By Landon Shroder
By now, it should be accepted that Syria is no longer an isolated conflict. Reports last week, indicating that Iran is shipping military hardware via Iraqi airspace to Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime, has reinforced these broader implications. This should come as no surprise. Most of the regional heavyweights have been financing, arming, or supporting one faction or another for over a year now.
What made this report so absorbing is not the fact that Iran is providing support to the Syrian regime. That should be a given. Syria is an Iranian client-state and one that offers strategic depth in the Levant. The real revelation is that Iraq, now in congruence with Iran, has a tacit position on the conflict in Syria. This is important for two reasons: First, it highlights the current lack of U.S. influence within the Iraqi government, and second, the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has reached something of an inflection point. Its perception of national immutability hinges on the survival of the Syrian regime.
There must be an acceptance that the conflict in Syria, while still a war over regime change, is also becoming a cultural war and a sectarian conflict. This trajectory remains difficult for the West to comprehend. Material support in the form of finance, weapons, and technical assistance, while advantageous, will not be the primary agent by which third parties will gain influence in Syria. Influence in Syria will be won through the cultural war and through sectarian and religious preeminence. This is why Iran’s resumption of support for the Syrian regime, now in an overt manner and Iraq’s tacit support has such harrowing premises. The conditions are being set, regionally, culturally, and religiously: Gulf Sunni versus Persian Shiʼa, with Syria as the prize. The anciens régimes, relived for the 21st Century.
A significant amount of assessment has focused on the evolution of the Sunni opposition factions, which has reached something of a zenith, and now includes suicide attacks, car bombs, and other forms of terrorist warfare. These tactics and techniques have been facilitated by non-indigenous Sunni networks, such as al-Qaida in Iraq, who are presumably siphoning off funding from countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. However, if the reports are true and Iran has resumed supply flights and support for clandestine military units, then the conflict dynamics are about to shift yet again.
So how will Iranian and unstated Iraqi support for the Syrian regime manifest on the ground in Syria? There are two possible objectives, neither of which provides for either Syrians or broad regional stability. These strategic objectives will be matched with equally draconian tactics that will further entrench political and sectarian agendas.
The first objective is to maintain regime continuity. Iran is not likely to give up on Syria or the current regime. Syria not only provides depth in the Levant by securing an operational corridor for groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon, but also acts as a conduit for cultural and religious influence for Shiʼa Muslims. Iran is the spiritual capital of Shiʼa Islam, much like Saudi Arabia is for the Sunni. Syria’s ability to project power is heavily derived from their facility to support cultural and religious institutions. If the Syrian regime falls and a conservative Sunni regime assumes power, they will not just lose their political and operational influence. They will also lose their place as the cultural and religious ambassador to Shiʼa in the Levant.
Iran has written the playbook on how to squash dissent and force compliance in the 21st century. They will likely start by developing strong militias and equally fearsome paramilitary forces. Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon all have experience in equipping and organizing partisan forces such as these. Between the Basij militia in Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Jaish al Mahdi in Iraq, there remains no shortage of experience in organizing and agitating pro-Shiʼa or Shiʼa-affiliated communities.
Moreover, with a clear air corridor for Iranian support via Iraq, Iran will be able to facilitate the logistics needed to mobilize these groups for the al-Assad regime. The opposition will soon have to fight on two fronts, against both regular and irregular regime forces. Iranian organization of Shiʼa partisans has proved to be an incredibly potent apparatus over the years, and one that should not be underestimated.
The second outcome, should the al-Assad regime collapse, will be to set in motion the conditions for protracted insurgency. This objective will be driven by the necessity to prevent a consolidated Sunni government from forming. This too is marginally in the interest of the Iraqi government, which is witless over a Sunni sphere of influence that might upend the power polity in Baghdad. The rise of a conservative Sunni government that remains indebted to countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey effectively isolates Iraq and Iran from the rest of the region. A protracted insurgency, much like that in Iraq and Afghanistan, will keep any newly anointed government off-balance and ineffective. In this regard, a retreat to sectarianism remains not only a strategic advantage, but a tactical objective.
How will Iran promote the conditions for insurgency? The same way it did in Iraq, by stressing sectarianism through religious and cultural influence. The Quds Force, led by Major General Qasem Soleimani, will likely direct this effort. Quds Force, an Iranian division within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Force, successfully created multiple clandestine groups within Iraq, such as Kata'ib Hezbollah and Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq. These Iraqi networks, along with Lebanese Hezbollah, will train, arm, and fight with newly organized Syrian insurgent groups, using tactics that were advanced during nine years of fighting in Iraq. It is highly unlikely that an emergent Syrian government, in the post-regime vacuum, will be able to defeat such an insurgency.
The amelioration of either Shiʼa paramilitary forces or Shiʼa insurgent groups can be identified, much in the same manner as Sunni terrorist groups. Through their tactics, Iran has expended considerable efforts in developing the groups mentioned above. While they might have contrasting ideologies, their tactical acumen originates from the same source. Critical observers of the conflict in Syria should interpret the eventual usage of armored piercing IEDs, known as explosively formed projectiles (EFP), as an indicator of Iranian corroboration. Additional indicators include the usage of improvised rocket assisted mortar systems (IRAM), also known as “lob bombs,” and the deployment of Katyusha rockets with extemporized launch rails. Whereas Sunni terrorism is often unorganized with cells disassociated from one another, Shiʼa insurgency is coordinated, targeted, and discriminate. This capability naturally flows from the organization provided by the stateservices of Iran.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey have doubled down in Syria, and now Iran and Iraq are slowly showing their hand. The calculus in Syria is being determined by proxy and proxy warfare will inevitably end in attrition. The advancement of Iranian support to militias, paramilitaries, or clandestine groups will bolster the regime of Bashar al-Assad, for a time and put the opposition back on the defensive. Whether or not this is enough to sustain the regime is guesswork, but with a compliant Iraq, Iran will continue to have an open door right into the heart of Syria.
Landon Shroder is a security and political consultant in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa.