Recent days have seen mounting signs that ISIS is on the retreat. Its campaign in Iraq has gone into freefall, while the Iraqi army and local militias are chasing the extremists back well into Syria. There has been speculation this weekend that Raqqa, the extremists’ de facto capital, will be under siege soon following significant ISIS losses.
The remarkable aspect to this drive is the coalition of convenience that has emerged to fight ISIS. The Iraqi army is fighting alongside Kurdish Peshmerga forces, US and UK Special Forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias. The other partner in the coalition are the Iraqi Shia militias, much of whose funding and training is provided by neighbouring Iran. These are the same militias whose primary intention after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 was the murder of US and UK soldiers based in Iraq.
With Iran’s proxy Hezbollah and crack Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) leading the charge – with Russian air support – against moderate rebels and ISIS alike on Syria’s western front, Iran’s dream of creating a land bridge of Shia client states across from Tehran to the Mediterranean is nearing reality. This will have major ramifications for the way in which it can supply terrorist groups throughout the region.
The importance of this Shia crescent to Iran’s regional ambitions cannot be underestimated. For decades, Hussein’s Sunni Iraq blocked the passage of Iranian supplies to its proxy dependents, forcing Tehran to find other ways to get materiel, men and missiles to them. After his overthrow, Iran played a major role in the chaos of Iraq, trying to ensure that the chips eventually fell in its favour.
Now, the Shia militias that it backed early in the civil conflict remain powerful players that are largely independent of government. Iranian generals like Qassem Suleiman, the head of the IRGC’s elite Qods unit and one of the most powerful men in the region, have direct command of Iraqi militias. Their involvement in the campaign against ISIS will provide the opportunity to secure land for their paymasters, and lead the charge to link up with the fighters for Assad coming in from the West.
Iran’s game in eastern Syria will be along the same lines as it was in Iraq. Iranian generals will be examining the possibilities of advancing on former ISIS land; already in May, the US destroyed a military convoy allied to Syria’s President Assad for encroaching towards its al-Tanf base on the Syria-Jordan border. Signs of Iran’s intention to make a land grab will be even more evident as ISIS loses territory.
This is a serious concern to the West and to those seeking stability in the Middle East. A clear road from Tehran to Damascus and beyond will allow the Ayatollah’s regime to spread its ‘revolution’ to its allies with ease. Terrorist movements like Hezbollah, Assad and Hamas will all benefit, and those seeking stability will lose unless action is taken to restrict their influence. The US has supported the creation of a buffer zone in eastern Syria that can be policed by the international community, while committing more arms to strengthen moderate militias like the Kurds.
This is a start, but only Iran has the genuine long-term desire to remain engaged across this region. The West must demonstrate the same resolve, otherwise it must be prepared to suffer the consequences of stronger, better armed enemies across the region.