For decades, Shia armed groups have altered the sociopolitical and military landscape of the Middle East. As of 2019, more than a hundred different Shia groups and subgroups, the primary drivers of Iranian influence, operate in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. Yet despite the complexity of fronts, the number of belligerents involved, and Iran’s active participation in these conflicts, most publicly available maps on the subject have neglected or downplayed the need to illustrate important data about specific militias. This approach has fundamentally altered international perceptions of the region’s ongoing wars and, more important, Iran’s propensity for using proxies.

Shia militia activities are often wrapped in a broader narrative about “pro-government forces.” Even when these groups take on dominant roles in a given conflict and pursue goals that differ from those of government forces, they still tend to be described as little more than supportive elements. This further disguises crucial regional and ideological developments related to the militias and their patronage networks.

The Islamic Republic of Iran remains the principal creator and backer of Shia militias throughout the Middle East. As the 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy noted, “Iran is competing with its neighbors, asserting an arc of influence and instability while vying for regional hegemony, using state-sponsored terrorist activities, a growing network of proxies, and its missile program to achieve its objectives.” The 2019 U.S. Worldwide Threat Assessment added that Iran “probably wants to maintain a network of Shia foreign fighters” in Syria. Its existing proxies there, in Iraq, and in Lebanon have contributed to myriad terrorist activities while maintaining stances that are violently opposed to the United States and its regional allies. A view into how Iran uses these multinational networks can help clarify the state’s ideological and political goals in the region.

At the same time, not every Shia armed group is a proxy of Tehran. Conflicts between Shia militias over ideological, political, and commercial interests are plentiful, and tracking these tensions can help expose key vulnerabilities and trends.

Mapping these militias has become especially important since the Iraqi government’s 2014 creation of al-Hashd al-Shabi (the Popular Mobilization Forces), an umbrella group of mostly Shia militias dominated by Iranian-backed groups. The rise of the PMF has further obfuscated who is actually doing the fighting on the ground and which areas have a significant militia presence. Some of the most powerful PMF elements are also fighting in Syria, while many have established significant political power within the Iraqi government.

Thus, a more comprehensive and detailed mapping method is required. For the benefit of policymakers, area specialists, and observers, The Washington Institute’s Shia Militia Mapping Project seeks to rectify the knowledge gap by providing deep graphical insight into the movements of specific militias, Iran’s expansion of power abroad, Iraq’s efforts to address instability, the Islamic State’s return to insurgency, the manner in which Shia armed groups preserve and increase their power, and the near-term outlook for Syria.