At least 3,000 members of Shiite militias have been withdrawn from Syria on orders from their commanders in the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps, and deployed to Iraq to fight opponents of the Shiite, Iranian-allied government of Nouri al-Maliki. The changing dynamics of Iranian involvement help to illustrate the fact that Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon are increasingly becoming three theaters in a single sectarian war, with Iran naturally heading off the Shiite half of the conflict.
The divided attentions of Shiite militias also show how the new crisis in Iraq may pose a threat to Iran’s designs on regional hegemony. The Islamic Republic’s involvement in foreign nations’ affairs had previously helped to prop up the Syrian dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, to the extent that the tide of the Syrian Civil War turned in his favor after international observers had concluded that his days were numbered.
Now, the formerly transformative power that Iran had exerted in Syria is sure to diminish, and time will tell whether this puts Assad at greater risk once again. But even if Iranian influence diminishes, the fact remains that the IRGC has only withdrawn 3,000 militiamen since May, signifying that it is making a strong effort to maintain a foothold in both conflicts, however much its power may diminish in each of them.
Still a Major Force
This is not to say that Iranian influence stands to be seriously challenged in the midst of its divided attentions. It’s efforts at achieving regional hegemony have gone far enough that it would surely take more than that to shift the balance of power back out of Iran’s favor. The IRGC’s Qods Force has such authority in regions rocked by sectarian conflict that the organization’s head, Qassem Suleimani, has been identified by the CIA as “the most powerful operative in the Middle East today.”
Yahoo! Finance and Business Insider have featured a profile of Suleimani, which essentially gives a face and a name to Iranian meddling in the region. The Iranian Suleimani is reported to be effectively in charge of the war effort in Iraq, while also serving as an instrument of Iranian policy in its neighboring country. Sources with the resistance group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, have also indicated that in addition to directing militias and providing troops to the Iraqi conflict, Suleimani is also fundamentally reorganizing the Iraqi army and placing it directly under the command of IRGC officers.
As Iran consolidates is power over the Shiite side of this conflict, the Iraqi prime minister is reportedly digging in its heels and solidifying its position of dependency upon Iran. That is, Maliki has rejected Western suggestions that he reach out to moderate Sunnis and other groups that he has marginalized, and he has instead chosen to embrace the uncompromising sectarian conflict, as Iran has.
On Wednesday, Brietbart reported that Maliki had fired four top Sunni officials as the first step in plans to crackdown on politicians an military officers whom he deems insufficiently loyal to his increasingly exclusionary, sectarian, and dictatorial government. By expanding the policies that had brought on the popular uprising in the first place, Maliki promises to drive more fighters to both sides of the conflict, likely prolonging it.
Nevertheless, Iraqi officials have shown no sign of taking responsibility for the crisis, and have instead insisted to reporters that Saudi Arabia, the region’s most prominent Sunni power and a perennial US ally, is to blame. Iraq accuses Saudi Arabia of supporting the Sunni extremists operating as part of the current crisis, although these claims are unsupported and US intelligence holds that ISIS is probably supported by private backers in various countries.
For its part, Saudi Arabia has responded to the crisis by warning Iran against continued meddling in Iraq. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal was quoted as saying that nations like Iraq and Syria must recognize the “legitimate demands of the people” and “achieve national reconciliation without foreign interference or outside agendas.
Apparent confrontations between Iran and Saudi Arabia over the Iraqi crisis raise doubts about what was perceived as a thaw in relations between the two countries, as both had signaled willingness to meet to discuss regional issues. While the pragmatic charm offensive of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had succeeded for a time in weakening the barriers between Iran and its adversaries, the current situation shows that those efforts are undermined by Iran’s continuous, aggressive support of conflicts that serve its exclusive interests.