by Henry Johnson
The group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS), beyond its doctrinaire propaganda and lurid beheadings, is beginning to uproot the foundations of order in the Middle East, and the United States has decided to not sit idly by. In conjunction with an airstrike campaign of uncertain value in Syria, President Obama has gained congressional authority for the equally dubious plan of arming and training moderate Syrian rebels in order to wage counteroffensives specifically against IS (aka ISIL or ISIS). For every recruit this moderate force picks up, IS will surely double that number as long as Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad stays in power. The incineration of civilians by his barrel bombs, the rape of Syrian women by pro-Assad militants, and America’s seeming unwillingness to do anything has produced despairing conditions in which segments of the Syrian population welcome or at least tolerate the rule of a group like IS. Assad has also so far refused to resign or share power, thereby sabotaging past attempts to solve the crisis politically. His uncompromising position and aptitude for merciless civilian targeting has at once derailed diplomatic efforts and radicalized Syrians. To stabilize the country, the US must convince Iran to end its support for the regime, support which, under close examination, is less than assured. Indeed, Iran has structured its outsized involvement in Syria by decentralizing power away from Assad while nonetheless strengthening his regime. This strategy has given Tehran the option of eventually discarding Assad without forfeiting instruments of power.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has mobilized a network of Shia militias to intervene in Syria. Calling upon Hezbollah, as well as smaller yet no less deadly militias from Iraq, Iran bolstered Assad’s military in time for IS and other extremist rebels to fracture the opposition and retard its momentum. This militant network answers to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and, under his jurisprudence and the patronage of the IRGC, fights for a Shia cause quite distinct from Assad. This strategy has safeguarded Iran’s power in the country without tying it to the Assad government, resulting in significant space for diplomatic maneuvering. Iran spent years refining this strategy in Iraq, where it built small, highly loyal militias to drive Iranian interests in the country without committing it to any one particular Iraqi party. This enabled Iran to engineer the election of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, finesse his resignation, indirectly attack US forces, and unofficially support US airstrikes this August. Iran will abandon Assad if the US can guarantee its interests better than the Syrian leader.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani intimated as much in a speech at the recent United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). President Rouhani proposed as leaders of a coalition against extremism certain “moderate politicians” in the region, who “are neither anti-Western nor pro-Western…They do not absolve the West from its misdeeds, but are also aware of their own failings.” He added, “The right solution to this quandary comes from within the region…with international support.” His conciliatory tone transcended the conventionally rancorous discourse vis-à-vis the West of post-revolution political elites in Iran. Significantly, he did not so much as mention the Syrian government, let alone present it as integral to a successful anti-IS campaign. This omission demonstrated Iran’s growing detachment from the Assad regime. By contrast, in his bristling UNGA speech, Russia’s foreign minister spared no sentence in censuring US policies and insisted, “the struggle against terrorists in the territory of Syria should be structured in cooperation with the Syrian government.”
However important an anti-IS campaign is to its security, Iran’s conflicted political establishment might rebuff an invitation to join the US-led fight. In a blustery interview with state-run television, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei divulged that US State Department officials had privately asked Iran to join the coalition—a claim denied by the US—and proudly iterated the government’s negative reply. His statements may form part of a negotiating strategy to link Iranian assistance in regional security to more favorable terms on Iran’s nuclear program. Or they may reflect Khamenei’s fear that the US will ultimately turn its rebel allies in the Free Syrian Army against Assad without consulting the Islamic Republic. Although defending Assad is Iran’s default position, even the IRGC commanders advising him must question the utility of his hollowed state apparatus and tattered military; they cannot endlessly compensate for his losses. At this point, Iran presumably pursues two strategic goals in Syria—arresting the growth of extremist Sunni ideologies (i.e. IS) and preserving convenient access to Hezbollah through partial territorial control of the country. Under the rising political and financial costs of propping up a regime increasingly unable to achieve either goal, Iran will look more favorably in the coming year upon cooperating with the US and reaching a settlement with the moderate opposition. If tacitly allowing Iran to preserve strategic options in Syria sounds unpalatable, one might consider the likelihood that Iran would rather burn the country to the ground than lose its foothold.
The Iranian government, steeped in a revolutionary legacy of anti-imperialism and enmity to the US, will never submit to a US-dominated framework addressing the volcanic problems of the Middle East. At best, the two powers can strike a détente, depending upon the outcome of nuclear negotiations. The timing for a minimal reconciliation between the US and Iran is, nevertheless, opportune. Mounting pressure in the US to pass off responsibility for regional order suggests so, demonstrated by public aversion to, first, humanitarian intervention in Syria and, second, to a US combat mission against IS. In order to successfully manage this trend, the US must include Iran in its plans for the future of Middle East security. To not do so risks engulfing the region in greater chaos. Barring Iran from any attempts to combat IS or depose Assad will only lead the country to operate independently and in opposition to those efforts. Such exclusion will exalt Assad’s value to the Iranians, prolonging his longevity and further embittering a Sunni population already preyed upon by IS and its lesser variants. As remote of a possibility as stability in Syria is, it will come at a price no lower than US-Iranian cooperation.
Henry Johnson is a writer and analyst of Middle East affairs with a focus on Iranian foreign policy and politics.
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