by Samir Yousif (October 2015)


The complexities of the political and the mutually-interrelated indigenous forces of the Middle East necessitate a multi-disciplinary approach. There are many interest groups, ethnic minorities, religions, and sects, in addition to the influence of the external interests that interact with each other on a daily basis. To initiate an action and to expect a specific outcome, under such circumstances, is highly unlikely. The events during the last decades provide ample evidence of such complexities. The theme of this work is inspired by the statement of an Israeli commentator regarding the Israeli[1] incursion into Lebanon during the 1980’s. In this present work I will present Saudi regional policies towards developments in neighboring countries and discuss the unintended consequences of such policies. This work will also touch upon the grave situation that resulted from the unintended consequences that took place. In addition I will discuss the consequences of the alternative options available. Taking Saudi Arabia as an example is entirely for academic purposes and other countries, like Qatar or Turkey, can serve the purpose as well.

Developments in Iraq

Since the USA liberation of Iraq in 2003, Saudi Arabia has had a clear perspective and understanding of what was taking place. Saudi Arabia[2] rejected the changes in the strict sense of the word and deviated sharply from its Western allies. All European countries recognized the new government and re-opened their embassies in Baghdad. Other regional countries did the same with the exception of Saudi Arabia, which rejected diplomatic ties with the new Shi’a-dominated govenment. The same attitude applied not only to diplomatic ties but also to other vital respects such as the Paris Club[3] and the issue of Iraq’s debts. While Paris Club recommended a cancelation of 80% of the debts, Saudi Arabia declined such advice.

Such developments are seen by Western commentators through different angles and in many cases, these are contradictory. But the final outcome speaks for itself. In a recent contribution, Tamara Wittes[4] while noticing the developments in the Middle East assumed an active Iranian role that led to a public outcry in Bahrain (providing an example of Iranian intervention in the internal affairs of Gulf States). Tamara Wittes while ignoring the prevailing apartheid regime in Bahrain considered the public cry, general dissatisfaction and deprivation as resulting from an Iranian plot. Such conclusions made by Western commentators shed the light in a clear way on Western understandings and methods of analysis. Tamara Wittes overlooked the fact that  the people of Bahrain have been engaged in political activities to bring down the present apartheid regime since the 1970’s[5]. What brought the Bahrain issue back to light was not the Iranian involvement but the rise of the Arab Spring[6].

It was the Arab Spring that encouraged the ordinary people to go out to the streets and demand their basic human rights, not only in Bahrain, but in other Arab countries as well. The Arab Spring cannot be attributed to an “Iranian Involvement” as the main victims of this upheaval were the Libyan and the Syrian regimes who were both strategic allies to Iran[7].

As mentioned above, Saudi Arabia had its own reaction towards the American liberation of Iraq in 2003. The Sunni rule in Iraq that lasted for over 1400 years was over. For many it was a nightmare and was totally rejected. These rejectionist forces decided to take whatever action they could to turn history back. The USA could not convince its Sunni allies of the democratic importance of turning a former Sunni state into a Shi’a-led one. King Abdulla II of Jordan wrote in 2004 his famous article warning of the development and dangers of a Shi’a Crescent[8]. So it was not only the Saudis who had serious worries and concerns of what was taking place in Iraq.

Let us use the term “opposition” to refer to all the forces which rejected the liberation of Iraq and the collapse of the Sunni rule in 2003. There were many “poles” for this opposition that are scattered in different neighboring countries like Qatar, Turkey, Jordan, Syria[9] and Saudi Arabia. The aim of all these opposition forces was (and still is) to bring down the new Shi’a-led political system in Iraq that was evolving under the control of the US Administration. By bringing down this system, the aim was to re-install a Sunni rule once again. That was the aim of all the opposition forces with the exception of Syria. While Syria (backed by Iran) was part of the opposition, its aim was to inflict as much damage as it could to the American presence in Iraq. Syria did not formulate a cohesive mature political perspective that provides a clear “road map” that shows what the final objective was at the end of the tunnel. Simply its aim was to create as much chaos as possible that would ultimately discredit the USA and show the bankruptcy of its plans in Iraq[10].

By stating the final objective, the opposition moved ahead in implementing their plans. So the common objective was clear: to bring down the newly-evolving Shi’a-dominated State in Iraq.

Now by stating the objective one can discuss the consequences of implementing the plans of the opposition. The consequences of implementing those plans, in turn, created new conditions and circumstances that had led to the establishments of undesired results and unintended consequences.

The Iraqi Scenario

The means of implementing the plans of the opposition concentrated on supporting the Sunni Rebellion[11]. Although the picture in Iraq is very complicated, the general lines of this support concentrated on specific areas. First, Sunni groups received enough funds to regroup and to expand and strengthen their groups and organizations. Secondly, general recruitment efforts were implemented outside Iraq to supply the local Sunni groups with volunteers. Most of the volunteers were suicidal-fighters who were ideologically-motivated against the Shi’a[12]. The routes these fighters took outside Iraq were carefully selected[13]. Thirdly, the opposition had plans to provide the internal Sunni groups with enough weapons and ammunition.

So, the action taken by the opposition (Saudi Arabia[14] in particular) was to undermine the ongoing political process by all possible means with the clear objective of installing a Sunni-led government, instead of supporting the ongoing Shi’a-led government.

Academically speaking, if the second option of supporting the ongoing Shi’a-dominated political process represented the objective of the opposition, especially Saudi Arabia, then a complete set of different scenarios could be visualized. To start with, Iran would have no excuse or reason to involve itself, or to increase its presence or its influence. There would be no power vacuum that required Iran to step in and fill it. instead, the political process would evolve, under normal circumstances, based upon the new Iraqi Constitution. There might have been no Sunni militias with no corresponding Shi’a counterparts. The development of events would essentially have been no different from the original US plans for building an example of democracy in the Middle East. Other Middle East countries could then follow. This option, however, is nothing but an academic exercise.

The second option, which represented the actual set of real events, led to the current grave situation. The tactics used by the internal Sunni groups aimed at undermining the efforts and plans of the Shi’a-led political process. The first step was to boycott the first General Election with the clear purpose of disqualifying the results, thereby rating the newly-elected government as illegitimate[15]. The second step would then be to use all means, especially armed resistance and other forms of violence, to bring down the newly-established state. Such tactics translated into car-bombs and various kinds of exploding packages and containers aimed at densely-populated Shi’a areas.

The human cost of such actions was enormous and various estimates suggested civilian casualties to exceed half a million innocent civilians[16].

When such developments take place one, should not assume that the victims will exhibit no  reaction. On the contrary, it is under such abnormal situations that one should not exclude any possible option. In addition, the presence of Iran next door opens up further possibilities.

The first step was the creation of local armed groups in each neighborhood acting as local guards. Their basic duty was to control the in-out movement of traffic. The second step was for Iran, from its side, to encourage the establishment of Shi’a-militias. These militias received full backing from Iran in the form of arms, ammunitions, training and finance[17].

The Unintended Consequences

The previous discussion’s starting point was the following statement:

Such understandings lead us to our main theme, i.e. the unintended consequences of an action by Saudi Arabia to have specific influence on the political developments of Iraq.

As has been shown, the actions taken by Saudi Arabia (referred to as the opposition) led to the following set of events.

A state of civil war took place after the year 2006 with numerous incidents of identity-killing[18]. Al-Qaeda was brought to Ramadi Province during 2006 and ISIL took over large areas of Iraq by June 2014.

So the consequences of dozens of plans and unlimited financial allocations by the opposition did not lead to, as originally perceived, to the overthrow of the newly-established Shi’a-dominated political process and replacing it with a Sunni-led government, but to establishing strong and powerful militias on both sides and a general state of civil war.

But there is another outcome of vital importance. The opposition in their plans neglected the role of neighboring Iran. For Iran the second option coincided with its plans of involving itself in Iraq and ultimately controlling it. Iran has succeeded in establishing loyal and very strong militias with increasing political power within the evolving political system in Iraq. This political power extends out from the Parliament to the State organs and the government. In parallel lines one can witness the increasing Iranian influence in Iraq as a consequence of the plans of the Sunni opposition[19].

Can we predict the future course of events?

Other significant and grave consequences resulted from the opposition plans, not on the Shi’a sect, but rather on the Sunnis themselves. Examples are the destruction of the Sunni cities and towns. The takeover of ISIL of very large Sunni areas[20]. Atrocities and other forms of violence against civilians. This destruction created refugees in the millions scattered in other areas inside Iraq as well as outside Iraq. In addition to the flow of Sunni immigrants through illegal routes into Europe.

If the government forces backed by Iranian-backed militias[21] achieve a decisive victory, the political consequence of such a development would lead to an Iranian-backed Shi’a-dominated political process, far worse than ever before. Shi’a forces loyal to Iranian Walayat-al-Faqih[22] will prevail and lead the political process from the majority side. Moderate segments of the Shi’a will be in a very disadvantageous situation and wither away. Such a scenario will ultimately lead to the establishment of a religious state in Iraq in full subordination to the Iranian Supreme Leader[23]. What increases the odds of such an outcome are the doubts cast on the professionalism of the present Iraqi Army.

The other possibility is to help the Iraqi State through rehabilitating the Iraqi army and enabling it to achieve victory without the involvement of the Iranian-backed militias. This option will enhance the political status of the moderate Shi’a, strength the whole political-set-up, drastically increase their credibility and put an end to the Iranian influence and involvement in Iraq. But this option can only represent a long-term and very costly strategy.

Is there another option?

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has issued a fatwa[24] to fight ISIL in Iraq. The public response was very significant and millions of men volunteered. The Iraqi State which is infiltrated by pro-Iranians officials made sure that this new large force was under their control and that the Iranian-backed militias would have a priority, whether in arms, ammunition or finance. Ultimately this led to the neutralization of this independent strong force. A clear victory to Iran.

This opens up a new option. If the USA can train the volunteers and establish a strong fighting force out of the Shi’a volunteers, then this newly-established force couls possibly replace the Iranian-backed militias and together with the Iraqi army could achieve a victory over ISIL without the involvement of Iran or its proxies.

The other possibility that Sunni tribes hostile to ISIL could be regrouped and trained to create an army capable of regaining the Sunni areas taken by ISIL. This option is debatable as the collapse of the Iraqi army in both Mosel and Ramadi provide ample evidence of the difficulty in distinguishing between Sunnis who are with ISIL and those who are against[25].

This last possibility requires further qualification. The Sunni tribes might be skeptical to the presence of the Iranian-backed militias, but they do not share such an attitude towards a friendly foreign force that promise them a clear political perspective. It could be argued that, under such conditions, the role of the Sunni tribes could be positive.

What are the consequences if the present standoff continues for years to come?

What will the consequences be if the Iraqi Parliament approves the National Guard Act[26]at a time when all the main Sunni cities and towns to have been taken by ISIL? If the government applies such an Act then it will be limited to central and south of Iraq – in addition to the Kurdish province (at a time when the Kurds have declared that it will not apply to their Region). Then such an Act will have no real significance in the relevant Sunni areas. Actually, the National Guard Act should be part of a wider political package that requires a modification[27] of the present Constitution in order to achieving long-term stability to all Iraq. Today there exist 350 different armed groups in Iraq each claiming to defend Iraq.

It seems that the unintended consequences of the first scenario for the future are still open to all possibilities, whether they are perceived today or not.

Russia and the New Alliance 4+1

Although this work is confined mainly to Iraq, yet the recent developments in Syria resulted in a different set of unintended consequences.

The only naval base the Russians have on the Mediterranean is located in Syria.

A new alliance has being forming. This new alliance is referred to as 4+1 indicating the presence of four countries (Russia +Syria + Iraq + Iran plus Hezbollah). Although the declared intention of this Alliance is to coordinate and share intelligence information, developments on the ground provide a different picture. What should be actually highlighted is the Russian involvement with ground troops. It is this development that represents the most important unintended consequence of the opposition plans in Iraq as ISIL occupies large areas in both Iraq and Syria.

This latest development confirms the immaturity of Saudi plans in Iraq. It also sends a message to the Saudis that they are in urgent need of foreign advice when formulating their own regional policies as the Saudi thinking is confined by the limits of Wahhabism.The unintended consequences of the Saudis rejecting American plans for introducing democracy in the Middle East have produced unexpected alliances that the Saudis themselves never wished to see.


Iranian backed-militias in Iraq

The Militias

With the incursion of ISIL into many areas in Iraq and the failure of the regular government forces to control the situation, a new player imposed itself on the already-complicated political picture of Iraq. This new player was the Iran-backed militias. Most of these militias were also backed by Al-Maliki Cabinet especially Badr Legend commanded by Hadi Al-Amiri and League of the Righteous commanded by Shekh Qais Al-Khazali.

As Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani issued the famous Jihad Fatwa these militias were in a favorite position to take full advantage of the situation. Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis who was the original commander of Badr Legend (Iran’s Revolutionary Guards) was put in charge of the volunteers who responded to the fatwa. Al-Muhandis managed to channel all the military and financial resources available to the militias instead of the volunteers. This ensured that the Iran-backed militias became military powerful as well as politically influential.

We can distinguish between the following militias:

1. Badr militia

Was previously called Badr legion under the command of Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis and it was engaged in a direct war with the Iraqi troops during the days of Saddam Hussein. It was part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Today it is under the command of Hadi Al-Amiri. Politically they are under the umbrella of the main Shi’a Alliance in the Parliament and separately they are called Badr Organization.

 2. Assa’ab Ahl Al-Haq  (League of the Righteous)

This militia split from Sadrist. It is supported by Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki and the Iranian Government. The commander is Shekh Khazali. they have a political bloc in the Parliament called Sadiqoun.

3. Hezbollah Brigades

This militia split from Badr legion. Shekh Al-Kaa’abi is in charge of its intelligence. This militia is the strongest and most advanced in what it possesses of weaponry. It possesses advanced communications systems, drones, S-S missiles, Rocket launchers, heat-tracing cameras. This militia follows Walayat-Al Faqih and receives all its weapons and ammunitions from Iran. Iran pays monthly salaries to all its members.

4. Nujaba’a Hezbollah

This militia split from No. 2 above. A new command was established and it is run by Iran 100%.

5. The Islamic Talia’a Party (The Islamic Forefront Party)

This party changed to Khurasani Forces, its commander is  Al-Yasseri (who worked with the US forces after 2003).

6. Junid Al-Imam (The soldiers of the Imam)

Its commander is Ahmed al- Assadi.This force used to follow Khadhim al-Khalisi who was arrested by the US forces.

7. Ansar Allah (God Supporters)

This militia was established by Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis three months after the fatwa.

8. Saraya Al-Salam (Peace Brigades)

Previously known as Muhdi Army established by Muktada Al-Sadr during the presence of the US troops in Iraq. There is an strong Iranian influence on the Mehdi Army but less on Saraya Al-Salam.

Militias and their increasing Political Influence

Most of the afore-mentioned militias were “sleeping cells” and they all entered actively into the political process as they managed to become members of the Parliament. They formed political blocks in the Parliament, such as Sadiqoun. When the fatwa was issued these political blocks turned into a military force supported and fully armed. It was clear that the original plan was to control the vital chains of the State. This was made possible due to the fact that Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has no political parties or blocks that he supports.

Day after the other the pro-Iran militias are gathering further strength, whether through increasing their numbers or the type of weapons they possess. But what is noticeable, is the fact that their political role was surfacing. Such a role is backed by their military strength.

The incident that occurred during September 2015 in Baghdad where a number of Turkish workers were kidnapped was a turning point in this regard. The kidnappers’ demands exceeded Iraq and went across the borders into Syria and Turkey. Such demands are part of a regional agenda that coincide with Iran’s regional political objectives.

In addition to the incident of the Turkish workers, a more serious event took place unnoticed. During September 2015, the Iraqi Parliament was engaged in deep discussions and debates regarding the new National Guard Act. The Iranian-backed militias, based in the Capital Baghdad, disapproving this legislation and wishing to stop it, threatened all members of the Shi’a alliance that in case they approve it, they were risking their lives. The National Guard Act was rejected and had to be reviewed, changed and resubmitted to the Parliament once again. A clear political victory to the militias.

[1] See Caitlin Smith, (27.11.2012), The 1982 Lebanon War was Israel’s Vietnam. In this paper the unintended consequences took place as a reaction to the war inside Israel (served to act as a catalyst for political and social change, largely characterized by a move towards the political left, and a marked decrease in positive proclamations of the use of conventional military force), in International Relations Student, Link: But more importantly, the Israeli incursion of 1982 led to the creation of Hezbollah, the most important unintended consequences of that war.

[2] Joseph MacMillan, “Saudi Arabia and Iraq,” The United States Institute for Peace, Special Report 157, January 2006. Actually history has shown that most of the assumptions of this Report were modest. In the Summary the author states:“Riyadh’s policy toward Baghdad over the next several years will probably be dominated by four key concerns about the future of Iraq: domestic stability, foreign meddling, oil production policy, and Iraq’s political evolution (especially the role of the Shi’a). Of these, far and away the most important to Riyadh is stability.” Actually History has shown that Iraq’s political evolution (role of the Shi’a) is Riyadh’s only concern. In addition, some commentators consider creating instability in Iraq to be one of Saudi Arabia  prime objectives and not one of its concerns.

[3] Martin A. Weiss, “Iraq’s Debt Relief: Procedures and Potential Implications for International Debt Relief,” in Congressional Research Service, January 26, 2009. Also, recently Thomas L. Friedman made a comment on Saudi Arabia in “Our Radical Islamic BFF, Saudi Arabia,” in the New York Times 2 Sept 2015.

[4] Wittes, Tamara Cofman, “An Iranian Deal won’t stabilize the Middle East-but maybe the Arab states can,” in Brookings Foreign Policy, July 14, 2015 (SERIES: debating the Iran deal| Number 6 of 10).

[5] During the 1970’s Iran was under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi whowas the main strategic ally to the USA in the region.

[6] See, Yousif, Samir, “Apartheid Under the Mandate of Islam: The Case of Bahrain,” in The New English Review, July 2011.

[7] There is an argument stating that the Green Revolution of 2009 in Iran was the “spark” for the Arab Spring.

[8] Jordan See “Threat to Election from Iran,” The Washington Post, 8 December 2004.

[9] Syria was allied to Saudi Arabia and other opposition force after 2003 although it had an Embassy in Baghdad.

[10] In an indirect way Iran was adopting a similar approach.

[11] The Sunni rebellion was indigenous and received significant support from regional powers.

[12] Mainly Wahhabi believers (Salafists).

[13] The influx of fighters to Iraq came through Syria, Turkey, Jordan and across the borders from Saudi Arabia. The JAMESTOWN FOUNDATION published “Islamic State of Iraq Gives Advice on Infiltration Routes into Iraq.” in Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 8, on February 28, 2008, see the following link:

[14] Thomas L. Friedman made a comment on “Saudi Arabia in Our Radical Islamic BFF, Saudi Arabia,” in the New York Times, 2 Sept 2015.

[15] The argument used by the opposition that proper elections cannot take place under occupation.

[16] Although the precise number is unavailable, Western estimates suggest high numbers and up to one million civilians, see the report issued by Body Count, First International Edition March 2015, see the Executive Summary, go to link:

[17] Mahdi Army in June 2003 was established by Muqtada Al-Sadr and Iran strongly backed it against the US troops. As Muqtada tried to break from the Iranian influence, Iran ordered one of his main assistants Shekh Khazali to break away from him and to established his own Iranian-backed militia (Asayib Ahl al-Haq, “League of the Righteous”) , then later another commander broke away and established the Iraqi Hezbollah Brigades (run by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards).

[18] Identity-killings refers to killing of innocent civilians based upon their identity (whether they are Sunni or Shi’a).

[19] In contrast to many commentators, actually the infiltration of ISIL into Iraq opened up an unexpected golden opportunity for Iran to step in. Iran possesses a strog media apparatus consisting of a number of Arabic-speaking Satelite TV channels (pro-Iran and anti-America) of which the following are the most important: 1. Al-Mayadeen, 2. Al-Furat, 3. Aafaq, 4. Beladi, 5. Al Ahad, 6. Al-Masaar, 7. Al-Gadeer, 8. Al-Itijah, 9. Al-Talia’a (coming soon), and 10. Al-Adwa’a.

[20] There are numerous references of the actions and crimes of ISIL, see for example, Yousif, S.,” A Note on the Origin of Al Bai’aa and the Self-Appointed Caliph,” in New English Review, Aug 2014.

[21] see the Attachment Iranian backed-Militias in Iraq.

[22] The conflict between the traditional Shi’a faith represented by Grand Ayatollah Sistani and the Iranian new theory of Walayat Al-Faqih (The Mandate-of- the Imam) is taking place openly. The traditional faith rejects the establishment of a religious state, while the Iranians call for the establishment of such a state in Iraq.

[23] Signs of such attempts are taken place right now as the main Iranian-backed militia (Shekh Khazali see footnote 16) are calling for a change in the constitution towards a Presidential system.

[24] The fatwa was issued in 13 June 2014.

[25] Many Sunni armed men working on the side of the Iraqi army changed sides overnight and joined ISIL.

[26] Actually the proposed National Guard Act contradicts the 9th Article of the Constitution.

[27] What type of State will ensure stability in Iraq? Centralization or decentralization and to what extent? The present Constitution lead Iraq to this deadlock