Iran’s post-ISIS game
It wasn’t Bashar Assad’s exploding barrels nor his deadly siege of the city of Madaya nor his destruction of the city of Al-Qusayr and the ensuing human toll that stirred the empathy of Hezbollah. Nor was it the Russian missiles, which have razed hospitals and killed civilians in Aleppo and elsewhere, that prompted the sectarian party to warn against a human tragedy in the making.
It was, in fact, the mere thought of having American warplanes conduct air strikes against a convoy of Islamic State (ISIS) forces. Hezbollah had negotiated safe passage for those forces to areas near the Syrian-Iraqi border in eastern Syria.
What was Hezbollah thinking? How could an ISIS convoy cross about 500km between Jurud al- Qaa in Lebanon and the Syrian- Iraqi border on Syrian territory without spurring an American reaction? Were the US strikes against the convoy unexpected or perhaps the US forces reneged on some deal?
The American side never mentioned any deal with Hezbollah so the US attack against the convoy was not unexpected. Hezbollah would have known this, which raises the question of why it brokered the deal knowing the risk.
It is clear the game is afoot for the post-ISIS phase in the region. The Iranian axis is busy reshuffling enemies and allies, especially now that Iran can no longer get any mileage out of the sectarian card.
Even among the Iraqi Shia leadership, there are calls for Iraqi national policies free of Iranian influence and more open to the Arab world. The best illustration of this is the recent visit to Saudi Arabia by Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, head of the Sadrist Movement in Iraq and his meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz. Many similar actions are taking place under US cover.
In Syria, the post-ISIS phase will be marked by the enactment of regional and international partnerships under US and Russian supervision and this will spur new alliances. The Qatari dispute injected new life into the relations between Turkey, Qatar and Iran.
The deal brokered by Hezbollah might be the precursor of a new Iranian strategy in the region. As an agent of Iran in the Arab zone, Hezbollah will be the spearhead of Iranian policies in Lebanon and Syria, especially entrusted with repairing Iran’s relations with other Islamic organisations.
Iran and its allies are aware that their relations with Sunni Islamic organisations have been deeply shaken. That is why they are repairing the damage by taking advantage of their relations with Turkey and Qatar. It is known that Iran instructed its proxies in the Arab world to revive anti-American discourse and close the gap with Islamic organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Through Hezbollah, for example, Iran made it possible for Hamas leaders to move from Qatar and settle in Lebanon.
By touting competition with Washington in the Middle East, Iran is hoping to bridge the sectarian gap it created with Sunni Islamic organisations and win them over to its policies. This means that tensions in the region will continue under new guises because Iran is committed to fighting nationalistic plans and to spreading chaos by removing national borders.
For Iran to play a pivotal role in the post-ISIS Middle East, it must remove any potential source of threat to it in the Sunni environment, something it failed to do in the past. As examples of this failure, we can cite Iran’s siding with the Assad regime and against the wishes of most of the Syrian population, plus its influential role in Iraq, which resulted in excluding the Sunnis from power.
Now, Iran is trying to project a more positive image by appearing to have enough influence to broker agreements with organisations such as ISIS or Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.
It is also trying to see how far it can impress the general Islamic consciousness by saying that the Islamic regime in Iran can provide safe haven for Sunni Islamic organisations banned internationally or in the Arab world.
The deal brokered by Hezbollah with ISIS in Lebanon must be evaluated from the point of view of the objectives developed above. Of course, Iran was never in conflict with ISIS in Syria. Its real conflict was always with the moderate organisations among the Syrian opposition.
Iran, however, was not above using the extremist bodies to demonise the Syrian revolution. In fact, it helped implant the terrorist organisations because they were always less dangerous to its projects in the region than any nationalistic Syrian plan.