(photo credit: ISLAMIC SOCIAL MEDIA)
The Western-backed war against the Sunni Islamic State is setting the stage for the rise of an Iran-led Shi’ite crescent across the region.
From contiguous territory stretching from Afghanistan to Iran and through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, Shi’ite influence would increase.
Just as the US-led coalition war against Iraq in 2003 toppled the Sunni power and removed an obstacle for Iran to spread its influence in the overwhelmingly Shi’ite country, the removal of Islamic State would give Iran the upper hand against its Sunni enemies.
In fact, many Sunnis support Islamic State not necessarily because they are true believers, but in a show of solidarity against an Iranian-led Shi’ite onslaught.
With the aid of attacks on Islamic State by Western forces and Russia, Iran and its militia allies can prepare for an onslaught on the remaining Sunni rebel forces in Syria. And from there, the Iran axis would look to penetrate neighboring Jordan as well as expand its support of the Houthis in Yemen.
Phillip Smyth, a researcher specializing in Shi’ite Islamist groups at the University of Maryland’s Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics, told The Jerusalem Post that once Islamic State is gone, we should expect the fault lines accentuated during this conflict to grow a bit deeper.
“Iranian-backed [Shi’ite] militias in Iraq have not only grown in military power, but they now have a cache of political capital,” said Smyth.
There is a sense, particularly given Baghdad’s facilitation of the creation of the Popular Mobilization Committee, or Hashid Shaabi, that these sectarian militia entities are in some way legitimate, he said.
“There also is a desire, not limited to the Iranians, to keep many of these groups alive and influential,” he pointed out.
“Given that many of these organizations have regional goals and answer to the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary ideological interests, there is the extreme likelihood they will not only be with us for a while, but they may project elsewhere in the foreseeable future,” Smyth said.
Another concern for Smyth is about what happens to Shi’ism post-Islamic State. He predicts that there is likely to be an internal tug of war over who controls it.
If Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, dies, then Smyth says there would be a number of rising clerics competing to fill the void.
“Iran is attempting to sink its talons into the clerical realm,” he continued, noting that Iran already has power on the ground, via its militias, to help support its agenda.
Elijah J. Magnier, the chief international correspondent for the Kuwaiti Al-Rai newspaper, told the Post that he sees Iran losing some influence in Iraq while gaining power in Syria.
“In Iraq, the US is imposing rules of engagement on the Iraqi government, dictating the units allowed to attack Islamic State and excluding the pro-Iranian Hashid Shaabi from taking part in the Anbar attack,” he said.
It can be assumed that the Shi’ite militias will also be kept out of the battle for Mosul in the north, said Magnier.
In Syria, “Russia, a friend of Israel, is not interfering in the Israel-Hezbollah-Iran struggle for the moment.”
Magnier says that in a postwar scenario, he could envision Hezbollah maintaining a presence along the Lebanese-Syrian borders.
For now Jordan is out of the Shi’ite crescent, he said, but “Yemen has registered a serious presence of Hezbollah, Iran and its warfare technology.”
Such a presence is “very worrying to Saudi Arabia,” Magnier noted.