Iraq Protests Could Help Check Iranian Influence
Brian M. Perkins
Anti-government demonstrations taking place in Iraq pose a new, precarious challenge for both the United States and Iran as the two countries continue to vie for influence in the region. Tensions between Washington and Tehran remain high after Iran was blamed for the large-scale attack on key oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia. The protests began on October 1 and have been led by the country’s Shia community, which has grown increasingly disenfranchised by corruption and a lack of public services and employment opportunities. The protestors’ demands grew increasingly political, however, as security forces violently cracked down on the demonstrations, leaving more than 100 dead (Rudaw, October 20).
Anti-government sentiment has been building over the past year as the government has made little headway in rooting out corruption and the economy continues to stagnate. While the protests are on hold until October 25 for the Shia religious observance of Arba’een, if Abdul-Mahdi’s government does not offer significant concessions and the results of the inquiry into the protestors’ deaths is unsatisfactory, the demonstrations are likely to escalate and pose an existential threat to the viability of the current government. Muqtada al-Sadr, the popular Shia cleric and head of the Sairoon Alliance—the largest parliamentary bloc—has also publicly called for demonstrations to continue and withdrawn his support for the Adil Abdul-Mahdi-led government (Rudaw, October 20).
In addition to posing a significant threat to the Iraqi government, the protests also pose a notable challenge to Iranian influence in Iraq, particularly due to the alleged involvement of Iranian-backed militias belonging to the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in the crackdown and death of numerous protesters. Reports emerged that Iranian-backed militias deployed snipers to the protests. Although the faction of the PMF responsible has not been independently confirmed, reports indicated that Abu Zainab al-Lami—the pro-Iran and Kata’ib Hezbollah-linked Head of Security for the PMF—directed the snipers (Alaraby, October 17). Frustration with these militias and mistrust of Iran has been bubbling to the surface for the past year and this incident only creates further animosity. Protesters have actively denounced foreign interference, particularly by Iran, and are likely to make a push for the government to rein in the PMF and its pro-Iran factions.
The protests and deepening mistrust of Iran and its allied PMF factions, meanwhile, provides a window of opportunity for the United States, which is seeking to check growing Iranian influence in Iraq. However, the situation is exceptionally precarious and the U.S. response cannot be seen as overly meddling in the process as it would only serve to drive a larger wedge between Baghdad and Washington. The coming weeks will be critical for the Iraqi government, the United States, and Iran. Missteps by any side will undoubtedly have significant implications, particularly if the current Iraqi administration falls.
What Happens to Repatriated Foreign Fighters?
Brian M. Perkins
The Turkish offensive in Syria and the subsequent ceasefire has brought renewed attention to the threat posed by Islamic State (IS) members and their family members who remain in prison or in camps such as al-Hol. The ceasefire as well as the seemingly inevitable resumption of Turkish military operations sparked pleas for the repatriation of those housed in the camps for humanitarian reasons as well as to mitigate the security threats posed by their escape. Countless Western leaders have extolled both the threat of returning these members to their countries and the threat posed by them escaping. There is, however, another key question that needs to be asked by the broader international community: what is happening to those repatriated by countries less equipped to evaluate or prosecute the IS-linked individuals they repatriate?
Turkey claims it wants to create a safe zone in northern Syria in order to return Syrian refugees living in Turkey, but in doing so it risks leaving imprisoned IS-linked individuals, as well as IS-linked women and children in multiple camps, unguarded or in a position to escape. Several IS fighters escaped a prison in Qamishli while riots took place at the al-Hol camp, which houses some 68,000 IS-linked family members, who are primarily women and children (Aljazeera, October 13). While there is a clear threat that escapees will help rejuvenate IS in Syria or make their way elsewhere, there is also a longer term threat that those repatriated by countries with poor track records with terrorism prosecution, prison radicalization, and recidivism will easily link up with or establish IS cells at home.
Despite calls to repatriate IS-linked individuals, countless Western nations have refused to do so, noting the obvious security threats to those conducting the repatriations and to the country once they return. The Australian government, which has among the most comprehensive terrorism laws in the world, has refused to place its forces at risk and has shown little interest in bringing back its citizens (7News, October 17). Similarly, the debate on whether to bring back fighters has plagued countless European nations. Meanwhile, many countries that have returned a notable amount of fighters—Bosnia, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Macedonia, Morocco, and Tunisia among others—are, strikingly, those with poor track records in deradicalization and fewer resources and mechanisms in place to evaluate, deradicalize, track, or prosecute returnees. In Kosovo, for instance, the men are often immediately detained and face prison sentences while the women and children are temporarily detained, evaluated, and often released under varying degrees of monitoring. Prison sentences for those convicted, however, have often been exceedingly short and post-release monitoring almost nonexistent. Morocco has one of the most adept counterterrorism forces in the world and yet countless cases have demonstrated the countries struggles with terrorism prosecution, prison radicalization, and recidivism—the most recent high-profile example being the mastermind of the Imlil beheadings (See TM, March 12).
The threat of escape by those imprisoned or held in camps in northern Syria is undoubtedly substantial, but those who succeed still face a significant challenge in making it out of Syria alive before jumpstarting activity elsewhere. Meanwhile, those repatriated by countries lacking the resources or mechanisms to properly prosecute, monitor, or otherwise rehabilitate offenders could merely be offering them a short hiatus before they can strike again. Even in more equipped countries, the lack of evidence from the battlefield often makes prosecution challenging and prison sentences relatively short at only a few years. The lack of any sort of transparency or international organizational oversight over how repatriated IS fighters and IS-linked individuals are managed raises the significant concern of them simply cropping back up in a new location in a matter of months or years. As such, transparency and information sharing among neighboring countries and those who have repatriated IS fighters and families is going to be critical.