Conflicts are meant to involve the living, with the dead being long withdrawn from the complex web of political alliances and bloody feuds that mankind revels in. So when the grave of the eighth century Umayyad Caliph Umar Ibn Abdul Aziz – along with that of his wife and servant – was desecrated and exhumed of its contents earlier this week, it served as a stark reminder of the reality of the Syrian civil war and the players involved in it.
It was far from surprising, however, as the Iranian-backed Shia militias and Assadist loyalists who were reportedly the ones responsible, have had a tendency to exhume graves in conquered territories. Back in February, for example, videos surfaced showing the Syrian regime forces and Iranian-backed militias desecrating and exhuming the graves of numerous opposition fighters and commanders buried in Sunni areas, with other videos displaying Syrian soldiers playing with the skulls of exhumed bodies. These acts were also witnessed in 2015, when regime forces exhumed dozens of graves in Homs and stole the corpses.
Far from being an issue of morality or respect for the dead, though, it is also one of history. This reckless destruction of historical – and religious – sites bears similarities to the campaign of destruction carried out by Daesh and other extremist groups throughout the Levant.
A hallmark of Daesh's rule across vast swathes of Syria and Iraq a few years ago, was the violation of vital historical sites dating back all the way to ancient Assyria, including significant sites such as Syria's Palmyra and those in Iraq's Nineveh province. They were also responsible for the destruction of churches and shrines sacred to Christians and other minorities such as the Yazidis, resulting in the loss of thousands of years of heritage and decades of archaeological efforts. Furthermore, they proceeded to sell ancient artefacts on the black market throughout the world, in order to fund their terror operations, contributing to smuggling and international criminal networks.
Are the Iranian-backed Shia militias spread throughout the Levant and Assad loyalists any different? What truly separates these militias from Daesh and Al-Qaeda is a case of branding. While the Sunni-identifying groups created and implemented trademark attributes such as set uniforms, internationally broadcast messages, media outlets, high-quality videos showcasing executions of Westerners and a stated aim for global dominance, the Shia militias have largely kept a low profile.
Instead, they have successfully passed off their aims and actions as fighting against Daesh throughout the past five years, and resisting Western and foreign imperialism in defence of national sovereignty, which has won the sympathy of certain political sectors in the international community. Even condemnation of the groups by the US and the European Union has only gone so far as imposing sanctions on their leaders and Syrian and Iranian governments which they fight in support of, adding certain militias in Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) to terror lists, and banning Hezbollah's political wing.
A significant number of these militias emerged in 2014 in the fight against Daesh, when the terror group was almost on the verge of overrunning Baghdad and Damascus. It was then that Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, one of the highest-regarded Shia clerics in Iraq and beyond, issued a fatwa to unify and fight against Daesh, resulting in it being pushed out of its urban strongholds and near-obliterated, with the help of the global coalition mobilised against it.
Since then, however, it has been revealed multiple times that in their battle against Daesh, the PMF committed numerous atrocities and human rights violations against the Sunni civilian population, including reports of mass torture of civilian detainees, accounts of rapes and beheadings and the discovery that mass graves blamed on Daesh were in fact caused by the Shia militias. In all of these incidences, there exists two commonalities: Daesh was constantly used as a scapegoat by the militias to avert international attention and accountability, and the civilian and refugee accounts given against the militias almost always compared them to Daesh itself.
The revelations do not stop there, though, but also go on to reveal that Shia militias across the Levant have had their hands involved in illegal black market activities such as the international trafficking of narcotics. Groups within the PMF and others, such as the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, were reported in 2018 to be smuggling opium across the Levant on its way to Europe, as well as collaborating with groups in South and Central America in the production of cocaine. Such occurrences have not only been limited to the militias, but also state actors with which they are aligned, as was seen with the recent busting of a smuggling operation of millions of methamphetamine pills into Saudi Arabia and Libya.
Despite the long-held knowledge of the militias' links to international crime, their human rights abuses and their continued contribution to the instability of the region and sectarian harmony, there has, so far, been no international coalition formed in order to tackle them. In fact, Western governments have been ordered to do the complete opposite and to tolerate them, with think tanks and policy experts espousing a policy of "containing Shia militias", rather than eliminating them.
The primary reason for this is that there have been signs emerging of the revival of Daesh throughout the past year, through the occurrences of attacks and ambushes conducted on US and regional security forces by Daesh operatives. The continued presence and vitality of the Shia militias as an effective fighting force against the terror group is, therefore, seen as the best viable option.
This will ultimately backfire, however, as despite the Iranian-backed militias – whether in Iran, Syria or Lebanon – being natural enemies of Daesh, they show all the signs of posing an equal threat to the region, its civilians, its heritage and foreign forces. All that these Shia militias lack is the branding and marketing of Daesh, but the time may have come to hold them accountable, just as much as the international community has held Daesh to account.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.