By Landon Shroder
By now, it should be accepted that Syria is no longer an isolated conflict, but one that has very clear regional implications. This has been further reinforced, by reporting this month, indicating that Iran is shipping military hardware via Iraqi airspace, to the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad. This should come as no surprise. Most of the regional heavyweights have been financing, arming, or supporting one faction or another for over a year now.
What has made this report so absorbing is not the fact that Iran is providing support to the Syrian regime, that should be a given. Syria, is an Iranian client-state and one that offers strategic depth in the Levant. The real revelation, is that Iraq, now in ongruence with Iran has a tacit and stated position on the conflict in Syria. This is important for two reasons, 1) it highlights the current level of US influence within the Iraqi government, which is apparently very little, 2) the Government of Prime Minister, Nouri al Maliki has reached something of an inflection point; whereby, their perception of national immutability is hinged on the survival of the Syrian regime.
There must be an acceptance that the conflict in Syria, while still a war over regime change, is also becoming a cultural war and a sectarian conflict. This trajectory, historically, remains incredibly difficult for the West to comprehend. Material support; albeit, finance, weapons, and technical assistance, while advantageous, will not be the primary agent by which influence is gained in Syria. Influence in Syria will be won through the cultural war, through sectarian and religious preeminence. This is why the resumption and now overt support to the Syrian regime, by Iran, with tacit support of Iraq becomes such a harrowing premise. The conditions are being set, regionally, culturally, and religiously. Gulf Sunni versus Persian Shi’a with Syria as the prize. The anciens régimes, relived for the 21st Century.
A significant amount of assessment has been provided (including my own) on the shift in conflict dynamics in Syria, but it has been partial and one sided. It has been focused on the evolution of the Sunni opposition factions, which has reached something of a zenith and now includes suicide attacks, car-bombs, and other forms of terrorist warfare. A good portion of it honed in neighboring Iraq. These tactics and techniques have been facilitated by non-indigenous Sunni networks, such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, who are presumably siphoning off funding from countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. However, if the reports are true, which is likely, and Iran has resumed supply flights and support for clandestine military units, then the conflict dynamics are about to shift, yet again.
So how will Iranian and unstated Iraqi support for the Syrian regime manifest on the ground in Syria? There are two possible objectives, none of which provides an equitable aftereffect for either Syrians or broad regional stability. These strategic objectives will bematched with equally draconian tactics that will further entrench political and sectarian agendas. From certain vantage points this is probably the intention. The first objective is to maintain regime continuity. Iran is not likely to give up on Syria or the current regime. Syria not only provides depth in the Levant by securing an operational corridor for groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon, but also acts as a conduit for cultural and religious influence for Shi’a Muslims. Iran, much like Saudi Arabia for the Sunni, is the spiritual capitol of Shi’a Islam. Their ability to project power is heavily derived from their facility to support cultural and religious institutions. If the Syrian regime falls and a conservative Sunni regime assumes power, they will not just lose their political and operational influence. They will also lose their place as the cultural and religious ambassador to Shi’a in the Levant.
How will Iran support the maintenance of the al-Assad regime? Put simply, Iran, has
written the strategic and tactical play book on how to squash dissent and force compliance in the 21st century. This will start with developing strong militias and equally fearsome paramilitary forces. Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon all have experience in equipping and organizing partisan forces such as these. Between the Basij militia in Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon, or Jaish al Mahdi in Iraq, there remains no shortage of experience in organizing and agitating pro-Shi’a or Shi’a affiliated communities. Moreover, with a clear air-corridor for Iranian support via Iraq, Iran will be able to facilitate the logistics needed to operationalize these groups for the al-Assad regime. The opposition, will soon have to fight on two fronts, both regular and irregular regime forces. Iranian organization of Shi’a partisans has proved, over the years, to be an incredibly potent apparatus and one that should not be underestimated.
The second outcome, should the al-Assad regime collapse, will be to set in motion the conditions for protracted insurgency. This objective will be driven by the necessity to prevent a consolidated Sunni government from forming. This too, is marginally in the interest of the Iraqi government, which is witless over a Sunni sphere of influence that might upend the power polity in Baghdad. The rise of a conservative Sunni government that remains indebted to countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, effectively isolates Iraq and Iran from the rest of the region. A protracted insurgency, much like that in Iraq and Afghanistan, will keep any newly anointed government off-balance and ineffective. In this regard, a retreat to sectarianism remains not only a strategic advantage, but a tactical objective.
How will Iran promote the conditions for insurgency? Easily, the same way they did in Iraq, by stressing sectarianism through religious and cultural influence. This will be achieved with the direction of the Quds Force, led by Major General, Qasem Soleimani. Quds Force, an Iranian division within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Force was successful in the creation of multiple clandestine groups within Iraq, such as Kata'ib Hezbollah and Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq. These Iraqi networks, along with Lebanese Hezbollah, will train, arm, and fight with newly organized Syrian insurgent groups, using tactics that were advanced during nine years of fighting in Iraq. It is highly unlikely that an emergent Syrian government, in the post-regime vacuum, will be able to defeat such an insurgency.
The amelioration of either Shi’a paramilitary forces or Shi’a insurgent groups, can be identified, much in the same manner as Sunni terrorist groups. Through their tactics. Iran has spent innumerable amounts of effort developing the groups mentioned above. While they might have contrasting ideologies, their tactical acumen originates from the same source. Critical observers of the conflict in Syria, should interpret the eventual usage of armored piercing IEDs, known as explosively formed projectiles (EFP), as an indicator of Iranian corroboration. As will the usage of improvised rocket assisted mortar systems (IRAM), also known as ‘lob bombs‘ or the deployment of Katyusha rockets with extemporized launch rails. Whereas, Sunni terrorism is often unorganized with cells disassociated from one another, Shi’a insurgency is coordinated, targeted, and discriminate. This capability, naturally flows from the organization provided by the stateservices of Iran.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey have doubled down in Syria and now Iran and Iraq are slowly showing their hand. The calculus in Syria is being determined by proxy and proxy warfare will inevitably end in attrition. The advancement of Iranian support to militias, paramilitaries, or clandestine groups will bolster the regime of Bashar al Assad, for a time, and put the opposition back on the defensive. Whether or not this is enough to sustain the regime is guesswork, but with a tacitly compliant Iraq, Iran will continue to have an open door right into the heart of Syria.
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