Despite the distance between the forces, those Shiite militias seized on the opportunity to threaten Turkey, which supports the moderate and mostly Sunni rebels in the Syrian Civil War, and which recently shot down a Russian jet that was providing air support to Iranian ground operations there.
The militias threatened force against Turkey unless it withdraws its troops within a 24 hour deadline. The Turkish government has thus far said it has no plans to do so, even though the Iraqi government denies having requested that Turkey enter the country to train and equip Iraqi forces.
It is possible, however, that the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi did in fact request the assistance but recognizes insurmountable political consequences for admitting this. While there is no clear evidence for this, analysts have variously described Abadi as being caught within divided loyalties, being simultaneously dependent on the United States and on Iran and its proxy forces inside Iraq.
Furthermore, Ya Libnan notes that at the time of the Turkish deployment, Abadi had already come under severe pressure from Tehran and the Shiite militias for not rebuffing the American announcement that it would be deploying additional special operations forces to fight ISIL inside Iraq.
Such discord serves to highlight the perception that Iran’s main interest in both Iraq and Syria is to maintain and expand its own influence, and not to fight ISIL. Interestingly, a spokesperson for the Badr Brigade accused Turkey of attempting to restore “Ottoman greatness” through its incursion into Iraq. Some analysts have used similar language to explain and criticize the motivations of Tehran and its proxies, saying that they are committed to effectively forging a new Persian Empire.
Although the extent of Abadi’s feelings about the Turkish side of this power struggle is questionable, the public position of the Iraqi parliament is one of unanimous opposition. Several MPs, however, have floated the idea of “economic war” as an alternative to the violence that Shiite militant groups deemed to be very likely.
For its part, Iran may be attempting to use economic means to support the more violent threats of the militias, although if so it is doing so surreptitiously while avoiding the provable appearance of belligerence. Today’s Zaman reported on Monday that the flow of natural gas from Iran to Turkey had briefly slowed to half its usual levels. The Iranians claimed that this was merely a technical problem, but the timing makes it equally probable that the incident was a veiled threat of actions that might be taken if Turkey maintains its presence in Iranian conflict regions.
The strength of Iran’s sectarian proxies in Syria has been amplified by support from Moscow, especially since the beginning of Russian airstrikes. Iranian strength could also be amplified in a more general sense by partnership with this and other economically and militarily powerful nations. Iran and Russia have mutually advertised a series of agreements on strategic cooperation, and the economic dimensions of this cooperation could give Iran greater leeway in deciding to diminish or halt its trade relations with other countries.
This seems more likely in light of observations like those made by the Christian Science Monitor on Wednesday, claiming that Iran clearly has other strategic interests that take precedence over its economic recovery. The same article noted that Iran’s strategies in recent years have emphasized plausible deniability of the sort achieved in Iraq and Syria through the use of proxies, and possibly also in Turkey through the use of alternative explanations for economic shifts.
But the Christian Science Monitor focused its attention not on Iran’s economic and paramilitary strategies, but rather on the growth of cyber threats coming from the Islamic Republic. The article explains these in terms of a general shift toward asymmetrical warfare, especially where it concerns vying with much stronger powers like the United States.
Just as Iran’s regional economic leverage has been expanded through its partnerships with other Asian states, these partnerships have also been cited as partial explanations for Iran’s dramatically expanded hacking capabilities. Both of these topics are areas of concern among Western governments and their allies if Iran continues to strengthen its alliance with Russia, as well as with China and smaller Asian countries.
Xinhua News Agency reported on Wednesday that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamad Javad Zarif on the sidelines of a ministerial meeting of Asian powers. The two ministers reportedly used the opportunity to pledge expanded strategic cooperation between Iran and China, including on issues related to Syria and what Iran refers to as “the fight against terrorism.”