Is Iran upping the Shia-Sunni divide?

Sunday 04/09/2016

Political tensions in the Middle East are at a dangerously high level as the United States and Russia are facing off over the Syrian conflict, pitting the two powers against one another in a manner reminiscent of the Cold War.
Further upping the ante, Iran revealed the creation of a “liberation army”. A move that complicates a murky situation in the region and will undoubtedly raise alarms in Saudi Arabia and other predominantly Sunni Gulf states.
As complex issues go, the civil war in Syria is about as complex as they come. Not only has it involved Arabs, Iranians, Kurds, Turks and various other minorities in the region, it has brought in proxy armies and militias to the region.
The conflict has dragged in countries such as Syria’s neighbours Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon and even countries that have no direct borders with Syria but are concerned in one manner or another. Such is the case with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
The war in Syria has brought in fighters from Europe and North America into the conflict.
Some of them have taken the Middle East’s hottest dispute back to their adopted homelands, as we have seen in France and Belgium.
The Syrian conflict has all along been marred by uncertainties and surprise alliances, such as the CIA reportedly arming and training one particular group of Syrian rebels while the US military was reported to be backing a rival group.
Amid this uncertainty, the Syrian war has been consistent about one thing: Just when the situation in the Levant appears to be getting more complicated along comes a new development that further muddles things. As Patrick Cockburn, from the Independent newspaper and old Middle East hand who specialises in Iraq and Syria, recently wrote: “The complexity of the conflict is well described as three-dimensional chess played by nine players with no rules.”
The latest revelation comes from Iran, with Tehran recognising its role in trying to export its Shia revolution to the Arab world. In an unusual approach of openness in matters relating to the military, Iran admitted that it formed a “liberation army” to support its combat operations in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
This new force is believed to number about 200,000, according to Al Jazeera and will come under the command of a veteran Iranian officer, Major-General Qassem Soleimani, who is the commander of Iran’s elite al-Quds Force.
In addition to dispatching the new force to support allies in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, Iran plans to provide training for other groups, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Kurdish fighters. Iran said the force would include Afghan Shias who would be sent to fight in Syria.
In that respect, there is really nothing new here as Iran was openly supporting fellow Shias in Yemen, Iraq and Syria. The Iranians have funded, trained and armed Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic resistance group known as Hamas, although the latter is Sunni.
The great novelty here is that Iran feels bold enough to flaunt its military muscle and assert itself as the regional power it aspires to be. Even prior to the 1979 Islamic revolution that overthrew the shah, dissolved the centuries-old Persian empire and put the mullahs in power, Tehran saw a role for its military in the region.
How will the region and indeed the Western powers react to such a development? A well-trained and combat-experienced fighting force not overly concerned by the number of casualties it sustains can certainly influence the course of action in the region.
What will likely be the retort from the West? Tehran’s timing of course is near perfect. With about five months left in the Obama administration, the US president is hardly about to enter into a confrontation requiring him to dispatch US troops. The newly found Iranian-Russian friendship will likely be perceived by Iran as a green light to follow its ambitions.