Thaier Al-Sudani / Reuters Members of the Popular Mobilization Forces drive past the site of a clash with Islamic State militants, Iraq, March 10, 2015.

Outsourcing the War Against ISIS

A Dangerous Dependency

On June 26, the Iraqi government declared Fallujah, a city just west of Baghdad, fully liberated after more than two years of Islamic State (ISIS) control. The Iraqi army played a key role in the effort, but it could not have won without the Popular Mobilization Forces (an umbrella of Iraqi militiamen who are mainly Shia but who now also include some Sunnis) and airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition. The Iraqi government has been unwilling to acknowledge its dependencies, however, and has portrayed the PMF as a mere sidekick to the national army even though many of the groups fighting under the PMF banner operate independently. Such groups do not report to the Iraqi government and some of them have other patrons, including Iran.

However slanted, Baghdad’s characterization of the PMF helps it legitimize their partnership by elevating their status from militias to government aides and it also makes the weak national army and government appear stronger. But the tactic is dangerous and it could backfire. Iraq is essentially outsourcing the fight against ISIS to militias backed by Iran, which could weaken state legitimacy and sovereignty in the long run.

This dynamic is also present in Syria. The Iraqi army began to decline after the 2003 U.S. invasion. The chaotic aftermath of the war led to a decade of mismanagement by the government and its international backers. Across the border in Syria, meanwhile, both rebels and extremist groups have ground down the defenses of President Bashar al-Assad. In turn, Iraq and Syria’s armies have had to rely on other forces to fight their opponents. In 2012, the Syrian state partnered with Iran to create the National Defense Forces, regime loyalists whom Assad depicted as patriotic fighters volunteering to support the state against “terrorism”—which for the regime is a broad term that includes ISIS and rebels alike. Syria later added to the mix the Russian-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, a primarily Kurdish militia that battles ISIS in the country’s

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