That strategy now threatens to virtually wipe out the moderate rebels, who have reportedly lost about 30 percent of their territory in Aleppo. NBC and other news outlets tend to focus on the government forces in their reporting, attributing to them the recent conquest of at least 10 Aleppo neighborhoods. But some reports also note the important role of Assad’s foreign backers, namely Russia, Iran, and Shiite militias like Hezbollah, which are backed by Iran.
While Russia has backed up Syrian government activities with devastating airstrikes, Iran has provided advisory support on the ground as well as directly and indirectly participating in fighting on the ground, either via the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force or through various militias. Thus, a victory for Assad’s forces in Aleppo would certainly be regarded as a victory for Iran as well, and as a contributing factor in the expansion of Iranian influence throughout the region.
This situation is evident in Iranian responses to the Assad forces’ advances in Aleppo. Iran’s Fars News Agency recently reported upon the praise offered to those forces by Amir Abdollahian, the advisor to the speaker of the Iranian parliament. In addition to congratulating the Syrian Army, he highlighted the Iranian role in supporting and fighting alongside those troops, then went on to emphasize that Iran would continue to play this role not only in Syria but also in Iraq.
Various reports have explained that Iranian influence over the conflicts in those two countries has tremendous potential to turn into permanent political influence over the governments thereof. One such report appeared in The Tower on Tuesday and emphasized the increasing acceptance of Iran’s militant proxies as a fixture of Iraq’s military and political landscape. The latest example of this came in the form of a bill passed by the Iraqi parliament allowing Iran-backed Shiite militias to retain their existing command structures even after supposedly being integrated into the country’s standing military.
In theory, the militias are called upon to serve the Iraqi state instead of their own masters, but many of those organizations have openly declared allegiance to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, leading to serious questions about how a shift in loyalty can be enforced without any substantive change in the organization of the militias.
The Tower notes that Sunni lawmakers expect this situation to further contribute to sectarian tensions, and it quotes one of them as saying, “We believe that this is the start of partitioning Iraq and a clear rejection of the Sunnis in the country.” Much of the existing sectarian strife has already been widely attributed to Iranian influence, which provided foreign support to former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as he drove Sunnis out of government and consolidated power into a small set of hardline Shiite politicians. This has in turn been blamed for the rise of ISIL in Iraq as an alternative to the Shiite power base.
The Tower also points out that many of the Shiite militias currently comprising the so-called Popular Mobilization Forces have been accused of human rights violations against Sunni populations, rivaling the severity of ISIL atrocities targeting Shiites and other groups.
If these Iran-backed groups continue to be legitimized and allowed to wield ongoing influence, it will certainly be a further source of anxiety for Iran’s Arab rivals in the region, regarding the expansion of an Iranian imperialist project. An article published by The National on Monday pointed to the fact that these anxieties have already contributed to deepening militarization of the Middle East. The article made reference to a report, Iran and the Gulf Military Balance, that was published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and that pointed to the need for the Gulf Arab states to rely on deterrence, containment, and counterterrorism in order to compensate for the growth of Iranian influence in places like Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
The National article also quoted Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, chairman of the Arab Council for Social Sciences, as saying that this Iranian influence has contributed to a situation in which the Middle East is more militarized that at any time in its history. Meanwhile, Sabahat Khan of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis highlighted the effect of the lifting of economic sanctions on Iran’s ability to acquire new weapons for itself while expanding networks and alliances among armed groups elsewhere in the region.
If this seems to call for a change in Western policy toward Iran, the CSIS report appears to go further. It arguably endorses regime change, at least as one potential means of interrupting the arms race in the Middle East, when it declares, “Only a moderate regime in Iran, broadly based development and governance for all the people, and dealing with the causes of extremism can bring lasting security.”