Declaring victory against Daesh, Al-Nusra Front, or other Al-Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups is ultimately meaningless, as long as the fate of their fighters remains shrouded in the same kind of mystery that surrounded their groups’ inception and rise.
Men do not spontaneously spawn or disappear. People need some kind of closure. They need confirmation of the militants’ fates — whether that be their demise, their capture, their rehabilitation, or even their escape to the breeding grounds from which they arrived in Syria and Iraq. It requires published images of their captured equipment and propaganda devices.
In the name of “The War on Terror” and George W. Bush’s mantra, “Fight them there, so we don’t have to fight them here” (in reference to American cities), Iraq was destroyed and became a magnet for extremist groups and terrorists. Under that same banner of fighting terror, Syria grew from an arena of a civil war into a muster point for terrorists from all around the world.
Bashar Assad was the top investor in Syria in the “joint stock company” — commonly known as Daesh — dealing in international terror commodities. He was joined by multinational investors and financiers from the Gulf to Iran and from Turkey to North Africa. America, Russia and other European nations were also essential stakeholders in the covert cocktail that helped create Daesh — whose exported terror and horror has stunned the world, overshadowing Al-Qaeda, and Al-Nusra Front’s various iterations.
Where will all those volunteer fighters — the terrorists, ideological extremists, or those who see themselves as defenders of the Sunnis against Iran’s Shiite-branded regional expansion in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon — go now?
Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), is now a war hero in Iran, because he portrayed himself as a fierce fighter against Daesh in Iraq and Syria. Copying Bush’s model, Iran took the fight to two Arab countries, so it does not have to fight Daesh and other terror groups on its own soil.
In Iraq, Iran created the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) as a parallel army, more loyal to Tehran than to Baghdad, increasing Soleimani’s popularity and heroic credentials back home, having exported Iran’s revolutionary model to Iraq.
In Lebanon, Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its leader Hassan Nasrallah are proclaiming themselves a parallel army loyal to Tehran under the banner of fighting terrorists like Daesh and Al-Nusra Front. In doing so, Hezbollah is, essentially, matching America’s strategy, as well as Iran’s. So Iran maintains its hegemony in Lebanon and continues to stoke Sunni-Shiite tensions in the region.
This is the primary point of convergence between real and alleged victories in the war on terror. And depending on whom you ask, that is either down to America’s naivety or America’s strategic shrewdness. Either way, the US has decided that its interests also lie in continuing to stoke Sunni-Shiite conflict in partnership with Russia.
Turkey has played its part in widening the Sunni-Shiite divide too, by adopting and exporting the Muslim Brotherhood power project, which seeks to impose a Sunni quasi-theocracy similar to Iran’s Shiite theocracy. But where Iran has succeeded, Turkey has failed — from Syria to Egypt. Instead, Turkey’s actions, co-sponsored by some Gulf countries, have led to the growth of terrorism, particularly in Syria.
Leaving the fate of the Shiite militias in Iraq to the discretion of Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi is to kick the can down the road, because Al-Abadi cannot stand up to the Iranian-led paramilitary forces. In truth, this is a prime example of the fundamental flaw in the current fight against Daesh and similar groups.
The Sunni-Shiite conflict has extended from the Gulf to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Under President Donald Trump, it is taking on an American dimension, a shift in the direction seen under former President Barack Obama. Both have played themselves off against each other as a reliable counter-terror partner. Obama was persuaded by Iran and consequently adopted a policy that deliberately stoked Sunni-Shiite conflict. However, this is nothing new in US long-term strategy on the Sunni-Shiite question from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Iran and Saudi Arabia. In the eyes of American administrations, terrorism has alternately taken on Sunni and Shiite forms. Once, the US partnered up with Sunni Saddam Hussein in his war with Iran, and then teamed up with the Shiites in Iraq and in Syria.
For his part, Trump seems more convinced that a partnership with the Sunni powers is the best path to fight terrorism. However, US actions on the ground in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen are not convincing. At the Riyadh Summit with Sunni leaders, Trump obtained promises, financial pledges and manpower commitments against Sunni terror groups. However, this Sunni preparedness to fight in the front row of the battle will lose momentum if the US does not deliver on its quid-pro-quo to contain Shiite Iran’s violations and aspirations in the region.
Leaving the fate of the PMUs in Iraq to the discretion of Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi is to kick the can down the road, because Al-Abadi cannot stand up to the Iranian-led paramilitary force. In truth, this is a prime example of the fundamental flaw in the current fight against Daesh and similar groups. For one thing, Daesh was born out of the disbanding of the Iraqi army following the US occupation of the country under Bush. Daesh was able to grow and expand because its fuel was Iranian violations and the arrogance of Shiite political factions under Iraq’s former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, who deliberately marginalized the Sunnis of the country. In other words, if no radical solution is found to the Sunni-Shiite problem in Iraq following the liberation of Mosul — one which addresses the future of the PMUs and Iran’s influence in the country — even a victorious eradication of Daesh will leave seeds for a new, perhaps even worse, version to respawn.
In Syria too, the Trump administration seems scattered in its approach, from its dealings with Iran and its militias in the attempt to defeat Daesh, to arrangements on the ground to contain Al-Nusra Front and Daesh, to the abandonment of moderate Syrian rebels.
US Defense Secretary James Mattis — who until recently was one of the loudest critics of Iran’s militias, and against Iran’s regional project — speaks today in a tone that does not suggest objection to the expansion of the IRGC, Hezbollah and other Iranian militias into the Syrian territories recaptured from Daesh. This contradicts not only his own previous stances, but also the declared position of his president.
The same applies to H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, who has long attacked Iran’s policies. In early July, he said those policies feed “this cycle of sectarian conflict to keep the Arab world perpetually weak.” McMaster has since said that the US would not intervene in Syria or Iraq to stop Iran’s project, saying: “We have to be very clear that the reason we are in Syria is to destroy (Daesh),” and nothing else.
In the past few days — in an indication of further disarray in the positions of the Trump administration — CIA Director Mike Pompeo said from the Aspen Security Forum: “When we have our strategy in place (on Iran), I’m confident you will see a fundamental shift in policy.” In other words, the Trump administration does not have an Iran strategy.
This contradicts everything Trump said at the Riyadh Summit and subsequent threats he made against Iran and Hezbollah. The “Axis of Adults,” which includes Mattis, McMaster, Pompeo and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is now on a break, has backed down on its previous positions and pledges, awaiting this new American strategy.
Thus, it seems worthwhile for the Gulf countries to adopt caution. Relying on US promises is a big gamble. The Riyadh Summit obtained promises from Trump and mobilized support from countries that have wagered on Saudi leadership to guarantee the delivery of those promises. However, the facts on the ground suggest the Trump administration is only implementing Obama’s policies, at least in Syria and Iraq.
The words of the US president differ significantly from his administration’s actions on the ground. Congress has assisted the president by imposing and studying further sanctions on Iran and Hezbollah, but his Cabinet is focusing on a different priority: Trump’s desire to claim victory against Daesh even if that requires partnering up with the devil. This is short-termism.
One issue is that it will likely create a rush to declare a victory that does not address the root causes that led to the emergence of Sunni extremist terror groups, either in terms of their ideology or in terms of their response to Iran’s regional encroachment. This will lead to the re-emergence of those groups, either in the form of new factions or sleeper cells that could seek revenge on the international community.
Another issue is that endorsing Iran’s arrogance and overconfidence will enable its Persian Crescent project, which seeks to establish an Iranian link to Israel’s borders through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, to proceed. And that will undermine the tacit willingness among Sunni powers to coexist and reconcile with Israel on new foundations, different from those laid out in the Arab Peace Initiative rejected by Israel.
If the Trump administration regains its equilibrium and ends its contradictory policies, it may once again be possible to rely on a constructive strategy where the US abandons its traditional policy of stoking sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites. Then it would be possible to trust in America’s determination to eliminate terrorism of any kind. But in the absence of this development, it seems the many stakeholders who invest in war, from the military-industrial complex to Big Oil and the intelligence community, are not yet sated.
• Raghida Dergham is a columnist, senior diplomatic correspondent, and New York bureau chief for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is the founder and executive chairman of the Beirut Institute. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an honorary fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She has served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham.
— Originally published in Al-Hayat.