When protests started in Syria in 2011, Iran came to the aid of Bashar al-Assad's government.
It didn't trust the armed forces so it helped create paramilitary groups to break up the protests and then battle the emerging rebel movement.
As the war intensified Iran brought in militias from Iraq, took over military strategy, and sent in not only its own advisers and fighters, but also those from Lebanon's Hezbollah.
Iran is following almost the exact same script in Iraq today to counter the insurgency after it launched its summer offensive in 2014.
Two Countries, One Very Similar Strategy
In both Syria and Iraq the Iranians came to rely upon irregular forces because they did not trust the army and police. When Syrians began demonstrating against the Assad government in 2011 there was a general feeling in Damascus and Tehran that the military could not be trusted to put them down.
That was proven true when many soldiers would later desert and join the rebels. In Iraq, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) disintegrated in the face of the insurgency when its summer offensive began in June 2014.
Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy estimated that 60 of the Army's 243 battalions were lost with all of their equipment in northern Iraq after the fall of Mosul. A US official told the New York Times that five of Iraq's 14 army divisions were combat ineffective.
With neither the Syrian nor Iraqi armed forces proving reliable Iran turned to militias to fill the void.
In Syria, Iran relied upon Syrian and Iraqi militias to handle security, while the latter were brought back to Iraq when the insurgency took off there in 2014. The Assad government created the Shabiha, then the Popular Committees, which would later become the National Defense Force (NDF) to deal with the protests and then the rebels.
Iran advised Syria on the creation of all three forces using the example of its own Basij. The Basij were a paramilitary group created in Iran during the 1979 revolution and were used to put down the Green Movement in 2009. Iran provided training to all three forces not only in Syria, but in Iran as well.
When the fighting really took off in Syria Tehran also brought in its militia allies from Iraq. This included the League of the Righteous, Hezbollah Brigades, the Badr Organization, and new groups like Abu al-Fadhal al-Abbas, and many others. Eventually a Badr commander was appointed by Iran to coordinate all the Iraqi militias with the Syrian and Iranian governments.
This was no surprise as Badr was created by Iran during the Iran-Iraq War and had the longest relationship with Tehran of any of the pro-Iranian militias in Iraq.
A similar policy was carried out in Iraq. Those same militias that were fighting in Syria began mobilizing for deployment within Iraq in January 2014 after Fallujah fell in Anbar. That included creating new popular defense brigades and launching recruitment campaigns. Many groups also brought back their fighters from Syria to face the Iraqi insurgency, and eventually became integrated into regular Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) units.
This would only increase after June's ISIS blitz. As in Syria, Badr has seemingly taken control of militias and larger security policy in Iraq. Badr head Hadi Ameri has led operations in Salahaddin's Amerli, Babil's Jurf al-Sakhr and is currently in command of re-taking the Baiji district in northern Salahaddin. Mohammed Ghaban from Badr was also recently named the new Interior Minister.
This served several purposes. First, the militias proved capable fighters against the Syrian rebels and Iraqi insurgency.
Second, it allowed Iran to increase its influence in both countries by not only asserting its militia allies as major defenders of the government, but also becoming part of the existing military structures in Syria and Iraq. Institutionalizing the militias is a way to guarantee their longevity in both countries long after the rebellions are put down.
Iran's Hand In Syria
Iran came to define much of the military strategy in both Syria and Iraq. As soon as the protests started in Syria, Iran began sending in advisers to help the Assad government. This was directed by the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps - Quds Force (IRGC-QF) General Qasim Suleimani, and assisted by IRGC-QF head of operations and training General Mohsen Chizari.
Both were named by the US Treasury Department in May 2011 for their role in suppressing the Syrian public. A retired IRGC general said that there were 60-70 Quds Force commanders in Syria at any given time.
There were also several thousand Iranian Basij militiamen deployed to the country. These men not only advised the Shabiha, the National Defense Force, and the Syrian military, but carried out combat operations as well.
Similarly in Iraq, in June Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that Iran was ready to defend Iraq after the fall of Mosul. Immediately afterward there were reports that 150-2,000 Quds Force members were dispatched to Iraq.
That force is said to be several thousand strong now. They are deployed not only to central Iraq, but are also with Kurdish forces in Diyala and Ninewa.
The Hand Of Iran's Strategic Mastermind
Just like in Syria, General Qassem Suleimani has been put in charge of Iraq. He's said to have set up a control center at the Rasheed Air Base in Baghdad, helped with the defense of Samara in June and Irbil in August, the relief of Amerli in September, the clearing of Jurf al-Sakhr in Babil in October, and the current operation in Baiji, Salahaddin.
This has all been highlighted in various postings to social media with pictures of the general throughout Iraq. This is part of an on-going propaganda campaign to let Iraqis and the international community know that Iran is on the ground and leading the fight in Iraq.
Iran is not only providing assistance at the front to the ground troops in Syria and Iraq, but is playing a large role in the formation of policy in Damascus and Baghdad. This is again increasing Iran's influence not only with the respective governments, but at the street level as well as it is seen as the main defenders of both countries.
Hezbollah Enters The Fight On Iran's Behalf
To assist with its operations Iran brought in Lebanon's Hezbollah to both Syria and Iraq. Hezbollah provided another set of trainers for the Syrian military and militias. Lebanese fighters have also taken part in combat in Syria since 2012.
After the fall of Mosul, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah offered to send fighters to Iraq. By July the Christian Science Monitor reported that there were around 250 Hezbollah advisers in the country.
That month a Hezbollah commander died near Mosul as well showing that they were at the front. Hezbollah advisers were also said to have been involved in the recent operation in Jurf al-Sakhr that successfully cleared the area in the middle of October.
Iran has often relied upon Hezbollah as a proxy force to assist with its foreign policy. In Arab countries like Syria and Iraq it's believed that they provide better trainers as they share the same language and culture. In Syria they have also provided snipers, intelligence gathering, etc. They may do the same in Iraq as well if they are not already.
Iran has closely followed the same military policy in both Syria and Iraq.
As the security forces of Damascus and Baghdad were questionable, Iran turned to militias to fight protesters, rebels and insurgents. Iranian advisers and fighters, and Lebanon's Hezbollah supported these irregular forces.
Tehran's ultimate goals in both countries are generally the same with one exception.
In both nations it wants to defeat the insurgents. It also wants to expand its influence, which it has greatly done. It not only has advisers throughout the security forces and in government offices, but it is shaping strategy and both Syria and Iraq have come to rely upon Iranian-funded militias for their defense.
Tehran is being opportunistic as well in thinking long-term here. It is taking advantage of the situations as they presented themselves in each country to assert themselves within the state. It also hoping that this power remains far after the insurgencies in both countries are put down.
Finally in Iraq it has one additional concern, which is to make sure that the country never emerges as a rival again as it was during the Saddam period. The Iran-Iraq War still looms large over Iran's worldview, so even though it wants Iraq to win its current war, it does not want it to emerge as a strong nation afterward.
That is the real story of Iran's relationship with Iraq. While Iran has become one of Iraq's most important allies in its time of need, it has its own agenda, which does not always suit Iraq's interests.