loyal to Bashar al Assad, an ally of Iran, has brought Tehran closer to establishing what its Sunni opponents describe with alarm as the “Shia Crescent,” an arc that Iran considers key to exert influence from the Mediterranean region to the steppes of Central Asia in Afghanistan.
As Iran is already gaining a foothold in Syria, which has an overwhelming majority of Sunni Arabs, it is also looming large in nearby northern Iraq, where Shia-dominated Iraqi government forces, reinforced by Iranian-trained militias and the US air force, are fighting Daesh to take control of Mosul, another Sunni Arab majority city that is a crucial point for Iran’s Shia Crescent.
What began as a protest movement against Bashar al Assad by Syrian civilians in early 2011 quickly escalated into an international proxy war. Iran viewed the opposition movement and opposition groups as a plot to destabilise Assad, its key ally in the Arab world, and also to undermine Hezbollah in Lebanon. It therefore established a presence in Syria, deploying its military forces and recruiting Shia militias from the countries with sizable Shia populations, playing a critical role in helping to maintain Assad’s grip on power since the beginning of the civil war.
Tehran sent its own armed units into Syria as so-called “defenders of the shrine,” to protect the Sayeda Zeinab Mosque near Syria’s capital Damascus, where Prophet Muhammad’s granddaughter is believed to be buried according to Shia tradition.
“Now the number of Iran’s martyrs as defenders of shrine has exceeded 1,000,” Mohammadali Shahidi Mahallati, head of Iran’s Foundation of Martyrs, told Tasnim, a privately owned Iranian news agency, in late November.
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