Is the Shiite revival here?

Ali Mamouri writes: In the book “The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future,” Vali Nasr, an Iranian-American researcher on the crises in the Middle East, came to the conclusion in 2006 that the religious struggle resulting from the rise of the Shiite identity in the region would reshape the Middle East. Developments in recent years have proved that this view seems accurate.

Today, Shiite forces are strongly present in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. They are united and firmly associated with the Iranian axis. This new situation did not happen by chance or overnight. Rather, it was preceded by many arrangements that Iran has been making for decades.

The sectarian rivalry in the region began with the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when Saudi Arabia and Iran raced to find and endorse revolutionary groups that fought different governments based on Islamic ideology and inspired by the Quranic terms of jihad in the Middle East. These groups include al-Qaeda for the Sunnis and Hezbollah and the Houthi movement for the Shiites. While Saudi Arabia has invested in jihadist organizations in Afghanistan — such as the Afghan Arabs, or the Arab mujahedeen, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan — Iran has invested in the Shiite opposition forces in the Arab countries, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hezbollah al-Hejaz in Bahrain and the Badr Brigade in Iraq. [Continue reading…]

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Report says nearly 650,000 besieged in Syria

The Associated Press: Nearly 650,000 Syrians are living in besieged communities in the country’s civil war, more than three times the UN estimate, according to a new report that gives a graphic account of hundreds of deaths in areas the world has struggled for years to reach.

The report says Syria’s government is responsible for the siege tactics that have led to deaths by starvation, dehydration and the lack of medical care. The document does not look at what it calls the short-term siege tactics used by Islamic State, which has beheaded and massacred its opponents in the area straddling the Syria-Iraq border currently under its control.

The “Slow Death” report, obtained in advance by Associated Press, is by the Syrian American Medical Society, which supports medical workers in besieged areas. The organisation presented its findings on Thursday to UN officials and to a closed-door meeting sponsored by the United States, Britain, France and other states and organised by Qatar.

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Nusra Front quietly rises in Syria as ISIS is targeted

The Associated Press reports: The Nusra Front, Syria’s al-Qaida affiliate, is consolidating power in territory stretching from the Turkish border to central and southern Syria, crushing moderate opponents and forcibly converting minorities using tactics akin to its ultraconservative rival, the Islamic State group.

But while the Islamic State group gets most of the attention largely because its penchant for gruesome propaganda, the Nusra Front quietly has become one of the key players in the four-year civil war, compromising other rebel groups the West may try to work with while increasingly enforcing its own brutal version of Islamic law.

Its scope of influence now abuts the Golan Heights bordering Israel, and its membership largely composed of Syrian nationals refuse any negotiations with the government of embattled President Bashar Assad, further complicating the brutal conflict.

“The Nusra Front will most likely outlast ISIS in Syria, and will represent a severe and existential threat to the aspirations of the Syrian people in terms of a pluralistic, democratic society,” said Fawaz A. Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics, using an alternate acronym for the extremist group. [Continue reading…]

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Are Syrian Islamists moving to counterbalance al Qaeda? Will it last?

Charles Lister writes: On March 22, the Syrian insurgency witnessed the latest in a series of mergers, when the Islamist Suqor al-Sham faction effectively subsumed itself into one of the country’s most powerful organizations, Ahrar al-Sham. Both groups had been amongst the very first armed groups to form in Syria in mid-2011 and although Suqor al-Sham has reduced in size over the past 12-months, both have consistently been amongst the most consequential actors in the fight against the Assad regime. Following the union, Ahrar al-Sham now finds itself in command of approximately 15,000 fighters across Syria, with active operations in 10 of Syria’s 14 governorates.

This merger was only the latest sign that Ahrar al-Sham has begun re-asserting its preeminent position within the broader Syrian insurgency. Although its membership had not necessarily declined throughout 2014, the year had been a challenging one due in part to a serious cut back in funding and support from Qatar and Turkey and also to the group’s key role in fighting against the Islamic State (IS), alongside its military ally Jabhat al-Nusra — Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.

This latter alliance with Jabhat al-Nusra has been a consistent facet of insurgent dynamics in Syria, but not only in terms of conservative Salafist groups like Ahrar al-Sham. In fact, while rarely acknowledged explicitly in public, the vast majority of the Syrian insurgency has coordinated closely with Al-Qaeda since mid-2012 – and to great effect on the battlefield. But while this pragmatic management of relationships may have secured opposition military victories against the regime, it has also come at an extraordinary cost. The assimilation of Al-Qaeda into the broader insurgency has discouraged the U.S. and its European allies from more definitively backing the ‘moderate’ opposition. That, by extension, has encouraged the intractability of the conflict we see today and the rise of jihadist factions like Jabhat al-Nusra, IS, and many others.

Now finding themselves involved in the fifth year of a brutal civil conflict that has left at least 220,000 people dead, displaced 10 million others inside and outside the country, and trapped over 640,000 under military siege, the strategic thinking within the Syrian insurgency is subtly shifting. Since October and November 2014, the leaderships of countless Syrian insurgent groups — encompassing ‘moderate’ Free Syrian Army (FSA), mainstream Islamists and hardline Syrian Salafists — have been expressing private concern in person to this author regarding the worrying evolution of their long-time ally Jabhat al-Nusra. Back in November 2014, an Ahrar al-Sham leader described the group as leading the revolution “down the wrong path,” while a moderate Islamist from Aleppo exclaimed that “Nusra no longer wants what we want — Al-Qaeda is taking over.”

Despite inaccurate reports that the latest merger of Ahrar al-Sham and Suqor al-Sham represented a hardening of the group’s ideological stance, the unity initiative has instead been described to this author by several Syrian Islamist officials as a conscious attempt to balance Jabhat al-Nusra’s growing power, particularly in the northwest governorate of Idlib. [Continue reading…]

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Tunisian jihadis were always going to bring the fight back home

The Observer reports: When two gunmen who had trained in Libya opened fire on tourists and staff at one of Tunisia’s top museums last week, it shocked the country but perhaps not the Tunisian security forces, who had been working for years to try to stave off this kind of attack.

They had long feared that returnees from the region’s spiralling conflicts in Iraq, Syria and, more recently, neighbouring Libya would bring the fight home and choose a soft target to do it.

Nearly 3,000 young Tunisians are known to have travelled abroad to fight, the largest number from any Arab country, and thousands more were stopped from making the journey. Around 500 have returned, and although some are in jail for fighting abroad, others were released by judges, who decided they were not a danger.

The number of returnees, and the cost and manpower involved in following someone 24 hours a day, makes it almost impossible for the government to follow even those they know have spent time with extremist groups overseas. There may be other jihadis who manage to stay off their radar, slipping over the border to Libya in a flow of traders who are often young men of fighting age. [Continue reading…]

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Nine British medics enter ISIS stronghold to work in hospitals

The Observer reports: Nine young British medical students have travelled illegally to Syria and are believed to be working in hospitals in Islamic State-controlled areas, the Observer can reveal. Their families were mounting a desperate effort on Saturday at the Turkish-Syrian border to persuade them to come home.

The group of four women and five men crossed the border last week, apparently keeping their plans secret from relatives until just before entering Syria, when one woman sent her sister a brief message and a smiling selfie.

“We all assume that they are in Tel Abyad now, which is under Isis control. The conflict out there is fierce, so medical help must be needed,” Turkish opposition politician Mehmet Ali Ediboglu told the Observer, shortly after meeting the families.

“They have been cheated, brainwashed. That is what I, and their relatives, think.”

Both he and the students’ parents were convinced that the young medics wanted to work with Isis, Ediboglu said, but they were also certain that the group did not plan to take up arms. “Let’s not forget about the fact that they are doctors; they went there to help, not to fight. So this case is a little bit different.”

The Home Office said that the medics would not automatically face prosecution under anti-terror laws if they tried to return to the UK, as long as they could prove they had not been fighting. [Continue reading…]

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Petraeus returns to Iraq

Retired General David Petraeus, who commanded U.S. troops during the 2007-2008 surge, was back in Iraq last week for the first time in more than three years.

In his most expansive comments yet on the latest crisis in Iraq and Syria, he answered written questions from The Washington Post’s Liz Sly:

I would argue that the foremost threat to Iraq’s long-term stability and the broader regional equilibrium is not the Islamic State; rather, it is Shiite militias, many backed by — and some guided by — Iran.

These militia returned to the streets of Iraq in response to a fatwa by Shia leader Grand Ayatollah Sistani at a moment of extreme danger. And they prevented the Islamic State from continuing its offensive into Baghdad. Nonetheless, they have, in some cases, cleared not only Sunni extremists but also Sunni civilians and committed atrocities against them. Thus, they have, to a degree, been both part of Iraq’s salvation but also the most serious threat to the all-important effort of once again getting the Sunni Arab population in Iraq to feel that it has a stake in the success of Iraq rather than a stake in its failure. Longer term, Iranian-backed Shia militia could emerge as the preeminent power in the country, one that is outside the control of the government and instead answerable to Tehran.

Beyond Iraq, I am also profoundly worried about the continuing meltdown of Syria, which is a geopolitical Chernobyl. Until it is capped, it is going to continue to spew radioactive instability and extremist ideology over the entire region.

Any strategy to stabilize the region thus needs to take into account the challenges in both Iraq and Syria. It is not sufficient to say that we’ll figure them out later.

What went wrong in Iraq?

There was certainly a sense in Washington that Iraq should be put in our rearview mirror, that whatever happened here was somewhat peripheral to our national security and that we could afford to redirect our attention to more important challenges. Much of this sentiment was very understandable given the enormous cost of our efforts in Iraq and the endless frustrations that our endeavor here encountered.

In retrospect, a similar attitude existed with respect to the civil war in Syria — again, a sense that developments in Syria constituted a horrible tragedy to be sure, but a tragedy at the outset, at least, that did not seem to pose a threat to our national security.

But in hindsight, few, I suspect, would contend that our approach was what it might — or should — have been. In fact, if there is one lesson that I hope we’ve learned from the past few years, it is that there is a linkage between the internal conditions of countries in the Middle East and our own vital security interests.

The current Iranian regime is not our ally in the Middle East. It is ultimately part of the problem, not the solution. The more the Iranians are seen to be dominating the region, the more it is going to inflame Sunni radicalism and fuel the rise of groups like the Islamic State. While the U.S. and Iran may have convergent interests in the defeat of Daesh, our interests generally diverge. The Iranian response to the open hand offered by the U.S. has not been encouraging.

Iranian power in the Middle East is thus a double problem. It is foremost problematic because it is deeply hostile to us and our friends. But it is also dangerous because, the more it is felt, the more it sets off reactions that are also harmful to our interests — Sunni radicalism and, if we aren’t careful, the prospect of nuclear proliferation as well.

You have had some interactions with Qassem Soleimani in the past. Could you tell us about those?

In the spring of 2008, Iraqi and coalition forces engaged in what emerged as a decisive battle between the Iraqi Security Forces and the Iranian-supported Shiite militias.

In the midst of the fight, I received word from a very senior Iraqi official that Qassem Soleimani had given him a message for me. When I met with the senior Iraqi, he conveyed the message: “General Petraeus, you should be aware that I, Qassem Soleimani, control Iran’s policy for Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan.” The point was clear: He owned the policy and the region, and I should deal with him.

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What’s left of Syria?

Al Jazeera interactive: In the past four years, the Syrian war has increased in intensity causing severe damage and destruction to most of the country. Millions have lost their homes while hundreds of thousands have been killed. What was once a country steeped in history and diverse culture is now a war-torn country brought to rubble.

Here is what’s left of Syria: [Continue reading…]

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Syria after four years: Timeline of a conflict

John Beck writes: The conflict in Syria has entered its fifth year, a grim anniversary in what has become the worst humanitarian crisis of our time.

It began on March 15, 2011 when the Syrian government met mostly peaceful protests in several towns and cities with gunfire, beatings and arrest. Eventually, the opposition acquired weapons, soldiers defected, and the uprising transformed into a grinding civil war with ugly sectarian dimensions that sucked in countries across the region and further afield. An estimated 220,000 people have now been killed and life expectancy has dropped two decades to 55 years, according to the United Nations. 3.9 million people have fled the country, and a further 7.6 million have been internally displaced.

Syria’s economy has collapsed and 80 percent of the country now lives in poverty. Half of all school-aged children haven’t attended school in three years. The country has literally gone dark, with 83 percent of electricity supplies now cut.

A peaceful solution to the conflict now seems further away than ever, and United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions aimed at pushing President Bashar al-Assad to step down or cease attacking his own people are consistently vetoed by his longtime allies Russia and China. Moderate rebel factions fighting for a democratic system have lost out to Islamist-linked groups and the chaos has allowed extremist militants such as the so-called Islamic State (IS) to seize territory and power. [Continue reading…]

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American policy over Syria has been not merely ineffective; it has been a catastrophe

Faisal Al Yafai writes: Did he or didn’t he say it? Ever since America’s secretary of state John Kerry gave an interview about the Syrian conflict on Sunday, Washington has been trying to qualify and explain his comments.

Speaking to a US TV network, Mr Kerry said: “We have to negotiate in the end.” That was translated as either a capitulation to Bashar Al Assad, a recognition of the reality of the conflict or an unwise tipping of America’s negotiating hand.

It was, of course, nothing of the sort, as the next sentence from Mr Kerry revealed: “And what we’re pushing for is to get him to come and do that, and it may require that there be increased pressure on him of various kinds in order to do that.”

That was also misinterpreted – was Mr Kerry suggesting he would speak directly to Mr Al Assad? The State Department later clarified, no.

So no change, then, in US policy. Mr Al Assad must still go, he must go as part of a political transition and the best way to persuade him to go is to put unspecified pressure on him.

As anyone will know who has even vaguely followed the contortions of the Syrian civil war – which has now entered its fifth year – US and western policy over Syria has been not merely ineffective; it has been a catastrophe. America has been involved in some way in the Syrian civil war for almost as long as it was involved in the Second World War.

The flip-flopping in Washington over Mr Kerry’s remarks reflects a broader flip-flopping in US policy towards Syria. Western policy has failed Syria – and it has failed on America’s watch. [Continue reading…]

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Fresh allegations of chlorine gas attacks in Syria

The Guardian reports: Opposition activists in Syria have published fresh allegations that Bashar al-Assad’s regime has used chlorine gas in attacks on Idlib in the north-west of the country.

Activists in the Sarmine coordination committee alleged that the regime dropped barrel bombs containing chlorine gas on the town in two attacks on Monday night.

Unverified videos posted by the group showed medics and civil defence teams treating individuals who appeared to be having trouble breathing, as well as a video of three children in burial shrouds (warning: this video contains graphic images that some may find upsetting) allegedly killed in the attack, one of whom appeared to have a white froth near the nose and mouth. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS is losing, but no one is winning

Aron Lund details the many setbacks ISIS has encountered since August 2014, but he goes on to write: The Islamic State is losing, but that does not mean that it is going to fold and disappear.

First of all, despite this long string of defeats, the Islamic State has also made progress, albeit on a lesser scale, in places like western Iraq, eastern Homs, and the Syrian desert. There is still low-hanging fruit to be picked in war-torn Syria and, for all its recent victories, the Iraqi government is staring into the barrel of economic disaster due to tumbling oil prices. Further afield, there are plenty of soft targets in Libya and Lebanon, not to mention the mouthwatering prospects that jihadis see in Jordan, Egypt and, apparently, Nigeria.

Nor should one underestimate the ability of the Islamic State to adapt to adverse circumstances. It is a flexible and lethal force and it knows what it is up against. Its top leaders have about a decade of hard-earned experience and are surely among the world’s most skilled practitioners of guerrilla war under hostile aerial supremacy. The United States was not able to decisively break Sunni jihadism in Iraq while occupying the country with 140,000 soldiers, and it will be even harder without them. And even though a number of measures have been taken to police borders, air traffic, and international bank transfers, foreign supporters in the Middle East and Europe will continue to provide the Islamic State with a hard core of fanatic volunteer fighters, suicide bombers, and financiers.

Most importantly, it must be remembered that the Islamic State is a product of the Iraqi and Syrian conflicts, not their cause. As long as the overall sectarian conflict continues, the Islamic State will continue to find willing recruits in deprived and brutalized Sunni Arab regions where becoming a holy warrior may be the only career choice available and where few community leaders see any hope of peaceful coexistence with the authoritarian rulers of Damascus and Baghdad. [Continue reading…]

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Why the strategy in Iraq and Syria is failing

Anthony Cordesman writes: One of the ironies of a steadily more partisan Washington is that its politicians and policymakers continue to call for “strategy” without looking beyond the military dimension. One way to lose a war is to lose sight of the objective, and there seems to be an open contest between the administration and the Congress to see who can do the best job of ignoring the objective.

The key question in both Iraq and in Syria – and in what is far too often treated as a “war against ISIL” – is how do you bring any meaningful stability to either country? Military victories are at best a means to that end and can actually make things worse if they are not tied to a set of grand strategic goals.

It is important to seriously degrade the Islamic State – regardless of whether one wants to call it ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh. A violent extremist protostate not only threatens the region immediately around it, it threatens to destabilize the Islamic world and spill over into terrorist attacks outside. Even total defeat of the Islamic State, however, will scarcely end the threat of jihadist violence or put an end to the divisions inside Iraq and Syria that helped empower the Islamic State in the first place. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. unclear on impact of bombing on al Qaida group in Syria

The Associated Press: The U.S. military has hit as many as 17 separate targets connected to a shadowy al-Qaida cell in Syria known as the Khorasan group, U.S. officials say, as part of a little-discussed air campaign aimed at disrupting the group’s capacity to plot attacks against Western aviation.

U.S. intelligence analysts disagree about whether the attacks have significantly diminished the group’s capabilities, according to the officials, showing how difficult it has been to develop a clear picture of what is happening on the ground in Syria.

American officials briefed on the matter agree that the air attacks have forced militants into hiding and made their use of cellphones, email or other modern communications extremely risky. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss classified assessments.

There is some disagreement about how much the airstrikes have undermined the group’s ability to pose an imminent threat, U.S. officials say. Some U.S. officials say the military believes the strikes have lowered the threat, while the CIA and other intelligence agencies emphasize that the group remains as capable as ever of attacking the West.

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Syria’s beleaguered opposition-in-exile is about to collapse

Global Post reports: Four years after Syria’s revolution began, its political opposition-in-exile has little to show for it.

Half-heartedly propped up by foreign governments, the Turkey-based Interim Government is going broke, and on the brink of collapse.

Khaled, a senior opposition official, is tired and depressed. We meet at a Gaziantep restaurant, in one of its three shiny malls popular for out of office meetings. It’s just down the road from the government building, which faces frequent security alerts.

He speaks frankly, seemingly relieved to get his frustrations off his chest. In his mid-30s, he’s the antithesis of the old guard that has taken the reigns of the political opposition, and is sick of pretending.

“We’re fake. We’re a lie — an illusion. We’re not a real government,” he sighs.

“Ministers think that just because someone opens a door for them that they are real… but we have zero legitimacy. We do not represent the people and don’t provide enough services.”

The illusion is convincing — the Turkey-based government has around 500 employees in addition to its teams in Syria. It produces sleek reports, holds press conferences in fancy hotels and capacity-building workshops at seaside resorts. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS still on the attack, despite internal strife and heavy losses

The New York Times reports: The Islamic State is facing growing dissension among its rank-and-file fighters and struggling to govern towns and villages it has seized, but the militant Sunni group is still managing to launch attacks and expand its ideological reach outside of Iraq and Syria, senior American officials said.

In the seven months since allied warplanes in the American-led air campaign began bombing select Islamic State targets, the Sunni militancy, while marginally weaker, is holding its own, senior defense and intelligence officials said.

Pentagon officials expressed only cautious optimism on Thursday after the Islamic State lost much of the central Iraqi city of Tikrit following more than a week of fierce fighting, warning that it would be as difficult for Iraqi forces to hold the city as it was to liberate it. And even as the militants had a last stand in Tikrit, Islamic State fighters were mounting one of the fiercest assaults in months in the city of Ramadi, west of Baghdad.

But in recent months tensions have become apparent inside the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh. The troubles stem from new military and financial pressures and from the growing pains of a largely decentralized organization trying to hold together what it views as a nascent state while integrating thousands of foreign fighters with Iraqi and Syrian militants. [Continue reading…]

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The smugglers who take foreign would-be ISIS jihadis into Syria

The Guardian reports: On small dirt tracks, several minibuses and cars are waiting, each of them going to different points on the border, but all accessing Isis-controlled territory. Little by little, the minibus empties, and when it arrives in a nearby border town, which the Guardian is not naming to protect those quoted in this piece, only two passengers are left.

At the bus station, two teenage boys immediately approach, offering to take the remaining two passengers to the wire.

“Only 10 [Turkish] lira [£2.60],” offers Ahmed*, a boy in ill-fitting, mud-stained trousers, his bare feet barely filling his worn-out shoes.

Syrian smugglers such as Ali and his friend Ahmed take both goods and people across into Isis territory. They witness horror, routinely, and shrug it off.

“Just yesterday Isis beheaded three FSA [Free Syrian Army] fighters,” Ahmed says, laughing. He drops to his knees and bows his head, re-enacting the scene he says he witnessed, making a gesture imitating a sword coming down on his neck with one hand. “They chopped their heads off like this!”

Another Syrian Turkomen who had just crossed back into Turkey nods. “We saw a crucified man on the way to the border. You have no idea what we see in Syria every day now. Our lives are like a horror movie.”

Ali says he has helped to carry the luggage of countless foreigners crossing the border to reach the self-declared Islamic State. “There were French men who took their entire families with them to Syria,” he recalls. “Once I carried a bag full of dollar notes across. The guy I helped was going to give it to Isis.”

Hundreds of foreigners are believed to have used crossing points like this, though the most high-profile recent cases – the three British schoolgirls who absconded to Syria last month – are thought to have crossed farther east.

Business is thriving, the smugglers say. “We carry weapons and ammunition across as well,” says Ali. “The drivers [of the minibuses] get 500 lira per bag.”

Neither of them are Isis supporters. “No, I don’t like them. But what can I do?” asks Ahmed, grinning. “It’s a job, and I need the money.” [Continue reading…]

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IRGC official: Iran indoctrinating Syria youth

NOW reports: A top Iranian Revolutionary Guards officer boasted about Tehran’s role in Syria and revealed that his country has been indoctrinating youths in the war-torn country to fight under the IRGC.

“The IRGC has begun to establish new religious groups in Syria called ‘Kashab’ among young Alawites, Sunnis, Christians and Ismailis,” Al-Arabiya on Tuesday cited Hussein Hamdani as saying.

These groups aim to carry out what Hamdani called “ideological education” for the “recruitment of teenagers in Syria to fight in militias under [the command] of the IRGC.”

The advisor to the Revolutionary Guards commander-general did not elaborate further on the youth groups, but did boast that Iran had formed 42 brigades and 138 battalions fighting for the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria.

Hamdani added that the “establishment of the Basij in Syria was one of Iran’s most important achievements in recent years.” [Continue reading…]

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