Op-edIranian money and weapons strengthen Iraqi Shiite militias

Beyond Israel’s Borders: Is Iran actually able to control its proxies?

This week in the region: Sudan loses internet connection, America continues to target Shiite Iraqi militias, and Turkey and Syria still feel heavy damage from last year’s earthquake

Ksenia Svetlova

Executive Director ROPES (Regional Organization For Peace, Economics & Security); Senior non-resident fellow Atlantic Council; former member of Knesset (Hatnua)

A supporter of the Shiite Houthi rebels with an ammunition belt placed on his head attends a celebration in Sanaa, Yemen, November 9, 2019. (Hani Mohammed/AP)
A supporter of the Shiite Houthi rebels with an ammunition belt placed on his head attends a celebration in Sanaa, Yemen, November 9, 2019. (Hani Mohammed/AP)

Following American accusations, Iran has continued in the past week to shake off responsibility for its proxies’ attacks on American bases in Syria and Iraq. Recent American attacks on the Shiite Kataeb Hezbollah militia were ramped up and some of the organization’s commanders were killed in the strikes.

For now, and seemingly for the foreseeable future, US President Joe Biden’s administration prefers to focus on taking action against the local groups affiliated with Iran and not the Islamic Regime itself, while Republican voices such as Senator Lindsey Graham call on Biden to “cut the head off the snake.”

However, the questions that need to be asked are whether these organizations are indeed entirely controlled by Iran — and, if the Islamic Regime instructs them to stop military action in Syria and Iraq, will they listen? The reality, as usual, is complex.

Syria’s story is different from Iraq’s. In Iraq, at least some of the Shiite militias targeting American bases are an integral part of the nation’s institutions and are part of a voluntary force called The Popular Mobilization Forces which is officially part of the Iraqi army.

The militias rely on support from the Shiite community, which makes up most of Iraq. They ride a heavy wave of anti-US sentiment and do not act out of loyalty to Iran alone. In fact, after the killings of their commander Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis and Qasem Soleimani, they accused Iran of insufficient retaliation and ramped up their own military activity against the US army.

Of course, Iranian money, weapons, and training play a significant role in the strengthening of Shiite militias in Iraq. However, it’s important to note that these organizations do not represent only Iran and are not acting only in its name. If the US wants to weaken the Iraqi militias, it first must distance them from the governmental centers, and that will be very hard to achieve as the US has one foot out the door.

Fighters from the Popular Mobilization Forces carry the coffin of a commander from the Kataeb Hezbollah paramilitary group, Wissam Muhammad Sabir Al-Saadi, who was killed in a US airstrike, in Baghdad, Iraq, February 8, 2024. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

Sudan is drowning in darkness

On Wednesday, Sudan sank into a media frenzy: All three of the nation’s internet providers weren’t working, after two had already stopped providing service the previous Friday. Millions of Sudanese people were cut off from their only source of information on their country’s cruel and bloody civil war.

The Rapid Support Forces (RSF) accused the army of cutting off the internet as part of military action in the western Darfur area. Media companies controlled by the state, in turn, blamed the RSF forces.

Meanwhile, millions of Sudanese are currently crowded together in refugee camps in and outside of the country, and others are trying to escape the war with no success.

Cases of abduction, murder, and rape are becoming more rampant, and it seems like no one knows what is happening in Sudan. The African country is not starring in global headlines and doesn’t seem to be on the agenda for the West, which has been protesting for Gaza for four months while ignoring the catastrophic situation in Sudan.

The UN decided to give Sudan a significant humanitarian aid package worth some $4.1 billion. The problem is that a country like Sudan — a failed state in every way — has no competent officials to take care of handing out aid, protecting it, and preventing rival groups from taking control of it by force as has happened in the past and as has been happening in Gaza.

The UN doesn’t have a mechanism of this sort either and has no authority to interfere in and take control of the responsibilities of the state to take care of the hungry, sick, injured, and penniless. The existing international mechanisms can provide aid but cannot ensure it will reach those who need it.

Sudanese army officials greet the crowd during a meeting with the city’s governor supporters and members of the Sudanese armed popular resistance, which supports the army, in Gedaref, Sudan, on January 16, 2024. (Photo by Ebrahim Hamid / AFP)

Tempest in a coffee pot

It’s hard to say if the photo of a man wearing a kippa bearing the logo and colors of Starbucks is authentic, created by AI, or if it even is the logo of the American coffee giant. Regardless, it was enough for the BDS supporters on social media to once again declare a boycott on Starbucks “because of its support for Israel and the Jews.”

The photo, which was supposedly taken in the US, was spread immediately across pro-Palestinian platforms in the West and Muslim countries and caused a tempest in a teapot. The photo may not be real, but the boycott of American brands like Starbucks, Coca-Cola, and McDonald’s is.

McDonald’s, which has given free and discounted meals to Israeli soldiers, reported losses in the Middle East, China, and India in the last quarter of 2023 compared to previous years. After the reports came out, its stock dropped too. Starbucks also lost some $11 billion since the beginning of the war in Gaza when the chain was accused by pro-Palestinians of supporting Israel.

Coca-Cola has suffered hits too. The leading headline on the state-affiliated Turkish newspaper Yeni Şafak this week was “Boycott gets results — sales of Israel-supporting Coca-Cola officially crash in Turkey.”

The campaign against Coca-Cola, one of Israel’s biggest supporters, has indeed begun to yield results. The company’s 2023 sales in Turkey dropped by 5.1%, and in the fourth quarter, they fell by 21.8%. The local company that manufactures the drink in Turkey, Coca-Cola İçecek, tried to explain that those working in the factory are Turkish and that it would not only be the shareholders who were harmed by the boycott, but the explanation must have fallen on deaf ears.

The company also tried to explain that the sales sank because of the massive earthquake that rocked the country last year, and that higher profits are expected in 2024.

A year after the earthquake, refugees still live in tents

The cold, rainy February is felt heavily in the cramped tents of the Syrian refugee camps in the northwest of the country. A year ago, some 100,000 Syrians lost their houses in the earthquake and some 5,900 were killed.

The earthquake hit neighboring Turkey much harder, but because of the civil war in Syria and a reduction in aid that reached the mostly rebel-controlled area, the refugee situation has not significantly improved in the last year.

Many homes that were damaged in the area do not meet the criteria for aid, but they still are uninhabitable. The homeowners who were lucky enough to get aid for renovations, meanwhile, say that the building supplies prices are skyrocketing.

People hold a minute of silence during a small protest called by left-wing parties to mark the anniversary of an earthquake in the south of Turkey that killed more than 53,000 people in Istanbul, Turkey, February 6, 2024. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

The situation in Turkey is not easy either. During last year’s election campaign, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised that some 300,000 new homes would be ready by February 2024. According to the presidential spokesperson’s office, only some 46,000 new homes have been built and handed over to their owners.

According to the spokesperson’s office, construction has begun on hundreds of thousands of more homes. These claims are difficult to check. The locals who rented their homes and lost all their belongings were not eligible for compensation and to them, these promises are not worth much.

“No one will give us back what is dearest to us anyway,” they say.

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