October 10, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Coalition Under Stress: Iran Won’t be Excluded

 As if sustaining an effective coalition against the anti-Islamic State coalition weren’t complicated enough, increasingly open Iranian support for Syrian and Iraqi Kurds has the potential to further destabilize the situation

• Geopolitical machinations have excluded Iran from the international coalition but geographical realities will ensure the country has a significant role to play in the future of both Iraq and Syria 

• Iran is seeking to leverage its support for the Kurds as a way to bolster its beleaguered ally in Damascus, Bashar al-Assad, and increase Iranian influence in Kurdish regions at the expense of Turkey and the West 

• Overt Iranian support for the Kurds—while reaffirming support for Assad—will further stress the coalition, inevitably increasing sectarian tensions among members already grumbling that Assad and not IS is the true enemy; all while the West remains focused on IS and how to avoid entanglement in Syria

• As a sign of Iran’s surprising Kurdish influence, Turkish and Iranian officials met on October 9 to discuss the unfolding events in Kobani, remarkable in that neither country is a member of the coalition but both hold most of the cards to resolve the immediate crisis.

It was never going to be easy, sustaining a coalition of regional and international nations arrayed against the so-called Islamic State (IS) while side-stepping the issues that gave rise to the terrorist group in the first place. Now adding to the extraordinarily complicated landscape is Iran, a regional power excluded from the coalition for geopolitical reasons but one that will inevitably play a major role in Iraqi and Syrian stability for geographical reasons.

With Turkey staying out of the fighting in the vital border town of Kobani, for various reasons, Iran is stepping into the void. This has the potential to set the ground for future conflict in ways perhaps not considered by the coalition. While the coalition’s ostensible focus is on ‘degrading and defeating’ IS, its members each have an eye on a different prize, and Iran seeks influence and allies above all.

As part of its outreach to besieged allies, both real and potential, Iran is showcasing its most feared and enigmatic official, Qasim Sulaymani, head of Iran’s Quds Force. Iranian state media recently released a photograph of the mysterious military leader meeting with Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga. The extent to which Iran has shown direct high-level cooperation with the Kurds both in Iraq and Syria is remarkable.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Marzieh Afkham said on October 7 that Iran will work with the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad to aid “residents and refugees” in the Kobani area. This is a notable statement in that Kobani is nowhere near Iranian or Assad areas of control and suggests perhaps additional support is in the works. Iranian newspapers have also called for more direct Iranian military support to help Syrian Kurds.

Iran is playing up this potential support in order to strike a contrast with Turkey’s calculated hesitation. In doing so, Iran hopes to spin off the best fighters in Syria and Iraq from the Western-led coalition. While the Iraqi Kurds still have deep and lasting ties to the West and the United States in particular, Syrian Kurds do not, and Iranian overtures will be readily accepted if IS continues to advance while the coalition avoids deeper conflict. Assad will further highlight his support for the Kurds in order to drive a wedge between coalition members who are loath to aid him in any way.

Key coalition countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates agree on the danger posed by IS but see Iranian regional influence as a greater threat. Were Iran to more openly aid the Syrian Kurds and Assad by proxy, the Arab Gulf countries will react just as negatively as Turkey would. Turkey sees the Kurdish issue as a serious national security concern while the Gulf countries see it as yet another proxy battle with the true enemy, Iran. With the West focused on IS, the rest of the coalition members are focused on each other and future positioning. Iranian maneuvering to exploit this difference in priorities will make the situation ever more complicated.

Iranian media, which is the voice of the government, is stressing the need for Iran to do for the Syrian Kurds what it claims it did for the Iraqi Kurds in breaking the siege of Amerli and areas outside of Irbil. Publicly showing Sulaymani standing with the Kurds while the West sticks to remote air strikes is a powerful propaganda visual and reality that Tehran will work to maximum advantage in the current and coming battle for hearts and minds. While the coalition talks of military tactics, the Iranians are stressing dire humanitarian situations and the need to avoid genocide. This can help push at least the Syrian Kurds towards the Iranian view that Assad is the best option when compared to the nihilistic extremists or the indifferent coalition. In the geopolitical game of inches, this might be enough for Iran to push harder than would have been expected at the outset of the coalition in September.


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