June 4, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: Iran and the Islamic State Act in Parallel
In his comments at a conference in Doha yesterday, General John Allen, the official U.S. envoy to the international coalition against the lslamic State, made some acute observations about the difficulties facing the U.S. and its allies in Iraq and Syria. He acknowledged that even if one saw things improving, it would still take a generation or more to defeat the Islamic State—and it would depend on the Sunnis of the area rather than the Shi’a to do so. Meeting at the same time, a high-level conference in Paris attended by members of the anti-Islamic State coalition and including the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, painted an even more gloomy picture, producing a stark lack of new ideas coupled with a general air of despair.
The situation is certainly bad, but one of the problems of the coalition lies in the very fact of it being a coalition. No one member has the authority to run the campaign without taking into account the timetable, capacity, and appetite for risk of its other members. By contrast, the Islamic State has been able to dictate the time and place of its clashes with enemies, despite an air campaign that U.S. officials claim has killed 10,000 of its troops—and must therefore have left many more incapacitated. In a matter of days, the Islamic State has been able to open fronts hundreds of miles apart in Ramadi, Palmyra, and then north of Aleppo, striking where it sees opportunity and displaying impressive logistical ability in the process.
The most effective counterweight to the Islamic State is Iran, which is not part of the coalition and therefore also has the advantage of being able to intervene wherever and in whatever manner it deems appropriate. In the process, like the Islamic State, Iran has also built an impressive capacity to operate on several fronts at once and display the strength of its logistics. Iran has not only provided arms and money to the Iraqi and Syrian governments, it has also supplied military force, and it has done so in a way that is likely to ensure its influence in the region at least for as long as the Islamic State survives.
Iran has exerted and consolidated its influence in very much the same way the U.S. did during its occupation of Iraq, though with all the advantages of shorter supply lines, a deeper cultural understanding, and a vastly greater number of local supporters. Iran now dominates political and military planning in both Syria and Iraq. In Syria in particular it can call the shots because without its military and financial support, Assad would be finished. Assad may think that Iran is equally dependent on his survival to protect its own crucial interests in Lebanon and the region more broadly, but this would be a miscalculation. The Iranian leadership will have no sentimental attachments to Assad, and if it can better protect its interests without him, it will be the first to push him out. In Iraq, Iran has a natural influence through powerful Shi'a leaders who have a strong affinity for the country. Its position is unchallenged and unchallengeable.
But beyond fostering dependency in the two countries reinforced by cultural and sectarian links, Iran has established more tangible levers of control that extend its influence regardless of who is in power. With the help of Hizballah, which is as dependent on Iran as Assad and Abadi are, Iran has built a three-layered military presence. First, the regular armies of Syria and Iraq are dominated by people trained in Iran or who have strong connections with the country and are willing to take its advice; second, through the Popular Mobilization Units (Hashd al-Shaabi), which bring together a broad collection of Shi’a militia in Iraq, it has established a fighting force that is more effective than the Iraqi Army and will easily outmatch the Iraq National Guard or whatever other non-sectarian force the Iraqi government is able to cobble together (the concept of the Popular Mobilization Units is also operating in Syria as part of the pro-regime forces); and third, the Iranians have established militia groups that are equally deployable either side of the Iraq-Syria border and presumably could be sent further afield—for example to Lebanon or to Yemen, were the need to arise. Indeed in the Yemen and in the Lebanon border area similar structures are already emerging.
Therefore, Iran and the Islamic State both approach Iraq and Syria in the same way. In contrast to the coalition, they see it as a single battlefield requiring a single strategy. Both also recruit from a support base that extends well beyond the region, with, for example, Afghans and Pakistanis fighting with the Shi’a militia just as Saudis and Tunisians fight with the Islamic State. Both see the battle as a fight for long-term influence and expansion, not as one of temporary territorial gains and losses. Both have an advantage over the coalition in having a clear set of objectives they aim to achieve and of interests they wish to protect.
The politics of the region have changed, and although the future is still in the balance and will take a long time to become clear, one thing is obvious: for now at least, the power to shape events rests with those who take the initiative rather than those who aim to thwart them.
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