This is the second of a four-part series looking at the United States’ increasingly-evident de facto alliance with Iran in the region. This first part looked at the way this policy has developed since President Obama took office and how it has been applied in Iraq. This part will look at the policy’s application in Syria; part three will look at its application in Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Yemen; and part four will be a conclusion.
In March 2011, after four decades of dictatorship, spurred by the wave of rebellion that began in the Arab world in December 2010, the people of Syria took to the streets, first to demand reform and then—when met with live fire—to demand the downfall of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The uprising was exclusively peaceful for six months, with some local areas beginning to fight back in self-defence in late September, before a generalised armed rebellion erupted in December 2011 as the population understood that if it did not take up arms they would continue to be massacred. The regime did everything it could from the outset to switch the narrative from its own cruelty and corruption to sectarianism, claiming the uprising was a “foreign-backed Islamist conspiracy” bent on the destruction of the minorities, and Assad was the last line of defence for the minorities and the West’s frontline in the War on Terror. To try to give some credibility to this thesis, the regime released violent Salafists and foreign Salafi jihadist forces of the then-Islamic State of Iraq (now the Islamic State) that it held in its prisons and ensured they had access to arms. The regime attacked the majority-Sunni population in deliberately sectarian fashion, sending Alawi villagers to carry out the massacres to bind the Alawi community and the other minorities to the regime’s political fortunes—and to provoke a counter-sectarianism. Assad, and Russia and Iran, waged a very intense media war to disseminate the regime’s propaganda about it being a secular shield for the minorities.
From the get-go, Iran was arming the Assad regime and the Quds Force was entering Syria “not only [with] weapons and riot gear but also sophisticated surveillance equipment” to track regime opponents on social media. Rhetorically, the Hizballah, Iran’s Lebanese proxy, stood by Assad from the beginning: Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, had hailed the fall of Western-aligned nondemocratic rulers in Tunis and Cairo but called on “all Syrians to preserve their … ruling regime“. The Syrians reacted by burning Nasrallah in effigy. By July 2011, Hizballah members were imported to buttress the Syrian Army, and in the latter months of 2011 the Hizballah’s role, especially in areas of Homs near the Lebanese border, would get more obvious. In August 2012, sanctions were levied against the Hizballah by the United States for assisting in the repression of the Syrian population, and in October 2012 the U.S. presented clear evidence to the U.N. Security Council of Hizballah’s involvement in Syria on the side of the dictatorship. The announcement of Hizballah’s involvement would come from Nasrallah on May 25, 2013, when the Hizballah’s presence at Qusayr could not be denied. Not coincidentally, soon after this announcement the inflow of Sunni jihadists into Syria noticeably increased, with the image of a Sunni population being repressed by a Shi’a dictatorship spurring many Sunni Muslims to take up arms in defence of their co-religionists inside Syria—and from the regime’s standpoint this was not an accidental part of the strategy, further inflaming sectarian differences and making Assad appear as the bulwark against Salafi jihadism.
After the July 2012 bombing that killed several senior regime officials, Assad’s fall seemed imminent: with a rebellion comprising more than 50,000 men, the regime had at most 38,000 usable troops, and had degraded into “an entity more akin to a militia“. Iran mounted a massive effort to rescue Assad, during the course of which Iran became effectively an occupation force in regime-held Syria. Iran organised the regime’s battered army and disparate militias like the “popular committees” and the Shabiha into the National Defence Forces (NDF), which was announced in January 2013. The NDF is now all that remains of the Syrian State, and it is trained, equipped, and commanded by Iran. The NDF is comprised overwhelmingly of minorities, specifically the Alawites from which the Assad family and its retainers hail. Iran’s strategy has been to set the “foundations for militant groups that can survive with or without Assad,” and which owe their loyalty, religious and more earthy in terms of the support needed to survive, to Iran. The Alawi instructors, however, said the NDF’s mission was to “kill the Sunnis and rape their women“. By the summer of 2013, the NDF had 100,000 men and the regime had turned the tide.
At the same time as Iran was forming the NDF, it was flooding thousands of Shi’a jihadists into Syria, mostly from Iraq. Iran’s Iraqi proxies inside Syria include the Badr Organisation, Kataib Hizballah (KH), Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), and spin-offs like Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas (LAFA). AAH is, numerically, probably the main Khomeini’ist jihadist group that came to Assad’s rescue. AAH has the blood of hundreds of American soldiers on its hands and has become an Iraqi Hizballah, infiltrating the political system while maintaining arms. With the deployment of AAH and the others in Syria, Iran’s Resistance Axis is now “more integrated and capable” all across the region. AAH has also “become an increasingly important part of Iran’s global proxy network.” AAH was involved in the Hizballah’s war against Israel in the summer of 2006, and AAH’s liaison to the Quds Force was Abdul Reza Shahlai, who directed the network that tried to blow up the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C., in 2011. And if there was any doubt about AAH’s global intentions, there are no such doubts about Lebanese Hizballah.
In short, thousands of globally-focussed Shi’a jihadists controlled by the leading State-sponsor of terrorism established a beachhead on Europe’s doorstep and nothing was done. The movement of a handful of al-Qaeda veterans with global intent, the so-called “Khorasan Group,” into Syria prompted American airstrikes. This difference is indicative of the way the Obama administration views the threats from Sunni jihadist networks on the one hand, and the Shi’a jihadists that are an extension of Iran’s State power in Syria on the other: the former are seen as an imminent threat and the latter as a matter of indifference—indeed as Iran’s prerogative. Allowing Iran to do this means that even if the West did eventually help topple Assad, Iran is very well-placed to run an insurgency against a new government and keep Syria destabilised for years to come. Earlier action could have forestalled this, and even now Iran’s capabilities could be degraded if a decision was made to counter rather than enable Iran in Syria.
Faced with the Syrian uprising, the human carnage never moved the Obama administration. No doubt some people feel that this is the proper way to handle foreign policy. But the Obama administration showed no willingness to capitalise on the strategic opportunity either: the chance to remove Iran’s only Arab ally, the better to force Tehran to give up its nuclear weapons and behave better in the region. U.S. condemnations of Assad’s brutality against unarmed demonstrators amounted to, as one commentator put it, “Down with this sort of thing,” and instead of castigating the extremism of the regime and its supporters, American officials “repeatedly warned of the jihadists about to run away with a desperate rebellion.” This is because while President Obama has reluctantly accepted some responsibility for Iraq, even at the expense of seeing it as a condominium with Iran, he has ceded Syria to Iran.
That Obama never wanted to get involved in Syria is plain. In December 2011, Obama told then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki: “We have no intention to intervene militarily” in Syria, a message he can be sure went back to Iran. In the summer of 2012, Obama refused the advice of nearly his entire Cabinet to arm the Syrian rebellion, believing instead that the regime would fall of its own weight, vindicating his masterly inactivity. Instead, Syria headed toward the “worst case scenario” of dictatorship, chaos, and radicalism on all sides.
In the spring of 2013, Obama turned every which way to say his “red line” on chemical weapons, laid down in August 2012, had not been crossed. When that became unsustainable after the massive chemical attack in Ghouta in August 2013, which murdered 1,400 people, Obama promised to launch airstrikes to “punish” the Assad regime. But Obama first threw the matter to Congress, where the proposal for military action would have been defeated, and then on Sept. 9 accepted a Russian-orchestrated “deal” to call off the airstrikes in exchange for Assad giving up his chemical weapons. Appeasing Iran was part of the calculation that led to this humiliating climb-down. Secret talks were underway with Clerical Iran to have it reach an “interim” accord on its nuclear-weapons program. A tacit condition was that Tehran would be given a free-hand in Syria in exchange for a delay on its nuclear ambitions. The “deal” under which Obama retreated was said by one expert to be “a classic case of Moscow’s active measures,” and the results certainly lend credence to this: the administration took loud credit for a deal that legitimised the dictator, creating a Western interest preserving Assad’s regime, he now being the West’s partner in dismantling the chemical weapons, while handing to the tyranny “a license to kill with conventional weapons.” When the regime slaughtered its way into as-Safira and Qalamoun, it said it was clearing a path to the port of Latakia so it could ship the CW out. The U.N. praised Assad for “taking steps to secure” the overland routes to the coast. In exchange for being accomplices to this, Obama’s retreat nearly destroyed the moderate rebels, who had made their case for co-ordinating with the West to the population based on the premise that this gave them access to the necessary resources to finish with the dictator. When it was shown that the U.S. had no intention of damaging the dictator it did permanent political and ultimately military damage to moderate rebels, making them appear as ineffective stooges of foreign governments.
Promises of assistance to the rebellion were repeatedly made by Obama and never kept. In June 2013, when it was finally admitted the chemical weapons “red line” had been crossed, Obama authorised lethal assistance to the rebellion. This consisted of a very small CIA-run program that to date has trained no more than 5,000 rebels—not even close to militarily significant inside Syria. The program took two weeks to reach decisions on distributing weapons, which meant that if they were finally granted the chance for the planned offensive had gone. The U.S. refused to supply ammunition or fuel so trusted rebels could use captured tanks. “One of the U.S.’s favorite trusted commanders got the equivalent of 16 bullets a month per fighter,” and while the U.S. paid rebels between $100 and $150 per month, the Islamic State and Jabhat an-Nusra paid double that. In recent weeks, four of the sixteen rebel groups the U.S. was supporting in northern Syria have had their funds cut off entirely—without even telling them—and even the U.S.’s most trusted rebels in Harakat Hazm have had their funding cut in half. Even in southern Syria, where the U.S. is now supposedly focussed, rebels received “just 5% to 20% of the arms requested from the CIA”.
The Obama administration then strikes a perplexed look when fighters defect to better-funded units like Nusra. But the logic is simple. As one rebel put it: “We thought going with the Americans was going with the big guns. It was a losing bet.” So, after the repeated betrayals, many fighters took up with Salafi jihadist groups, despite the majority of the rebels supporting democracy, simply to get rid of Assad, a goal most rebels are now convinced the U.S. does not share. When the U.S. struck into Syria and hit the Islamic State and Nusra, the U.S.-funded rebels were not told about this nor given the weapons they had requested over the summer of 2014 to fight Nusra. After the strikes, these rebel groups became the object of Nusra’s fury, seen as having a level of American support they could only dream of, which was demonstrated when Nusra attacked these rebels and they were unable to defend themselves—something then used by the administration to argue for giving the rebels even less help. The U.S. refusal to rescue its own designated proxies in Syria from al-Qaeda can only be explained if Obama sees Syria as an Iranian sphere of influence, Iran’s “35th Province,” as some in Tehran have called Syria, which would make the presence of a formidable U.S. proxy, an alternative to both Iran’s proxy regime and the takfiris, unacceptable. Once the moderates have been destroyed, the President can then say he has no choice but to work with the Iranian-run regime against the Islamic State.
In October 2014, Obama wrote to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for the fourth time, stressing that America and Iran have “a shared interest in fighting Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria,” but that “any cooperation on Islamic State was largely contingent on Iran reaching a comprehensive [nuclear] agreement”—confirmation both that the administration saw the nuclear negotiations and Syria/Iraq as linked, and intended to side with Iran on the latter in exchange for concessions on the former. The U.S. airstrikes into Syria made the U.S. effectively Assad/Iran’s air force. In eastern Syria, where the U.S. airstrikes have concentrated, Assad and the U.S. were almost openly aligned. And in western Syria, the Assad regime took the chance to try to destroy what was left of the nationalist rebels to complete the regime’s narrative that the only alternative to Assad was the takfiris. Then came the Nov. 6 U.S. strikes on Ahrar a-Sham, a hardline but Syrian-focussed group, which crossed the line between trans-national and national insurgent groups. There had been many Syrian rebels begging for U.S. military help against the I.S., especially after the anti-ISIS revolt broke out on January 3, 2014—the only actual instance of any force in Syria seriously degrading I.S.’s reach. Without support the exhausted rebels, who took 6,000 casualties driving I.S. out of northern Syria, faltered and I.S. recovered its ground and then some by the summer of 2014. The rebels were even willing to tolerate the airstrikes against Nusra, which, while foreign-led is majority-Syrian, and which has gained considerable popular support because of its reputation for effective, non-corrupt fighting against the regime. But Nusra is al-Qaeda’s declared Syrian branch, even if the rank-and-file do not fight for Nusra based on adherence to Salafi jihadist ideology, so everyone understood why the U.S. would strike at Nusra. But to strike at Ahrar suggested that any group was a potential U.S. target since nearly all rebel forces have at second- or third-hand worked with Nusra—the presumed reason for the Ahrar strike—and it also suggested that the U.S. was widening the scope to attack all of Assad’s enemies.
In a speech in May 2014 at West Point, Obama announced a program, to be run by the Pentagon, to train a 5,000-man Syrian rebel army in neighbouring States. This has not happened. In September, in his kinda-sorta declaration of war on the Islamic State, Obama actually blamed Congress for the lack of progress. (Congress passed a bill days later.) Obama has “largely written off” the moderate rebels, so new ones had to be recruited. While U.S. troops have now been deployed to carry out this training, the vetting process does not seem to have begun, and the earliest this army, which is not large enough to alter the balance of power by itself, could be deployed in Syria is May 2015. The crux is going to come when this army, largely created to placate domestic critics and Arab allies, is deployed. Obama has made clear this army is to “fight Islamic State,” not the regime, but—assuming the rebels stick to these instructions—the regime has made clear this army will be “fought like any other illegal militia“. At the moment the regime attacks this U.S.-trained army, the contradictions in Obama’s Syria “policy” come crashing down: either he will have to protect this force and thus go to war with Assad, finally acting in accordance with his stated regime-change policy, or he will have to declare out-loud for Assad and Iran.
Still, it might not get that far. President Obama has dismissed criticism of his Syria policy as “horseshit,” saying that the idea that arming the rebellion earlier would have forestalled the rise of the Islamic State or saved lives is “a fantasy“: “an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists” could never have made a difference, even with better weapons, Obama says. In truth, after “decades of universal conscription,” the majority of rebels have military training. But let it pass. Obama has now ostensibly adopted the policy of his critics: supporting the nationalist rebels as the alternative to both the regime and the Salafi jihadists. Caution is in order, however, because every promise of meaningful support to the rebellion has proven a mirage. Arming the rebels is for the Obama administration what Michael Doran calls the “Syria two-step“: (1) when the pressure from the media, political foes, and allied governments becomes too voluminous, the administration promises it really is serious about helping the rebels this time; and (2) when the pressure dies down, placated by this promise, the promise is abandoned in a haze of technical obfuscation.
The U.S. refusal to stop Assad’s aircraft massacring civilians in Raqqa City, the capital of the I.S.’s so-called Caliphate, despite the fact that U.S. jets also overfly and even bomb I.S. targets in that city, has added to the perception that the U.S. had sided with Iran and its Syrian puppet, and the regime of course takes every available chance to insinuate itself into the anti-I.S. Coalition to further demoralise the rebellion. A further strong indication that Iran has been allowed to take over Syria is the report that surfaced in December suggesting the Obama administration was discussing putting an end to Assad’s ability to use airpower. Soon the Pentagon was downplaying these reports, and it was clear that what was under discussion was not a no-fly zone but a narrow “safe zone” along Syria’s border with Turkey, which would not involve any sorties to take out Assad’s air defence systems. Then the Obama administration came right out with it. Ankara’s push for a no-fly zone that covers a third of Syria was a “nonstarter” because it would “constitute an act of war against the Assad regime“! Indeed, the White House “remain[s] distrustful of Turkey’s desire to draw the United States into a direct confrontation with Assad.” Officially, the U.S. is already in such a confrontation: as is easily forgotten, the Obama administration’s stated Syria policy is regime-change. Yet when asked to do something that enacts that policy, that actually threatens to damage—perhaps mortally—the Assad regime, Obama will not pull the trigger. Obama’s real Syrian “red line” thus transpired to be anything that threatens the survival of the Assad regime, providing the Syrian dictator a de facto U.S. security guarantee. Worse, this was publicly advertised, to allies and (supposed) enemies alike.
In his State of the Union address on January 20, President Obama claimed that too hard a line with Iran in the nuclear negotiations—namely if Congress passes into law sanctions that are activated by Iran refusing to sign a final deal to dismantle its nuclear-weapons program by July—it would be “alienating America from its allies” by convincing them that America was the cause of diplomacy failing. This is decidedly not what America’s Middle Eastern allies, nor most of her European allies, are actually worried about; quite the reverse. The U.S.’s newfound closeness to Iran is what has alienated America’s traditional allies in the region. In October, Vice President Joseph Biden even declared that in Syria “our biggest problem was our allies,” a problem that now seems to be taking care of itself. Without American support, U.S. allies began pursuing their own strategies.
In Turkey’s case this included allowing Salafi jihadists to transit their territory. In the summer of 2012, Assad downed a Turkish jet—as clear a trigger as there could have been for a NATO collective response—but instead Turkey, whose Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had so dramatically broken with Assad, found himself alone and twisting in the wind as Assad unleashed terrorism against Turkey, and domestic trouble began to surface, from an anti-interventionist population and sectarianism related to the refugees. Turkey is now only going to sign onto a Syria strategy that explicitly includes Assad’s removal and is assured of America seeing it through. Otherwise, Ankara will merely do the “bare minimum to get America off its back“.
Israel’s capacity to influence events in Syria is limited but she has supported elements of the nationalist opposition to protect her border, if nothing else, and taken action when necessary to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles to terrorist groups like the Hizballah. After an initial split in the Israeli elite, with some seeing Assad—who himself recently pointed out that the regime had not allowed an attack across the border since 1974—as the better bet, some seeing Syria’s internal turmoil as best for Israel, and others seeing Iran’s tributaries (including Assad) as most threatening to Israel, Jerusalem has in effect picked the latter option. The recent strike into the Golan Heights that killed senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) Brigadier General Mohamad Ali Allahdadi and a number of important Hizballah commanders, including Abu Ali Tabatabai, Mohammed Issa, and Jihad Mughniyeh, marked a serious escalation because just a few days before Hizballah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah had tried to establish the Golan and southern Lebanon as one front, saying the Hizballah would “consider … any strike against Syria … a strike against the whole of the Resistance Axis”. Israel’s strike was in part a refutation of this claim to deterrence, to inform the Hizballah and their Iranian masters that Israel would not countenance them controlling a second border and would not be restrained from visiting a devastating response for any attack on Israel. It was also a message to the United States: the Iran détente will not come at the expense of Israel’s security. America might now be a diplomatic conduit for the IRGC, but Israel will continue to kill IRGC personnel she sees as a threat. Hizballah’s attack on the IDF in the Shebaa farms yesterday morning is no doubt partly a face-saving revenge attack and partly to test what the rules-of-engagement are: this is why Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s call for Israel to respond “harshly and disproportionately” is (for once) justified.
The Saudis engaged in an unprecedented public spat with Washington at the end of 2013, which included refusing a seat on the U.N. Security Council and writing op-eds saying Riyadh would act “with or without the support of our Western partners” to do what had to be done in Syria. In late summer 2014, however, as intervention in Syria finally loomed, the Saudis adopted a much more conciliatory tone to try to remove from Obama his pretexts for hostility to Riyadh, and with the Obama commitment to a moderate opposition, the Saudis believe they have secured American support for an armed force inside Syria the logic of which is inexorable—eventually the U.S. will see that Assad has to go. Time will tell, but Saudi hopes seem quite likely to go unfulfilled.
The United Arab Emirates have also taken this dual-track approach: full participation in the U.S. anti-I.S. operation, gaining itself the nickname “Little Sparta,” while releasing a quite hysterical terrorism list, which included eighty-three organisations, some wholly peaceful, but also, notably, nine Iranian proxy organisations, a shot across the bows to Washington that it didn’t like U.S. collaboration with these forces on the ground in the region.
It was not just allies in the region who have been alienated by Obama’s pro-Iran tilt in Syria. Obama’s retreat on the chemical weapons “red line” damaged U.S. relations with France. President Francois Hollande had jets on the runway ready to go on Aug. 31, 2013, when Obama threw the matter to Congress. Hollande needed a lightning strike to punish the dictator and avoid the furies of a deeply anti-American population; apologising is always easier than asking permission. Instead, Obama insisted the strikes were “not time-sensitive,” and made Hollande look like a plaything—not a risk Hollande will take again. France now pursues its own policy in Syria.
Gulf States see Iran’s asymmetric capabilities, their subversion and terrorism, as the main problem—one the nuclear-weapons program is supposed to buttress. The Gulfies’ softer tone was induced not only by a change of tactic but by a messaging campaign from the White House—of which Biden’s statement was the end-point—accusing the Gulf States and Turkey of supporting the terrorism of al-Qaeda and its off-shoots in Syria, thus throwing America’s allies on the defensive. Meanwhile, Iran was presented as a partner in battling this terrorism—even if Iran’s instruments were U.S.-designated terrorist groups that had killed American soldiers. Only Sunni terrorism seemed to count.
Appearing in the January 25 print edition of the New York Times, the editorial read like a press release from the White House. In language eerily reminiscent of senior Obama administration officials in their more candid moments, the Times declared, “The idea of a capable force of ‘moderate’ Syrians that can overthrow Mr. Assad has proved to be a fantasy,” and “the greater threat now is not Mr. Assad but the Islamic State”. The dictator had clung on, the Times said, and now “the United States and its allies are going to have to live with him”. The “no good options” canard, used to advocate staying out, which is a de facto pro-Iran/Assad policy, was reliably rolled out by the Times. To present the conflict as “too complex or dissonant to Western interests” was one of the Assad regime’s strategies from the start, as defectors have explained. The whole “Arab Spring” was written off as more trouble than it was worth, and the Times backed the idea of localised ceasefires—a plan that has been advanced by the Obama administration before now through deniable surrogates. The local ceasefires in the Damascus suburbs and elsewhere have proven to be regime victories by another name, and the present U.N. proposal for a “freeze” in Aleppo would not only lock in the regime’s advances in the province, but would free up regime forces to do what the regime really wants to do: finish with the nationalist rebels, especially in areas like Deraa. The Times also worried that Assad’s fall would unravel the regime—as indeed it would—”depriving Syria of its remaining state institutions and creating more space for the Islamic State and other extremists to spread mayhem”. Sounds reasonable, except when it is actually considered what this means: that if the regime responsible for more than eighty percent of the civilian casualties is removed, things will get worse. The same regime that has overseen the killing of 400,000 Syrians. It seems unlikely. Further, the question of Syria’s State institutions is a dead-letter: by March 2013 they had “already failed“. Undeterred by these logical and factual problems, the Times presses on to note—correctly—the de facto alliance of U.S. fighter jets and the Assad regime in Syria, but calls for the U.S. to make this collaboration “formal”. This is presented in the language of anguished realism: the pragmatics simply dictate that the West is “forced to work with Mr. Assad”.
This is hardly the Obama administration’s first public—albeit deniable—airing of its view that the Iran/Assad regime is the lesser-evil in Syria. Leslie Gelb has waged a spirited guerrilla campaign from the pages of The Daily Beast since January 2014 encouraging the Obama administration’s “joining hands with Assad”—and encouraging the rebellion to do the same—against the “much larger” danger of the Islamic State. In October 2014, Gelb quite outdid himself when he said that not only was working with Assad and Iran a strategic necessity but it would “lessen the humanitarian nightmare in Syria.” In January 2015, Gelb relieved himself of the view that the steps already taken toward cooperation between the U.S. and Iran in Syria “don’t go nearly far enough“: such “tentativeness” in embracing a blood-soaked despot was ruining the chances for a “winning strategy,” Gelb said. We need Assad’s ground troops, Gelb insists, wholly missing the point that Assad really doesn’t have any ground troops worth the name, and the sectarian killer brigades Assad does have at his disposal are the problem to begin with—the one thing that will ensure local Sunni populations side with the Islamic State.
More directly, in July 2014, a “senior Obama administration official” told Josh Rogin that “[a]nyone calling for regime change in Syria is frankly blind to the past decade”. By that time, a year after the stand-down from the proposed airstrikes against the regime, the U.S. was already in a de facto partnership with Assad to get rid of the chemical weapons: the U.S. needed Assad in power to oversee the removal—which was among the reasons Assad ensured that that process never finished. But rather than learn from that experience—let alone the conduct of the regime—”Some in the Obama administration wonder privately whether his Shiite-linked regime backed by Iran is the only force capable of defeating Islamic State.” This is exactly wrong.
To defeat the Islamic State, the U.S. needs moderate Sunni allies, and maintaining a moderate Sunni coalition against the I.S. therefore requires a strategic commitment to overthrow Bashar al-Assad—even if the time-frame is less-than-immediate. No Syrian (or Iraqi) Sunni is going to turn on the I.S. if they are convinced the alternative is sectarian domination by Iran, which is behaving towards Sunnis in Iraq and Syria as the I.S. is behaving towards Alawis, Christians, Yazidis, and non-takfiri Sunnis across the Fertile Crescent. The U.S. siding with Iran to defeat the I.S. is thus a non-starter as a policy, leading to more killing and chaos. Yet this is what President Obama has done in Iraq and Syria.
In September, Naame Shaam put out a report that provided ample evidence of Iran’s seizure of the Syrian State through its own IRGC, its Hizballah cut-out, the foreign Shi’ite jihadists, and its command of the NDF. The report noted that the IRGC had run a vigorous counterintelligence operation within the regime to prevent anybody cutting a deal with the Gulf States or the West to pull the rug out from under Bashar. Further evidence of this surfaced recently, suggesting that the July 2012 bombing that killed several senior regime personnel, most notably Assef Shawkat, was orchestrated by Iran as part of its taking control in Syria since Shawkat indicated a willingness to accommodate the rebels.
The report also noted that Iran’s fingerprints are all over the regime’s use of provocation to defeat the insurgency. The idea behind provocation is easy: take control of your enemies and get them to defeat themselves. This often involves penetrating enemy ranks—as it did in Algeria, as defectors have explained, and Chechnya, where Russian intelligence perfected techniques they have now passed on to Bashar—but it can also mean acts of commission and omission to set the conditions where enemies fall into self-defeating behaviour. In Syria, the evidence of the regime manipulating the Salafi jihadists is simply overwhelming—and behind the regime stands Iran. One way of manipulating the insurgency has been that the Assad/Iran regime focussed unmercifully on the moderates, but more or less left the Salafi jihadists alone: just six percent of the regimes attacks between November 2013 and November 2014 were directed against the Islamic State—and only thirteen percent of the I.S.’s attacks in the same period were directed at the regime. The Assad/Iran idea was to make this war a binary choice, Bashar or the Takfiris, sure that the West would choose Bashar, a nasty but minority-protecting dictator—even if he had had to endanger the minorities in the first place and use them as human shields—and the U.S. has walked into this trap with the strikes in Syria that it has told Iran will “not target” Assad.
While Assad has begun bombing the Islamic State in eastern Syria, he only began in June 2014 after the I.S. overran Mosul and threatened Iran’s client government in Baghdad, and even then Assad’s air force mostly murdered civilians. This was mostly a public-relations strategy: Look at me, it said, I am your ally in the War on Terror. But of course Assad/Iran was the reason the terrorism problem was so bad to begin with, both the sectarian repression that deliberately sparked a counter-part and then helping strengthen the Salafi jihadists against the moderates in the insurgency. The attempt by Assad/Iran to extract concessions on the nuclear front for allowing the U.S. to defeat Salafi jihadists that are more of a threat to Iran’s client governments than the West at this point, while Iran is actually strengthening these forces, suggests that a rethink of strategy is in order.
The Iran détente’s two central beliefs—that Iran opposes Sunni jihadism and has an interest in regional stability—are terribly mistaken. A degree of chaos is good for Iran—and the I.S.’s “Jihadistan” is a godsend. Whatever Iraqi Shi’ites and Syrian Alawites feel about the Iranian colonisation of their countries, with the only alternative being people who have declared them heretics fit for slaughter, now is not the moment for dissent; Iran’s allies are made much more pliant by the Takfiri Caliphate bearing down on them. And under the cover of this war, and with the pretence of a common enemy that has secured U.S. support, Iran is consolidating control of Iraq and already has control of Syria.
It was the great misfortune of the Arabs that the “Arab Spring” went off on Obama’s watch. Obama came into office convinced that the U.S. had “over-invested in … the Middle East.” There would be a “pivot,” or—when that seemed to suggest moving away from the Middle East to the Far East, while the U.S. ostensibly maintained her global responsibilities—a “rebalancing”. The Obama administration has been a curious mix of realpolitik and liberal internationalism. While allowing itself to be bound by the United Nations, the administration has declared ideology—which is to say the moral dimension to foreign policy—”so yesterday“. This is why the President’s supportive rhetoric toward the Arab uprisings always sounded so uneasy and his supportive actions, like Libya, were always so half-hearted. Obama was always in a haste to change the subject (usually to Israel-Palestine). Obama’s disparaging Syria’s conflict as “someone else’s war” was much more on-message—as was his straw-man that he had resisted demands (made by exactly nobody) to put ground troops into Syria. The President’s decision to see Syria as a strategic asset to be handed to Iran as part of a deal to prevent an Iranian nuclear breakout during his term in office, occurs against this intellectual backdrop.
Iran now transfers weapons to Assad and the Hizballah inside Syria “daily,” and has seized control of the Syrian State: the sectarian militia, the NDF, which is all that is left of the State, is under Iranian command. Iran has been allowed to import Iraqi and other foreign Shi’ite militias, which are every bit as fanatical and anti-American as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, into Syria in their thousands, and receive no push-back. Indeed, it is U.S. allies, Israel most clearly, that have acted to blunt this threat of an Iranian colony on Europe’s borders. Obama’s hesitation in helping the Syrian rebellion relied to a considerable extent on the spectre that weapons would get to Salafi jihadists. This concern noticeably does not apply in Iraq. Weaponry supplied to the Iraqi army, which the U.S. has “insisted … act as the conduit for any new aid and armaments” for the anti-I.S. fight, has “already ended up … in the hands of Islamic State“. When the I.S. conquered Mosul in June 2014, it looted untold amounts of heavy weaponry from the Iraqi army (and turned those weapons on the Syrian rebellion.) It also has to be pointed out that U.S. weapons have ended up in the hands of Iranian proxy groups like Kataib Hizballah, a U.S.-designated terrorist group, which openly fights alongside the Iraqi army. Yet Obama does not want to cut the Iraqi army adrift. This means the worry about weapons going astray is not the main consideration. What binds these decisions—never seriously helping the Syrian rebellion and continuing to supply an Iraqi government under effective Iranian control—is that they tilt in Iran’s favour. This process has been completed with the U.S. airstrikes against the I.S. and al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria, which have made the U.S. into Iran’s de facto air force, coordinating the air attacks with forces on the ground under commanded by Iran’s Quds Force, also a U.S.-designated terrorist organisation.
A major correction needed in the U.S. policy is to start viewing Iraq and Syria as one conflict, and to abandon the Iraq-first approach: there is no time to degrade the I.S. in Iraq and then turn to Syria because the most pressing issue is to prevent the fall of Aleppo City to the combined assault of I.S. and Assad. If Aleppo falls it would lead to the destruction of the nationalist rebels, meaning Assad/Iran will not only have succeeded in making this a binary choice between I.S. and Assad, but it will mean the U.S. has to go it alone. Assad/Iran not only do not want to but cannot destroy the Islamic State because rooting the I.S. out requires moderate Sunnis, both within Syria and Iraq and in the region, and Assad/Iran cannot secure this cooperation. The U.S. cannot long tolerate a terrorist safe haven on the borders of NATO, but the belief that replacing Salafi jihadists with Khomeini’ist jihadists will improve the situation verges on idiocy. Iran is not only a much larger threat in itself than the I.S. and al-Qaeda, but Iran’s actions, by commission and omission, ensure that the I.S. and al-Qaeda survive. The U.S. has marshalled allies for the airstrikes against the I.S. but the pro-Iran tilt has alienated all of the U.S.’s regional allies, the most important in Syria being Turkey, without which the Coalition to defeat terrorism is fundamentally hollow, and without a commitment to Assad’s downfall Turkey will not act in Syria. This will eventuate with a massive, unilateral U.S. action, when a smaller, earlier action would have had more allies in support and would have achieved a much better outcome.