What if all the Arab world’s destiny was being defined right at this moment, through skirmishes in obscure regions between paramilitary factions whose names are unfamiliar to the world, amid events people struggle to comprehend? What if the Arab world was on the verge of its most catastrophic strategic defeat in 70 years and nobody even realized until it was too late?
Over recent days, pro-Iranian militias in Iraq battled Daesh all the way to the Syrian borders. However, they then announced that they would continue into Syria. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Hezbollah mercenaries are fighting their way up through eastern Syria to hook up with their counterparts on the Iraqi side.
The Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi Iraqi militias benefit from diverting their attention to Syria, because the longer they leave cities like Hawija in the hands of Daesh, the less pressure to demobilize, while also ensuring continuing funds from the Iraqi state.
During World War I, imperialist Western powers fought each other over the carcass of the Ottoman Empire. Exactly a century later it is the decaying corpse of Daesh being carved up. Turkey, Iran, the US, Syrian President Bashar Assad, the Kurds and various mercenary forces are competing to seize what remains of Daesh’s “caliphate.” As these entities embark on a “race for Raqqa,” the Arab world snoozes contentedly, unaware that it is minutes away from being torn apart.
One contender is head-and-shoulders in front of all rivals, because it has been preparing for a long time. Iran initially desired an incursion into northern Syria, but Turkey and the US deployed forces to block this route. After a lot of angry anti-Turkish rhetoric from Tehran’s proxies, from December 2016 they changed course toward a “southern route.” Iran was so well-prepared that it spent six months building a road strong enough for its tanks and mercenaries to roll from Iraq straight into Syria.
The next showdown in this shadow war occurred last month when Hezbollah marched its forces along the Syria-Jordan border, intending to exterminate a base of US-backed rebels at Tanf. But US planes pounded them until they fled back the way they came. Now, they talk about returning with a larger force, wiping Tanf off the map and fighting their way up to Deir Ez-Zor, while their comrades encroach from Iraq and annex a vast region of central Syria.
Tehran has gone from being a bully state in its own backyard, to being a deranged warlord that aspires to hold the world to ransom.
With control of the Strait of Hormuz, its use of Houthi militants to menace the Bab Al-Mandab Strait, and its new posture at the head of the Mediterranean, Iran can impose a stranglehold on global trade. Tehran has gone from being a bully state in its own backyard, to being a deranged warlord that aspires to hold the world to ransom. As one veteran diplomat put it to me: Iran is on the verge of turning from a rogue state into a “status quo power” where it controls all the territories it requires. The goal will then be to consolidate what it has and ensure that nobody challenges its “facts on the ground.”
Tehran has learned a lot from its so-called enemy. Just as Israel resettled Jewish immigrants in stolen Palestinian villages, today Iran is bussing in thousands of Iraqis and Lebanese to repopulate towns around Damascus, remaking Syria as an Iranian protectorate. Tehran invested in dozens of Arabic-language media channels to brainwash communities with the rhetoric of Wilayat Al-Faqih and sectarian hatred. This has nothing to do with a Sunni-Shiite conflict; this is a naked land grab.
Those commentators who portray this as a Sunni-Shiite conflict play into Iran’s hands. Tehran is targeting and exploiting Shiite communities because it sees them as its Trojan horse, its fifth column into the Arab world. This is not done out of passion for the well-being of Arab Shiites, any more than when Iran sent arms to elements of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. However, the consequences are disastrous for the Shiite population because it makes coexistence impossible, sowing the seeds of future wars that will make the conflict in Syria look like a walk in the park.
Tehran only gained a foothold in the Arab world because it exploited divisions that already existed. In Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and even Bahrain, Iran stepped in at the first signs of unrest — or “fitna” — and added to its payroll those willing to sell out their countrymen. Last week Iran’s defense minister threatened to use Arab Iraqi militants against any other Arab nation that participated in Saudi Arabia’s coalition; what contempt Tehran displays for the Arab world. The region must become wiser in not leaving its back door ajar, and by Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Arab nations presenting a united front and not allowing disputes to escalate, which can be exploited by enemies.
Jordan now sits uneasily on the front lines. Over a decade ago King Abdallah warned that Iran was carving out a “Shiite crescent.” Militant leader Qais Al-Khazali recently encapsulated how vastly Iran’s ambitions have expanded when he boasted that Iran no longer sought a crescent, but rather a “full moon” across the entire Arab world.
It is too late for the Arab world to enter a race for Raqqa, but the region must wake up and take preventative action to avoid being encircled and bisected by an emerging Persian Empire. The alternative is the double humiliation of the Middle East being conquered, before it even knew it was at war!
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate, a foreign editor at Al-Hayat, and has interviewed numerous heads of state.