The growing power of militias threaten any meaningful peace in Iraq and Syria, senior US official warn. British Army Maj. Gen. Kevin Copsey also sees militia groups as the most important threat facing Iraq and Syria in the coming years. With little state authority in both countries, paramilitary groups provide security services, in some cases hold political power, and are effectively free to act as they wish.
The mainly young men who make up their ranks have little opportunities elsewhere. The state income they get for security services goes some way, but the real money comes from a growing shadow economy. Illicit economic activity has become a reliable source of income for militias, far more so than conventional jobs or state security. The high rates of unemployment and the increasing militarisation of the economy has meant that forming militias has become big business. The fear is that these groups will try to maintain instability in order to justify their existence and allow for continued economic gains.
In Iraq, the need for these militia groups came after the fall of Mosul in 2014. State security forces were overwhelmed, and additional forces were needed. Despite groups being branded as hero’s for helping defeat ISIS, more recently they are seen as criminal organisations as they turn to more illicit forms of income. A further complexity in Iraq is that some influential militants hold seats in parliament. Current and former fighters from groups now being defined as terrorist organisations are MPs. There are fears that their influence could help to sustain the militia’s existence and hamper peace processes.
There is a similar story in Syria, Assad relies on numerous groups to maintain his authority. Where some groups in Iraq were well established after years of insurgency. In Syria mafia-style gangs and religious militias have been transformed into paramilitary groups. A large number of which sit outside the control of Assad’s regime. A dangerous balancing act in a country so fragile.
Iran has an increasing influence on a groups in both Iraq and Syria. They fund, train and supply various groups, taking some pressure off limited Iraqi and Syrian resources. A calculated measure as this support and apparent power over groups cannot go unnoticed. Iranian interests will have to be considered by Iraq and Syria. A frustrating reality for US policy makers. There are however concerns Iranian backed groups are launching attacks on US troops. It is hard to know which attacks have been ordered by Teran as many groups operate with Iranian support, but not Iranian orders. An antagonistic measure, nonetheless, that has had consequences.
How is money driving violence?
Government contracts are only a small part of militia financing, these groups utilise numerous illegal methods like smuggling and extortion to increase profits. Oil smuggling is perhaps the most lucrative, with around 10% of the oil from Basra thought to be smuggled by militias. With groups competing for land, checkpoints and smuggling routes, increased inter-militia rivalries threatens to disrupt stability. External actors play their part, Iran in particular and there was western support for some of the more trusted militias as they fought ISIS. Militias have the ability to form powerful alliances.
For these groups, money is the key and instability allow them to operate. Young men earn far more being part of one of militias than they do working a normal job. Even if there were the job opportunities, forming or joining a militia is far more lucrative. Of course, what it boils down to now is that their existence relies solely on instability. The fear is that militias will aim to keep or incite political instability to sustain their existence. Neither Iraq nor Syria has the power to regain control. Foreign actors are attempting to control the situation, but the complexity of the sheer number of groups and changing rivalries puts any meaningful peace at risk.