Syria: The Hidden Power of Iran

Syria: The Hidden Power of Iran


Despite his largely symbolic strike on a Syrian airfield in response to the April 4 nerve gas attack by the Assad regime, President Donald Trump has given no serious indication that he wants to make a broader intervention in Syria. As a candidate, and even as a president, Trump has pledged to leave the region to sort out its own troubles, apart from a stepped-up effort to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS). He may quickly learn, though, that one-off military actions driven by domestic politics have a way of turning into something far more substantial.

Syria: The Hidden Power of Iran
Syria: The Hidden Power of Iran

Already, tensions with Syria’s close ally, Russia, have been escalating, with little sign that the US administration can bring about a change toward Damascus. Bashar al-Assad long ago learned he can operate with impunity. But even larger questions surround another Assad ally, Iran, which, though less conspicuous, has had a crucial part in the changing course of the war and in the overall balance of power in the region. While the Trump administration regards Iran as enemy, it has yet to articulate a clear policy toward it—or even to take account of its growing influence in Iraq and Syria.

If the Syrian leader ignores the warning conveyed by the Tomahawk missile strike, what will be Trump’s next move? Will he be able to resist the temptation to deepen US involvement in Syria to counter a resurgent Iran? How might this affect the battle against the Islamic State—a battle that has already created an intricate power struggle between the many parties hoping to enjoy the spoils?

Consider the array of forces now in play: in Syria, the war on ISIS has been led by Syrian Kurds affiliated with the PKK, the militant Kurdish party in Turkey, which is also in conflict with the Turkish state—another US ally.  In Iraq, there are the peshmerga, the fighters of a rival Kurdish party, who are competing both with the PKK and with Iraqi Shia militias for control over former ISIS territory. There is Turkey, an avowed enemy of Assad that is currently at war with the PKK and its Syrian affiliates, and has moved troops into both northern Syria and northern Iraq in order to thwart the PKK. There is Russia, which, in intervening on behalf of Assad, has created a major shift in the conflict.

And finally, there is Iran, which has made various alliances with Assad, Shia militias, and Kurdish groups in an effort to expand its control of Iraq and, together with Hezbollah, re-establish a dominant position in the Levant. Moreover, Iran has also benefited from another tactical, if unofficial, alliance—with the United States itself, in their efforts to defeat ISIS in neighboring Iraq.

Given all this, the US strike does nothing so much as complicate an already explosive situation. The loudest cheerleader of Trump’s action last week was Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has been especially concerned as Iran and its ally Hezbollah benefit from their tactical military alliance with Russia to prop up the Syrian regime. But whatever advantages some may see in the recent US stand against Assad, it makes it even less likely that a stable postwar order can be achieved.

As my own trip to northern Iraq and northern Syria last month revealed, even as the international coalition makes major gains against the Islamic State, the region’s crises are multiplying. Worse, they are also, increasingly, intersecting, sucking in outside powers with a centrifugal force that has proved impossible to withstand.

Four years since its emergence in eastern Syria and subsequent lightning conquest of western Iraq, ISIS is quickly losing ground. After months of encirclement by coalition forces, backed by the airpower of the US, ISIS now finds itself increasingly overwhelmed in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and once one of the group’s strongholds. Its fighters are exhausted, its ranks depleted, but its remaining forces are clearly prepared to fight to the bitter end. The battle for Mosul has caused high casualties on both sides and especially among trapped civilians, including from American bombings in the old city’s dense warren of streets and alleyways. It has also caused extensive destruction, though important infrastructure has mostly been left intact: the power and water supply, as well as the cell phone network, still function. As Iraqi army and elite US-trained counter-terrorism forces push deeper into the old city, they take neighborhoods street by street. Civilians adapt, moving their markets on both sides of the line accordingly as it creeps northward.

It is striking that, throughout the region, both states and non-state groups like ISIS and the Kurds draw on language of encirclement and victimhood in their struggles for power. Perceptions can often count more than reality, leading to tensions and military actions that might otherwise be easily avoided. For example, Saudi Arabia sees a revolutionary and ascendant Iran gaining power and increasingly encircling it, in a region the Saudis thought they dominated—in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen, the Red Sea. As a result, Saudi leadership has not only backed various rebel groups fighting the Assad regime, but also launched a war against the Houthis in Yemen—which it regards as proxies of Iran.

For its part, Iran says it is surrounded by pro-American states—including Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, Afghanistan, Turkey, and, further afield, Israel—which are intent on keeping it isolated and under sanctions, and preventing it from fulfilling its enormous potential. Meanwhile, it fears being cut off from its ally Hezbollah in Lebanon in a post-Assad Syria.

The human cost of these rivalries has been extraordinary. Over 3.3 million people are currently displaced in Iraq, a population that suffers from shortages of food, clothes, shelter, and basic services while contending with a variety of forces hostile to them. In Mosul, another major threat to civilian life is the Mosul dam just upstream on the Tigris, which has been dangerously weakened by structural flaws and years of neglect. It has held while engineers feverishly add grout to all the necessary places. Those with knowledge of the matter anxiously watch the sky, praying for no rain: it takes a damaging drought to prevent a killer flood.

Meanwhile, a new set of conflicts may be about to begin. These are of two kinds. The first kind of conflict is a political and sectarian one. The various forces aligned against ISIS know that they can defeat the group on the battlefield. But they lack the tools to suppress “Daeshism,” the group’s ideology (after Daesh, the way the group is referred to in Arabic), which will remain attractive to Sunni Muslims as long as they feel politically excluded and as long as the various powers in the region continue to exploit sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shia.

Moreover, since ISIS is in many ways an Iraqi organization—its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdad is an Iraqi, and a number of its senior commanders (many now dead) served in the Saddam regime’s security services—the challenge of Daeshism will be most acutely felt in Iraq. The problem is all the more intractable given that Shia Islamist parties dominate the government in Baghdad, and the offensive against Mosul was largely spearheaded by Iran-backed Shia militias, notwithstanding the fact that the local population in Mosul and surrounding areas are overwhelmingly Sunni. These militias are more powerful than the army and have become a virtual state within a state.

Already, local ISIS recruits are blending in with civilians who are taking refuge in camps—lying low, waiting for more opportune times. This threat could be addressed, in part, by giving local Sunni populations a say in municipal councils and by giving local and federal forces joint control of security, but few Iraqi politicians in Baghdad have demonstrated either aptitude or appetite for such an inclusive approach. Instead, they and the militias they support (and that effectively control them) seem motivated by revenge, and so the problem of Daeshism will fester. ISIS remnants will continue to create havoc at every opportunity, and one can expect there will be many. This is a challenge in Syria as much as it is in Iraq: many of the people living in areas vacated by ISIS reject the alternative, be it rule by the central government or by Shia or various Kurdish militias. This will enable ISIS fighters, currently hiding out in plain sight, to make a comeback if fighting continues among the various contenders for power.

These local conflicts are cross-cut by the standoff, mainly rhetorical but fought by proxy, and involving nuclear politics, between Israel and Iran. “It’s like a game of Risk,” an academic and political go-between in northern Syria told my colleagues and me last month. To forestall an Israeli attack on its nuclear program or an attempt at regime change in Tehran, Iran has long backed regional proxies that extend its power across the region. Foremost among these is Hezbollah, the Lebanese “Party of God,” which has been an integral part of what Iran calls its “forward defense,” taking the place of missiles that could effectively target Israel, which Tehran still lacks. Through Hezbollah, Iran can use Lebanon as a launching pad within fifty miles of major Israeli cities.

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