By Riad Kahwaji*
The West and its Arab allies must bridge the gap dividing their respective interests vis-à-vis Iran if any tangible progress is to be made in the war on terrorism. Although Arab countries appear to be on the same side as Iran in the war against the radical groups in Iraq and Syria, Iranian deployment of fighters in Iraq and Syria and its support for Houthi rebels in the ongoing Yemeni conflict portrays the wider regional dimension of Iran’s bid for greater influence in the Middle East. Arab leaders continue to perceive Tehran as a serious threat to the regional balance of power, preventing any genuine progress in the ongoing war on terrorism that has taken on an ethno-sectarian dimension.
The, once secret, presence of Iranian fighters in Syria and Iraq is now acknowledged by officials in Tehran and Baghdad who refer to them as “Iranian military advisors.” Iran has sent in several thousand Shiite Revolutionary Guard fighters into Iraq and Syria to fight the predominantly Sunni radical groups. Even though the Western capitals may not have welcomed Iran in the fight on the Alliance’s side, they appear to tolerate it and have, however obliquely, provided air support for Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops fighting alongside Iraqi troops and Shiite militias on several occasions. Photos of the commander of the Al Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), General Qassem Suleimani, on the frontlines in Iraq have been widely circulated on social media platforms and one of Suleimani’s senior officers, General Hamid Taqawi, was recently killed by an ISIS sniper in Iraq. Scores of IRGC fighters were killed in Syria fighting alongside the troops of the Syrian regime.
The Syrian revolution has, in the past 4 years, evolved into a sectarian war between the predominantly Sunni rebels and the mostly Alawite troops of the Syrian regime, Iran’s strategic all y. ISIS and Al Qaeda groups broke ranks with the Syrian rebels and the war in Syria has become a conflict between a multitude of players on various fronts, primarily between rebels and the Syrian regime, and between ISIS and both the moderate rebels and the Syrian regime. Al Qaeda-affiliated groups have also clashed with both ISIS and some of the moderate rebel groups associated with the West.
Arab officials from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates attending the Manama Dialogue last December repeatedly voiced their resentment for the presence of IRGC fighters in Iraq and Syria, and warned against the hidden agenda of Tehran in spreading its influence throughout the region. Western officials at the Manama Dialogue either ignored the Arab concerns or played them down, which proves there is a split between the allies on the role of Iran in the war on terrorism and how to deal with Shiite militiamen and IRGC fighters engaged in what is clearly a sectarian war in Iraq and Syria. Various reports have emerged out of Syria and Iraq about villages and towns being cleansed on a sectarian basis by Shiite fighters affiliated with Iran. Meanwhile, efforts by Washington to mobilize Arab Sunni tribes in Iraq against ISIS are yet to be implemented despite repeated statements by American and Iraqi officials about the importance of Sunni tribes in winning the war on the terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria.
Another major point of difference between the Western forces and their Arab allies is on how to deal with Syrian regime troops. While Arab countries plus Turkey have insisted that the only way to effectively fight and defeat ISIS in Syria is through weakening the Syrian regime’s military capabilities, Washington has so far refused to endorse any plan that would impose a no-fly zone or create safe zones in Syria that would allow moderate Syrian rebels to group and train to take on ISIS. Some U.S. officials who wished to remain anonymous stated that Washington wants to deny any action against Assad’s forces in order to avoid antagonizing Iran at a crucial phase of the nuclear talks with Tehran.
Over a year ago, Iran signed an interim agreement with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (G5+1) to impose some restrictions on its nuclear program in return for the partial lifting of economic sanctions on Iran. Washington is still hoping to reach a final agreement with Iran on its nuclear program despite the failure of recent attempts. U.S. President Barack Obama has reportedly sent a secret letter to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei offering U.S. support to Iran in the war on terrorist group in return for Tehran’s concessions on the nuclear file. This proves a hidden agenda by Washington to collaborate with Iran in the war against Sunni radical groups without the knowledge of America’s Arab allies.
Arab Gulf countries are very suspicious of Western policies towards Iran. It appears that the West is allowing Iran to spread its influence in the region under the pretext of combating terrorism, while leaving the Iranian militarization of Shiites in the Arab world and beyond entirely unchecked.
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The recent major advancements made by the Iranian-backed Houthi forces, which is made up of Zaidis (a Shiite-offshoot group) in Yemen and clashing with Sunni tribes has increased the anxiety of Arab Gulf countries. The spread of Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq, Syria and Yemen have heightened sectarianism in the region. Moderate Arab countries which are endeavoring to contain the situation and subdue any local extremist elements and prevent them from joining ISIS or Al Qaeda, will find themselves losing this battle as Sunni communities become more self-mobilized and militarized. One recent example was the two Lebanese suicide bombers who detonated their explosives in an Alawite neighborhood coffee shop in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli. The attack was claimed by Al Qaeda-affiliated group in Syria. While it was not the first suicide attack in Lebanon, it was the fifth one by Lebanese militants. The Lebanese Sunni community was long regarded as a moderate one, but now things are changing largely due to the growing influence of Iranian-backed Shiite groups in the region.
In Yemen, Al Qaeda elements have gained strength in recent weeks as a result of the Houthi offensive and are likely to regain territories once lost to the military in the south as a result of the sectarian war sweeping the country and the growing disintegration of armed forces along sectarian lines. Thusly, it is highly likely that some, if not all, of the Sunni tribes of Yemen will ally with Al Qaeda to fight off the Houthis, which will eventually complicate the ongoing war on terrorism.
The current lack of a comprehensive strategy by the West and the split with their Arab allies on how to conduct this war will only strengthen both Iran and the extremist Sunni forces. While daily airstrikes by the International and Arab Alliance are slowly degrading the capabilities of ISIS, the ideology of the extremist group maintains its appeal and is able to recruit young men from thousands of miles away. While the Al Qaeda ideology strongly focuses on the threat of the Western Christian invaders, the ISIS ideology gives equal priority to the Persian-Shiite threat. A simple review of the ISIS language in their advanced propaganda machine reveals the level of emphasis given to what they refer to as Iranian “Safavid” and Shiite “Rawafed” threat. It is mentioned more than the Israeli threat and, at times, associated with it. Today, Iran is perceived by large swathes of the Sunni Arab world as a rising Western ally who is being allowed by the West to spread Shiite-Persian control of Arab-Sunni land.
The Arab Sunni masses hear their leaders speak about the Iranian threat as well as the threat of extremists. This is certainly creating confusion amongst the people on the street as they are trying to decide which group constitutes a greater threat: The extremist groups or the Shiite militias backed by Iran? Simple political logic dictates that Sunni extremist groups can only be defeated by moderate Sunni forces. Sending in Shiite militias to do the job is viewed with as much acrimony as sending in Western Christian forces. Also, political logic dictates that tackling a Sunni extremist group in a sectarian war environment, as is the case in Syria and Yemen requires first ending or subduing the civil war to enable the moderate Sunni or national forces to uproot the terrorists.
Continuing to ignore these facts will lead to a failed strategy in combating terrorism and subsequently a prolonged war with the extremists that will not be confined to the current battlefields of Syria, Iraq and Yemen, but will spill over across the Middle East and beyond. In short, Iran’s policy of exporting the revolution must be halted and Tehran must normalize ties with Arab Gulf countries in order for the Alliance to have a real chance of winning the war on terrorism. Anything short of this will lead to a long series of sectarian wars giving rise to the unabated spread of extremist groups.
*Riad Kahwaji, CEO, INEGMA