It’s amazing what a difference of just a few months can make. Back in September I was writing a lot about the conflict in Syria and hypothesizing on what the outcomes might be. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that the glut of Sunni foreign fighters would spill over to the point that Iran was starting to look like a viable military ally thanks to the measured approach of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Iran has been far more open and measured in its dialogue with the West, and while a lot of that is most definitely out of self interest regarding Syria, it’s apparent that both the United States and Iran are eyeing the region with a similar goal in mind, stability. The situation is becoming dire because the fallout of the Syrian conflict is widening. For months, Lebanese Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah has been sending fighters into Syria to counter the influx of Sunni foreign fighters into the country and that assistance is bearing bitter fruit in Lebanon.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is taking credit for last week’s suicide bombing in Lebanon which killed 4 and wounded 77 others. The rise of ISIS, once simply known as the Islamic State of Iraq, is extremely troubling given the geographically wide area the group is taking credit for. In the mid 2000s, the al-Qa’ida affiliated Islamic State of Iraq was a potent force for chaos, all but controlling major portions of Al-Anbar Province, a Sunni majority region. It is this new unified group that killed 34 in three Christmas day bombings in Baghdad last month. This is the same group that has been responsible for contributing to the nearly 8,000 deaths from sectarian violence in 2013, the highest since the mid-2000s.
The last time this happened, the US stabilized the area by working directly with Sunni tribal leaders in Al-Anbar and provided weapons, leadership, and money to enable Iraqi Sunnis in the area to fight extremist elements. However, there appears to be no plan or capability to institute such a plan now and given the Syrian governments inability to adequately control its borders due to the Syrian Civil War as it was able to in the mid-2000s it’s very likely that the Sunni insurgency in Al-Anbar will only continue to get worse.
Add to this Iraqi trouble the potential for increased violence between Lebanese Hezbollah and Sunni foreign fighters in Syria and you have a ticking bomb that stretches from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. Some of the conditions for the current state of Western Iraq are the Iraqi government’s own fault. After the US withdrew its financial support from Al-Anbar, the Shi’ite dominated Iraqi government declined to continue this financial support which began to erode much of the progress made there. Now, years afterward, animosity towards the central government and once again increasing sectarian feeling have created an environment in which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki simply cannot operate effectively. He rolled back these programs and is widely perceived as anti-Sunni by many in al-Anbar. But Iraqi Sunnis didn’t ask for foreign fighters to inundate their country and I can’t imagine that most of them want anything to do with it.
It’s for the above reasons that Iran is more than simply strategically important. The Iranian government has profound influence over both the Iraqi Shi’ite population and government while at the same time being a major supporter of Lebanese Hezbollah. Iran, for years, wrote the checks and pulled the strings. These groups are beholden to them. Additionally, Iran is a major Syrian ally, in a way their only ally. If the West is going to try and make peace then Iran will be a major part of that if for no other reason than because the West has no one to talk to in this conflict on the Sunni side. The secular, nationalistic members of the Free Syrian Army have long been overshadowed by Sunni extremists from outside Syria. At this point they’re nearly, to a man, involved with extremist attempts to overthrow Syria at least by association. So who would the US talk to?
In previous days the answer would have been simple. We would speak to Saudi Arabia but given Saudi Arabia’s explicit support for extremists involved in the Syrian Civil War and, therefore, chaos in the region at large, there’s simply little point. The Saudis, like so many of the idle rich, prefer to pay others to do things they don’t have to manage. They may be able to shut off the money but they’ll refuse to do so entirely for fear of losing regional standing, a standing that, truly, is only real in their own imaginations.
It’s feeling like a sea change could be coming and if Iran is able to make and stick to the agreement to cut nuclear enrichment in exchange for the West rolling back some sanctions then that may create space for Iran and the West to realize that they have more in common regarding regional stability than either has previously wanted to admit.