This week we begin a new series on the Islamic State and its impact on the contemporary Middle East. The series is drawn from an upcoming book: 'Islamic State: Its History, Evolution and Challenge.' This essay is the first of a four part section on the foreign intervention in the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars.
Iranian Intervention in the Syrian and Iraqi Civil Wars 2012-2014
The conflict in Syria may have begun as a civil war between the Alawite Assad government and Sunni rebel groups, but it rapidly assumed international proportions. At the heart of the issue was the fact that the conflict quickly became a proxy for a larger Shia-Sunni conflict that pitted Iran and its Shia allies against Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and their Sunni supporters. In addition, the large role played by jihadist organizations within the Syrian opposition made the conflict relevant to America's and its European allies' large concerns of international Salafist terrorism. The conflict also became an issue in the increasingly strained American-Russian relationship as Russia sought both to maintain its historical relationship with the Assad government, while at the same time seeing the conflict as an opportunity to underscore its relevancy and great power status in the region.
It also added new issues in Turkey's complicated relationship with the Kurds, both those inside Turkey and those in Syria and Iraq. Moreover, for Washington, the merging of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq added an additional layer of complexity as transnational jihadists were simultaneously fighting against a government in Baghdad that the United States wanted to see retain power and a government in Damascus that the US was uncertain, at least without any visibility on the alternatives, if it wanted to see continue. Finally, the collapse of Iraqi Armed Forces, and the resulting intervention by Iranian military and paramilitary forces, added a further complication to Washington's relationship with Tehran, and had a bearing on both the White House's attitude towards the Assad Regime, a key Iranian ally, as well as its policy on Iran's nuclear development program.
Fittingly, the expression, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" is attributed to Arab origins (although it has been suggested it may date back to fourth century BC India). That dictum, more often than not, seems to be the overriding factor in the ever-shifting coalition of alliances that has emerged from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.
The "Iranian Shia Arc of Influence" and the Shia-Sunni Split
Islam has two major denominations, Sunni and Shia, and a number of other, smaller sects. Approximately 85 percent of the world's Muslims adhere to the Sunni branch and the other 15 percent to the Shia branch. Sunni's are the majority in most Muslim countries. Shias are in the majority in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Azerbaijan and, most likely now, in Lebanon. Indonesia has the largest population of Sunnis and Iran has the largest population of Shias. Pakistan has the second largest population of both Shias and Sunnis in the Muslim world. Shias are also a significant percentage of the Muslim population in Yemen and Kuwait.
The historic origins of the Shia-Sunni split began with an issue over the succession on the death of the Islamic prophet Muhammad in AD 632. Sunnis believe that the selection of Muhammad's rightful successor should be based on the consensus of the Muslim community (Ummah) in accordance with the process set out in the Koran. Shias believe that Muhammad endorsed his cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib, as his successor. Ali was married to Muhammad's daughter Fatimah so this line of succession would have preserved the leadership of the Muslim community in the descendants, through Ali and Fatimah, of the prophet.
Ali was eventually chosen as the leader, (caliph), of the Muslim community and led the Ummah from AD 656 to AD 661. He was the fourth of the caliphs that ruled the Muslim community following the death of Muhammad. These first four: Abu Bakr 632-634, Umar ibn al-Khattab 634-644, Uthman ibn Affan 644-656, and Ali ibn Abi Talib 656-661 are referred to as the Rashidun or "rightly guided caliphs," both for their piety and for the fact they were the only caliphs who actually knew Muhammad while he was alive. The dispute became a permanent schism when Umayyad Caliph Yazid I killed Hussein ibn Ali and his entire family, following the Battle of Karbala. Over time, the split led to differences in religious practices, customs and jurisprudence, which further divided the two communities.
The rise of the Safavid dynasty in Persia, today's Iran, in 1501, led to the establishment of the Shia branch of Islam as the official religion of the Safavid-Persian Empire. The Safavid dynasty was not the first Shia ruler of Persia, nor was it the first Shia ruler in the Muslim world. The Fatimid dynasty, which claimed to be direct descendants of Muhammad's daughter Fatima, ruled an Islamic Empire that stretched along the eastern and southern coast of the Mediterranean, including Egypt, Sudan, and Sicily, from 909-1171. The association of Shia Islam with Persia, however, added a geopolitical element to what had up to then been a purely religious difference. The rise of the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries often pitted the Ottoman-Sunni Empire against its Persian-Shia rival. Indeed, in the sixteenth century, at the height of the Christian-Ottoman rivalry for control of the Mediterranean, Phillip II, the Spanish Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire even proposed to the Safavids a Catholic-Shiite alliance against the Sunni Ottomans.
The Ottoman conquest of much of the Arab Middle East saw Sunni Arabs rise to positions of influence within the Ottoman Empire. Even within regions that were predominantly Shia, like Iraq, Sunnis were inevitably appointed to positions of power within the local government. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, the Anglo-French division, in accordance with the Sykes-Picot Treaty of 1916, preserved the predominance of Sunnis within the political hierarchy of the Middle East. Even with independence, predominantly Shia countries like Iraq still found themselves being ruled by a minority, Sunni elite. Iran, which had emerged from the Qajar dynasty of the historic Persian Empire, had under the Pahlavi dynasty styled itself a modern secular state. While the country remained predominantly Shia, the Iranian government did not see the promotion or defense of Shia minorities elsewhere as a concern.
The Iranian revolution, which began in 1978, and the establishment of an Islamic Republic in 1979, restored the close association between Shiism and a political state. From the very beginning of its existence, the Islamic Republic concerned itself with the plight of Shia communities and saw its influence in those communities as a source of political and diplomatic leverage. Iran has been a consistent supporter of Hezbollah, a Shiite organization, and was involved with its founding in 1982. It also has been a strong supporter of both Hamas and Islamic Jihad even though both of those organizations are predominantly Sunni in composition. Moreover, the Iranian Quds Force has been heavily involved with the training of Shiite militias and guerilla groups around the world. The Quds Force, for example, has been an important source of training, arms and financial assistance for the Shiite Houthi militia, Partisans of God, which recently overran much of Yemen and its capital.
Iran was also a steadfast supporter of the Assad government in Syria. The two countries shared a common foe in Saddam Hussein's Iraq and both were committed in thwarting Hussein's goal of making Iraq a regional power. They also shared a common enemy in the United States and Israel, and shared a common interest in using Hezbollah and Hamas as a vehicle for thwarting US plans for a Mid-East peace and to promote their own interests. From a practical standpoint, the uniformity of interests between the Assad government and the Islamic Republic were independent of the Shia roots of the Syrian Alawite government, but nonetheless, it fit nicely with Iran's view of itself as a defender of Shiite interests around the world.
Iranian Involvement in Syria and Iraq
Iranian involvement in the Syrian civil war began almost immediately with the "Arab Spring" inspired protests in Damascus. As early as March 2011, as the demonstrations in Syria were starting to gain momentum, there were reports of Iranian personnel assisting Syrian security personal. In addition, Iran provided Damascus with riot control equipment and trained Syrian security personnel in procedures for gathering intelligence on the protest movement. Tehran also supplied technology that it had developed to monitor email, cell phones, and social media following the Iranian election protests in 2009-10. Following those protests, the Iranian government, some contend with the assistance of China, developed a cyber-army to track down and monitor online dissidents.
In May 2012, according to a report in The Guardian, the Deputy Head of the Quds Force confirmed that they had provided combat troops to support Syrian military operations against the Syrian rebels. Iran was also supplying Syria with diesel fuel and arms. Over the course of 2012, there was a sharp increase in the amount of arms shipments from Iran to Syria. Washington complained to Baghdad about its willingness to allow Iranian arms shipments to transit Iraqi airspace. A U.N. report found that Iran was, in violation of sanctions imposed on Syria, and was in fact the principal supplier of arms to the Assad government. In the summer of 2012, reports emerged that Tehran had dispatched additional units of the Quds Force to organize and train a pro-Assad militia in Syria. In October, FSA militants displayed Iranian built drones, complete with training manuals, indicating they belonged to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which they claimed were being used to guide Syrian military planes in attacks on rebel positions.
In June 2013, Robert Fisk, writing in The Independent, disclosed that Iran was sending 4,000 Revolutionary Guards troops to Syria and that this was only "the first contingent". There was also a report that Tehran had offered more troops to open up a new Syrian front against Israel in the Golan Heights but that the Assad government had declined the offer. The extent of the Quds force deployed in Syria is not clear. As of the end of 2014, this force was believed to be at least 10,000 and possibly much higher .
The Quds force was under the command of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and included over 70 Quds field commanders. Not all of these troops, however, were directly involved in the civil war. Iran had between 2,000 and 3,000 Quds Force soldiers stationed in the Syrian city of Zabadani. The city was Iran's logistical hub for supplying Hezbollah forces in Lebanon with arms and cash, and also hosted important training facilities for Hezbollah militants.
Iranian support for the Assad government continued during 2014. Tehran has continued to send thousands of military specialists and Quds Force personnel, as well as volunteers from the Iranian Basji and Iraqi Shia Militias. The Iranian government has also provided the Assad government with considerable financial assistance. According to a report by The Economist, that financial assistance had, by February 2012, reached nine billion dollars. It is believed that the level of Iranian financial assistance had reached between 15 billion and 20 billion dollars by the end of 2014.
The overthrow of Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist government resulted in the emergence of a Shia dominated government in Baghdad. Many of the Shia leaders that emerged in the wake of the American led invasion had strong ties to Iran and its political and religious leadership. Early on, Iran provided funding and military training for Shiite militias in Iraq. They also provided funding for a number of Shiite political parties. They played a critical role in supporting both Shiite and, to a lesser extent, Sunni elements of the anti-American insurgency that existed from 2003 through 2009.
Iraq was to prove the linchpin in an area of Iranian influence among predominantly Shiite governments and organizations that stretched across Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and the Gaza Strip. This zone has been variously described as an Iranian or Shiite "Arc of Influence" and its existence was seen as underscoring a "Shia revival" that had begun with the Iranian Revolution. The emergence of this "Shia Arc" also coincided with a period of renewed Iranian assertiveness in the Middle East in general and in the Persian Gulf in particular.
The overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and his replacement with an Iraqi Shiite government friendly to Tehran, had eliminated what had been an existential threat to the Islamic Republic and had tipped the local balance of power significantly in Tehran's favor. The other Arab countries in the Gulf lacked the population or the armed forces, without American support, to be an effective deterrent to Iranian ambitions in the region.
In June of 2014, in response to the advances of Islamic State in Iraq and the virtual collapse of Iraqi military forces, Iran began to provide direct military aid to the Iraqi government. Iran immediately deployed 500 Quds Force soldiers to stiffen Iraqi positions in Samarra, Baghdad, and Karbala, as well as the former US base, Camp Speicher, in Tikrit. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard also deployed seven Sukhoi, Soviet era, Su-25 Frogfoot jets. They also began to supply arms and munitions to Peshmerga forces in Kurdistan.
Significantly, Iranian General Soleimani was transferred to Baghdad where he assumed the position of "chief tactician" in the struggle with IS. Soleimani has often been seen on the battle line and is reported to be commanding both Iranian and Iraqi forces in the field. In addition, Quds Force personnel set up a headquarters at the al-Rasheed Air Base, on the outskirts of Baghdad, to operate Iranian Abadil drones over Iraq as well as to intercept communications between IS and its field commanders. At the same time, Hezbollah took on the responsibility of training Iraqi Shia Militias and deployed between 250 and 1,000 personnel to organize and supervise their training.
Iranian military deployment increased further during the summer of 2014, despite continued Iranian denials that there were any Iranian troops stationed in Iraq. On August 21, Iran's 81st Armored Division took part in a joint Iranian-Kurdish attack to liberate Jalawla from IS militants.
In December 2014, Iran allowed foreign media to confirm the presence of Iranian F-4 Phantom jets in Iraq striking IS positions in Diyala province. US sources later confirmed that the planes were Iranian but that US military forces were not coordinating air strikes with the Iranian military. Although the presence of the F-4 Phantoms was not disclosed till December, these were not the first Iranian planes to be operating in Iraq and it is likely that the F-4s had been operating there for some time.
In total, Iran had more than 1,000 military advisors in Iraq at the beginning of 2015 and had provided more than one billion dollars in military aid during 2014. The actual number of Iranian military personnel in Iraq is actually much higher. Many of the Iranian military forces in Iraq are classified as volunteers. Moreover, some of the Iranian military units are stationed in Iran and move back and forth across the border as needed.
Forthcoming: Part 2, Foreign Intervention in the Syrian and Iraqi Civil Wars: Part 3, The Role of the United States; Part 4, Postscript: The Enemy of my Enemy
Footnotes have been omitted from these articles but are included in the book version.