Declaring victory against the Islamic State group (ISIS/ISIL), al-Nusra Front, or other al-Qaeda affiliates and jihadist groups will be insufficient, as long as the fate of their fighters remains shrouded in the same kind of mystery that had surrounded their groups’ inception and rise. Men do not spontaneously spawn or disappear. Defeating the so-called Caliphate State, for one, requires giving people some kind of closure regarding the fate of the militants – whether through their demise, their rehabilitation, or even their escape to the breeding grounds that had exported them to Syria and Iraq. It requires publishing images of the capture of their equipment and propaganda devices that had stunned the world. In the name of fighting terror, Iraq was destroyed and rendered a magnet for terrorists, under George W. Bush’s mantra “'fight them there, so we don't have to fight them here,” in reference to American cities. Under the banner of fighting terror, Syria, once an arena of a civil uprising, was rendered into a muster point for terrorists from all around the world, to hunt them down away from Russian, American, and Iranian cities. The Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was the top investor in the ‘joint stock company’ selling international terror commodities in Syria, alongside multinational investors and financiers, from the Gulf to Iran and from Turkey to North Africa. US, Russian, and European were also essential stakeholders in that covert cocktail that helped create the ‘joint stock company’ aka ISIS, which exported terror and horror, overshadowing al-Qaeda, and al-Nusra Front’s various iterations. Where will all those volunteer fighters go, be they terrorists, ideological extremists, or those who see themselves as defenders of the Sunnis against Iran’s Shia-branded regional expansion in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon? Indeed, Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Republican Guards’ Qods Force, is now a war hero in Iran, for having portrayed himself as a fierce fighter against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Copying Bush’s model, Iran took the fight to two Arab countries, so it doesn’t have to fight them on its soil. In Iraq in particular, Iran built the Popular Mobilization Forces as a parallel army, more loyal to Tehran than to Baghdad, increasing Soleimani’s popularity and heroic credentials for having exported Iran’s revolutionary model to Iraq. In Lebanon, Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its leader Hassan Nasrallah are proclaiming themselves a parallel army loyal to Tehran under the banner of fighting terrorists like ISIS and al-Nusra Front. In doing so, Hezbollah is converging with US strategy, in addition to Iranian strategy in the context of Iran’s final realignment before sharing spheres of influence in Iraq and Syria, while maintaining its hegemony in Lebanon and the chords of Sunni-Shia tensions in the region. This is the primary point of convergence between real and alleged victories in the war on terror. On one side of it is American naivety, on the other American strategic shrewdness, depending on who you ask; either way, the US has decided that its interests lie in continuing to stoke Sunni-Shia conflict in partnership with Russia and willing regional powers.
Turkey has played its part in stoking Sunni-Shia conflict, by adopting and exporting the Muslim Brotherhood power project, which sought to impose a Sunni quasi-theocracy similar to Iran’s Shia theocracy. But where Iran succeeded, Turkey has failed, from Syria to Egypt. Instead, its actions, co-sponsored by some Gulf countries, led to fostering terrorism, particularly in Syria.
The Saudi-Iranian conflict in the Sunni-Shia equation extended from the Gulf to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, then Yemen. Now, it is taking on an American dimension under President Donald Trump, a course that began differently under the US former president, Barack Obama. Both Tehran and Riyadh have tried to sell themselves as a serious reliable counter-terror partner rather than the other. Obama was persuaded by partnership with Iran and adopted a policy that stoked Sunni-Shia conflict, deliberately. However, this is nothing new in US long-term strategy on the Sunni-Shia question from Af-Pak to Iran and Saudi Arabia. In the US designation, terrorism has taken on both a Sunni and Shia forms alternately. Once, the US partnered up with Sunni Saddam Hussein in his war with Iran, and then vice versa in Iraq, and in Syria, while Iran kept a truce-like posture on Israel.
For his part, Donald Trump seems more convinced of partnership with the Sunni powers to eliminate terrorists. However, US actions on the ground in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen are not convincing. At the Riyadh summit with Sunni leaders, the US president had obtained promises, financial pledges, and manpower commitments against Sunni terror groups. However, this Sunni preparedness to fight in the front row of the battle will lose momentum if the US does not deliver on its quid pro quo to contain Shia Iran’s violations and aspirations in the region.
Leaving the fate of the PMF in Iraq to the discretion of prime minister Abadi is to kick the can down the road, because Abadi cannot stand up to the Iranian-led paramilitary force. In truth, this is a prime example of the fundamental flaw in the current fight against ISIS and similar groups. For one thing, ISIS was born out of the disbanding of the Iraqi army following the US occupation of the country under Bush. ISIS was able to grow and expand because its fuel was Iranian violations and the arrogance of Shia political factions under Iraqi former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who deliberately marginalized the Sunnis of the country. In other words, if no radical approach is found to the Sunni-Shia equation in Iraq following the liberation of Mosul, to address the future of the PMF and Iran’s influence in the country, even a victorious eradication of ISIS will leave seeds for a new, perhaps even worse, version to spawn again.
In Syria too, the Trump administration seems scattered between its partnerships, even with Iran and its militias, to defeat ISIS; and the arrangements on the ground to contain al-Nusra Front, ISIS, and the abandonment of moderate Syrian rebels. US defense secretary James Mattis – who until recently was one of the biggest critics of Iran’s militias and wanted to frustrate its regional project – speaks today ina tone that does not suggest objection to the expansion of the Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah, and other Iranian militias into the Syrian territories recaptured from ISIS. That not only contradicts his own previous stances, but also the declared position of the US President Donald Trump.
The same applies to H. R. McMaster, the National Security Advisor, who has long attacked Iran’s policies, that feed “this cycle of sectarian conflict to keep the Arab world perpetually weak,” as he said in early July. McMaster has said the US would not intervene in Syria or Iraq to stop Iran’s project, saying: “We have to be very clear that the reason we are in Syria is to destroy the ISIS”, and nothing else.
In the past few days, in an indication of further disarray in the positions of the Trump administration, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said from the Aspen Security Forum: “When we have our strategy in place (on Iran), I’m confident you will see a fundamental shift in policy”. In other words, the Trump administration does not have an Iran strategy. This contradicts everything Trump has said at the Riyadh Summit and subsequent threats he made against Iran and Hezbollah. The Axis of Adults, which includes Mattis, McMaster, Pompeo, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who is now on a break, has backed down on its previous positions and pledges, awaiting this new American strategy.
Here, it is worthwhile for the Gulf countries led by Saudi Arabia to adopt caution. Relying on US promises entails a big gamble. The Riyadh summit obtained promises from Trump and mobilized support from countries that have wagered on Saudi leadership to guarantee the delivery of those promises. Riyadh spent billions on the new relationship, on the basis that it was going to restore traditional security, economic, political, and strategic ties pursuant to a new US policy different from Barack Obama’s, especially vis-à-vis Iran. However, the facts on the ground suggest the Trump administration is implementing the same policies of Barack Obama, at least in Syria and Iraq.
The language of the US president is different from his administration’s policies on the ground. Congress has assisted the president by imposing and studying further sanctions on Iran and Hezbollah, but his cabinet is focusing on a different priority, that is, Trump’s absolute priority to claim victory against ISIS even if that requires partnering up with the devil. This is short-termist.
For one reason, it rushes an incomplete victory that does not address the root causes that led to the emergence of the Sunni extremist terror groups, either in terms of their ideology or in terms of their response to Iran’s regional encroachment. This will lead to the re-emergence of these groups, either in the form of new factions or sleeper cells that could seek revenge on the international community’s abandonment.
For another, endorsing Iran’s arrogance and overconfidence, will enable its Persian Crescent project through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, which seeks to establish an Iranian link with the borders with Israel. It will also undermine the tacit willingness among Sunni powers to coexist and reconcile with Israel, on new foundations different from those contained in the Arab Peace Initiative rejected by Israel.
If the Trump administration restores its balance and ends its contradictory policies, it may be possible again to rely on a constructive strategy where the US abandons its traditional policy of stoking sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shias. Then it will be possible to trust the US determination to eliminate terrorism of any kind. But in the absence of this development, it seems the many stakeholders who invest in war, from the military-industrial complex to Big Oil and the intelligence community, are not yet satiated.