The town of Anna in Iraq’s Anbar province is dusty and hot most of the year. A recent photo after its liberation from Islamic State shows the local mosque with its iconic turquoise dome. So much dust has accumulated on the dome it is almost tan. The dome’s shape resembles the mosques of the Abbasid era, which were also the inspiration for the Al-Shaheed Monument in Baghdad. That monument, consisting of a giant turquoise dome, split in half, is supposed to commemorate Iraqis who died in the Iran-Iraq war and after.
With the war on the ISIS “caliphate” coming to an end in Iraq, many are wondering how many more shaheeds, or martyrs, will be swept up in the violence the country has faced going back decades. Thousands have died fighting ISIS but they are only a small fraction of the tens of thousands killed in the Middle East in the past few years, in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere. There are still thousands of Yazidi women, kidnapped by ISIS and sold into slavery in 2014, who have not been found. But there is a sense of an ending to regional instability that was unleashed by the Arab Spring in 2011.
In Syria the forces of the Bashar Assad regime, bolstered by Hezbollah and Iran’s Quds Force, defeated ISIS in Albu Kamal on November 20. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, in a speech that day, declared victory over the extremists.
Maj.-Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, congratulated Iranian leader Ayatollah Khamenei in a letter the next day.
From Beirut to Tehran the allies of Iran are feeling confident.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted on November 23 about Iranian President Hassan Rouhani meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi: “Historic summit with our counterparts from Russia and Turkey to help Syrian people finally secure a just and lasing peace. Moving in the right direction.” He said Iran was “working for peace and against terror.”
Iran’s posturing as the responsible country seeking “peace” and fighting “terror” belies its actual role in the region. Although Iran has played what could be considered a positive role against the greater evil of ISIS, it is not the peaceful player it seeks to portray itself as.
In Iraq the Iranian-backed militias of Hashd al-Shaabi commit abuses against the Sunni Arab population and have been responsible for around 160,000 Kurds fleeing the areas around Kirkuk after Iraq seized oil fields from the Kurdistan Regional Government.
In Syria, according to an October 2017 report by Human Rights Watch, Iran has sent child soldiers recruited from poor Shi’ite families in Afghanistan to fight on behalf of Assad. These tens of thousands of fighters, sent to join the Fatemiyoun Division, became cannon-fodder in a war they knew little about. Their parents received notice of their deaths, they became glorious “martyrs” for a cause they had no stake in.
Closer to home, Hezbollah has sent hundreds to die in Syria, and used the Syrian adventure to pretend it is “shielding” Lebanon from “extremism” or what Nasrallah terms “takfiri terrorists.” A takfiri is a Muslim, usually a Sunni, who accuses another Muslim of being an apostate.
Nasrallah is correct that Lebanon is threatened by Sunni jihadists, like ISIS. But the role of sectarian Shi’ite militias like Hezbollah, the Hashd al-Shaabi or Fatemiyoun has only fueled the feeling that this is a religious war in the region. The triumphalism of Tehran in 2017 sends a message to the losers in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. And the losers are almost all Sunnis, whether it is the rebel groups who tried to topple Assad, the jihadists of ISIS or the wealthy elites like prime minister Saad Hariri in Lebanon.
THE MIDDLE East has gone through several grand alliances in the past hundred years since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. What emerged in 1918 initially was a European colonial state system that split the region into British and French mandates and spheres of influence.
Beyond that lay Persia (now Iran), of the Qajar dynasty until 1925, Atatürk’s Turkey which emerged in the early 1920s, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which was established in 1932.
In the 1950s the newly independent states of the region, such as Iraq and Syria, joined various alliances in the Cold War. Syria and Egypt went with the Soviets. The Baghdad Pact of 1955 knitted together Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan to stem the tide of Soviet Communism. What also united most of the Arab states in the region was opposition to Israel, including three major wars with the Jewish state. Palestinian terrorist groups were given succor by various regimes, such as Nasser’s Egypt and Assad’s Syria, and they fueled instability and civil conflict in Jordan and Lebanon in the 1970s.
After 1979 things shifted again with the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the growth of Islamic terrorism in the region. Add to that toxic mix the Gulf War of 1991, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Arab Spring of 2011, and the region has been fractured again and again by these waves of upheaval.
In many ways what we are seeing today is a quest for stability after all this chaos. The 2017 Riyadh summit, which included the Arab Islamic American Summit where US President Donald Trump, Saudi King Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, among others, pledged to combat extremism, is symbolic of the quest for stability.
This stability of course comes through authoritarianism and top-down initiatives that seek to isolate, detain and neutralize terrorists. It also envisions major educational and religious initiatives in Egypt and the Saudi kingdom to provide “correct” teaching from the minbar (mosque pulpit).
At the same time the Iranians are also seeking out allies.
Since July’s Qatar crisis, in which Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt cut relations with Qatar, Iran has been able to draw several Sunni states into its orbit. Saudi Arabia and the UAE accuse Qatar of funding and supporting extremism, by which they mean Hamas, Hezbollah and other groups. Turkey is a close ally of Qatar and sent troops to defend the emirate. At the same time Turkey and Iran have grown closer over opposition to Kurdish independence in the wake of the independence referendum in September in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.
The Russia-Turkey-Iran trilateral meeting in Sochi on November 22 symbolized the quiet formation of a new bloc uniting these three countries and their allies.
The Americans for their part are caught in mid-stream in terms of policy in the region. US president Barack Obama sought to reverse decades of US status quo in the region by reaching out to Iran via secretary of state John Kerry.
He poured cold water on the Saudis and turned his back on Egypt. He also gave Israel “tough love,” the notion that the best policy to help Israel is the one that encourages Israel to make strides for peace.
Obama left office with these policies unfulfilled. Only the Iran deal had gone through, but Tehran was still burning American flags. Obama’s successor President Donald Trump has sought to reverse that policy, working with Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and talking tough on Iran.
However, Trump’s team in the region is still split between Obama-era officials such as Brett McGurk, the US special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, and new faces such as National Security Advisor H.R.
McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis.
CURRENT US policy is multi-headed. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wants compromise on the Qatar issue. Mattis is laying the groundwork for a long-term presence in Iraq and Syria. In an interview I did with the US coalition in November they asserted that training is shifting to do more police work and counter-terrorism in Iraq. After putting thousands of boots on the ground to fight ISIS, the US isn’t wrapping up shop. It has trained 124,000 Iraqi soldiers, including 22,000 Peshmerga, and wants to train more.
In Syria it is closely tied to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which defeated ISIS in Raqqa. This puts it at odds with Turkey, which sees the SDF as merely the latest face of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) which they see as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
As the US works on Iraq and Syria, McGurk’s main policy is to try to encourage Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to grow closer to the Saudis. However, at the Arab League meeting in mid-November in Cairo the Iraqis refused to condemn Hezbollah and Iran. The fact is that Iraq has incorporated Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias into its security forces, and is deeply influenced by Iran. Its top anti-ISIS militias commanders, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (whom the US views as a terrorist) and Hadi al-Amiri, were trained in Iran in the 1980s to fight Saddam Hussein.
This leaves Israel in a bind. Hezbollah has grown in influence over the past few years, even if it has suffered many casualties. Iran is closer to the Golan than at any time in history, having built a base south of Damascus only 50 km. from Israeli forces. Its “land corridor” through Iraq is a direct threat. The Saudis are attempting to roll back Hezbollah in Lebanon through their latest maneuvers with Saad Hariri and in Cairo, but they lack a way to make anything concrete happen.
Western countries refused to stand by the Kurdistan region in its dispute with Baghdad. The absence of a strong Western policy in the region and engagement means that the next round may hinge on what Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and Russia decide. In many ways this “after ISIS” period resembled 1945 in Europe. What happens now is the key to the region’s future.