A Post-ISIS Middle East: Confronting Iran

 Radical Islamic ideology may never be truly defeated---at least not now--but ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other similar militant groups in Iraq and Syria are on the verge of defeat. US-backed fighters on the ground, mainly moderate Arabs and Kurdish factions, have encircled and are in the process of invading Syria's Raqqa and Iraq's Mosul. The US-led coalition is bombing from above, and when they aren't, the Russians, Iranians, and pro-regime forces are also attacking the Sunni jihadists. As seen in the case of Qatar, the Arab Gulf countries have taken a more stringent stance on terror (although there is still work to be done), and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is playing the role of a North African Ataturk in terms of secularism and Islamic reform. The threats emanating from the Middle East are not what they were in the beginning of the century--the most potent threat is a renewed Persian Empire, with Russia as its ultimate patron and security guarantor. This poses not just a threat to our allies in the Gulf, Israel, or Turkey, but to our own bases and troops stationed in the region. It is wonderful that steps are being taken to fully crush ISIS in the Middle East, but the US-led coalition needs to prepare for what to do after ISIS is gone and how to stabilize the region. 
When ISIS and other Sunni jihadist organizations are defeated and destroyed in Syria, there is no more excuse for Iran, Russia, or any other foreign pro-regime militias to remain in the country. The powers that be--the European Union, United States, United Nations, Turkey, and the stronger rebel groups--should start with diplomatic means to get them out of Syria. It must be made very clear that the alternative is an all-out war. Already, Israel has said that it will not tolerate any pro-Iranian forces on its border. Kurdish militias have also said they will fight back against any Turkish or pro-Iranian forces threatening their security and territory. Furthermore, it's incredibly difficult to see Jordan or any other Arab Sunni country in the region allowing Tehran's proxies or military on its frontier. For the sake of humanitarianism and pacifism, there should be significant pressure on Moscow and Tehran to refrain from threatening or approaching neighboring states. At the same time, the United States and its allies should provide or sell more arms to Israel, the Kurds, and Jordan (along with moderate rebel forces in Syria) in order to dissuade any sort of force from trying to attack. Hopefully, Russia and Iran will call off their proxies and decide to retreat from Syria back into their own borders, as the world will celebrate the death of ISIS and other such groups. But given past behavior, this scenario is unlikely. As such, there are a number of steps that must be taken to prepare from stopping the rollout of the Persian rug all across the Middle East. 
The United States cannot afford to allow Iran and Russia to dominate the Levant, lest its own forces be targeted (as both Tehran and Moscow have threatened) or its credibility as a world power be further eroded. Israel and the Sunni Arab states also cannot allow Iran to expand unfettered across the Mediterranean basin, for they would face major wars and existential threat. As such, it's imperative that Israel, the Sunni Arab axis, and the USA strengthen cooperation as the Syrian Civil War winds down and/or enters a new phase. 
The United States needs to prepare for a post-IS Syria. With ISIS and other Sunni jihadists facing inevitable and imminent collapse, the Syrian Civil War will see a new dynamic emerge. The moderate rebel groups that have been doing most of the fighting against Sunni terrorist organizations will be no match for the Shiite axis, led by Assad and Iran, who mostly have been sitting on the sidelines or bombing civilians. Moreover, our loyal Kurdish allies in the north face an existential Turkish threat from the tyrannical Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has even begun cooperating more with his former Russian and Persian rivals against Western interests. After the Obama era, when our credibility as a country, as a world power, and as a security guarantor for many Middle Eastern states declined, it's imperative that we protect our allies and interests at all costs to improve our image. 
First and foremost, we must avoid being seen as complicit in Assad's empowerment. When the United States backed unpopular governments in the past (such as the Shah of Iran, or Latin American dictators), there was severe and dangerous blowback after such regimes were toppled. America's image as a beacon of freedom and democracy was tarnished, and we were declared an imperial power like the western European countries. Imagine if we allowed a human rights abuser like Bashar al-Assad to remain in power, only for him to be later toppled by (largely Sunni) resistance? What if, in retaliation, a new, Sunni-led government sought to challenge the US role in the Middle East or commit terror attacks against our country and our allies? Instead of always "reacting", Washington needs to be proactive. Bashar al-Assad must not be allowed to remain in power and threaten his people, our allies, our troops in the region, or our regional interests. While deconfliction with Russia is important, it's also important to recall that Russia has no interest in a war (certainly not over the likes of Syria) with the USA, especially if it was frightened to use force to respond to Turkey's downing of a Russian plane in 2015.  Similarly, in the north of the country, we should continue supplying sophisticated arms to Kurdish fighters, allowing them to protect themselves from both Turkish and Iranian aggression, and to fight against Tehran-sponsored Shiite militias. After the destruction of ISIS, the United States should provide arms to the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces), YPG, and similar militias to support their ultimate goal of removing Assad's Ba'athists from power and expelling Shiite terrorists and Iranian troops from Syria. 
In Iraq, Iran has also grown closer to the Baghdad government and filled the country with Shiite terrorists. There, too, the battle against ISIS is nearing its end, and the Kurdistan region seeks independence. After the defeat of ISIS, the United States should support the establishment of a Kurdish state, which would promote pro-American, pro-Israel interests and ideals in the region and could possible serve as a forward base against Iran should it cheat on its end of the nuclear deal. The Americans should also work towards getting closer to the Baghdad government, seeking to replace Tehran as its chief patron. This would give Washington increased power and leverage to evict Tehran's troublesome militias and clerics from Iraq. Although the majority of Iraq's population shares Iran's Shiite brand of Islam, there is still tension among many Arab Iraqis towards what they view as Persian overlords seeking to dominate their country. The US can play off of this hostility to gain influence in Iraq. 
The Sunni Arab states are engaged in a bilateral front currently. On one hand, it is seeking to prevent Iranian expansion in Yemen with its war against Houthi militants who are supported by the Tehran regime. On the other, it seeks to isolate Qatar for its growing ties with Iran, its support of the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremists, and its harboring of terrorists. The isolation of Qatar is necessary for a multitude of reasons. Like France post-WWII, Qatar has sought to play a larger role in regional & international politics than its power level would allow. Just as France at that time annoyed Britain and the United States for not falling in line with their politics and strategy, so, too, has Qatar to more powerful regional players (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates). In essence, the "big dogs" of the Arab World are flexing and showing who's boss. But amid outrage and suspicion from Westerners against Arab Sunni states for funding terrorism and human rights abuses, these governments also recognize the need to come out more strongly against extremism. What better target than Qatar, which, alongside Erdogan's Turkey, is a major supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood? Along with the fact that Qatar's Al Jazeera propaganda network regularly critiques Arab neighboring regimes and that Doha is a collaborator in many ways with Tehran, it is necessary to put the Doha government in its place. By crushing any kind of independent foreign policy that Qatar may have and bringing it back into the mainstream Gulf fold, Saudi Arabia and its allies seek to consolidate the Sunni Arab world and unite it against Iran and its regional proxy network. 
But the Arab Sunni states cannot afford to only focus on weakening Qatar. The war in Yemen has been a humanitarian catastrophe which continues to bring with it Western outrage directed at their governments. As the war drags on without a clear winning side, it bolsters Iran's image as a regional power and economically saps away at the Arab coalition, much as happened when the US became bogged down in Vietnam, or the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. A defeat or further stalemate in Yemen would strengthen Iran's image as a stabilizing power while leaving the Arab World exhausted, impoverished, and vulnerable to an Iranian attack. The Sunni coalition must bring a quick and decisive end to the war in Yemen with the full brunt of its military force. The Houthis must quickly be brought to heel, expelled, or otherwise defeated by the coalition in order to preserve stability in the Gulf region; protect the Bab al-Mandeb shipping lanes for other countries; and prevent Iran from gaining a foothold on Africa and the Red Sea. A quick end to the war will allow for Yemen's rehabilitation and mark the beginning of the end of Iran's proxy network, while also restoring a sense of pride and unity among the Arab World---after all, instability over the past few decades in Arab states has bred jihadism. 
Perhaps no other country in the Middle East faces as large a threat from Iranian proxies as Israel. In the south, Gaza is still controlled by Hamas, a terrorist organization backed by Iran. In the north, Lebanon is de facto ruled by Iran's flagship proxy, Hezbollah. And to the northeast, the Syrian regime, long an enemy of the Jewish state, is now bolstered by Iranian military advisors and Shiite militias backed by the Islamic Republic. If a regional war were to break out, Israel would have the biggest problem on its hands since 1973's Yom Kippur War. There may not seem to be a reason to panic now. After all, Hamas has its hands full with an electricity crisis, Hezbollah has lost over a thousand fighters to the Syrian War (and is still bogged down there and in Iraq), and the Syrian regime and its allies have been sharply weakened. Israel remains the region's strongest military power, and has repeatedly struck Hezbollah weapons convoys, Syrian regime targets (when stray shells land in the Golan), and Hamas (when missiles are fired by terrorists into Israel). Israel has also gotten a massive aid deal from the United States in regards to military equipment, and has improved its fighting capabilities since its last war, in 2014. And yet Hezbollah has gained valuable military experience in the war in Syria, in addition to tens of thousands more missiles from Tehran, which is now building a domestic weapons factory for it in Lebanon. Hezbollah also boasts of the ability to summon foreign Shiite fighters in case of a war with the Israelis. Hamas, meanwhile, has been bolstered by assistance from Egypt that gives it a lifeline. And there is increased likelihood that if Israel went to war with just one of these terrorist militias, the others would step in and assist it. 
In this case, Israel should recall the Iran-Iraq War. There was no true winner, and over a million died in the 8 year-long conflict. It is a war that continues to haunt the Iranians to this day. The supposedly revolutionary, all-powerful Islamic Republic was forced to use child soldiers to clear minefields, brave chemical weapons, and see its capital city showered with Iraqi missiles. Although it stemmed an Iraqi invasion and annexation of the Khuzestan province (which contains a substantial Arab population), it failed to overthrow Saddam Hussein, and saw economic decline after the war. In short, the war was humiliating and devastating, in costs both blood and treasure, to Tehran. Ever since, the Iranians have mostly used Shiite (mainly Arab and Afghan) militias as cannon fodder, refusing to put their troops at risk (outside of some IRGC troops and military advisors in Lebanon and Syria) in conflicts where Iran has something at stake. Already, the regime's propaganda is trying to paint itself as a rising regional superpower that has restored Assad's position in Syria, stabilized Iraq after the American invasion and partial withdrawal, and bolstered Hezbollah in Lebanon. With this image as a victorious and emerging hegemon, it has dangerously painted itself to the former American administration as an anti-jihadist partner in the Middle East, a stable and crypto-democratic business partner to Europe, and a natural ally to Russia's Vladimir Putin (despite historical antagonism between Persia and Tsarist Russia). The key to eliminating this image is to deplete and destroy Iran's proxies in Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria, if necessary. Unlike the past few wars with Hamas and Hezbollah, Israel must seek to completely eradicate the two terrorist organizations in the next clashes with them. Already, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has stated that the next wars with Hamas and Hezbollah will be their last, and will be devastating. If it is to decisively win the next conflict--and deter Iran from launching a direct war against it--Jerusalem must make sure his statement rings true in the inevitable conflict(s) to come with Hamas and Hezbollah. The danger to Israel in such a war against these two dangerous terrorist groups is great. But the danger would be far greater if they were allowed to exist and strengthen over the course of many years, as the Iranians improve their military and nuclear capabilities and seek the legitimacy of their radical regime in international circles. 
Saddam Hussein's Iraq inflicted lethal damage to Iran's morale as well as its military and economy (even if his country also payed a heavy price). And yet, for the rest of his tenure in Baghdad (even after his defeat in 1991's Gulf War and no-fly zones imposed over parts of his country by the Americans), Iran never tried to attack him or topple his regime ever again. Israel's deterrence against a direct Iranian attack--or an attack by foreign Shiite militias--on Israel would be greatly rincreased if the ayatollahs see the cost would by far outweigh the benefits. If Israel completely destroys Hezbollah and Hamas, it would weaken the Iranian "axis of resistance" and stranglehold on the Levant, damage its international legitimacy and image as a stable potential ally, and create discord domestically. Already, may voices inside the Islamic Republic question why the economic fruits of the nuclear deal are going towards Iran's satraps in Lebanon, Gaza, and Syria, instead of to the Iranian people. An all-out defeat of Iran's most cherished proxies fighting against one of its largest rivals (the others being Saudi Arabia and the United States) would be seen by hardliners as an embarrassing failure, and by reformers as wasted money, leading them to question the judgment and legitimacy of the regime. It would also bolster Israel's image as an important and powerful regional player that will never let any military threaten its security--this could serve to impress Arab governments hostile to Iran and Hezbollah, as they could decide Israel is an invaluable military asset in the struggle against Tehran. In addition, it'd delegitimize the idea of armed uprising among Palestinians and others in the region against Israel, much as the Jewish state's victory in the 1967 6-Day War (and to a lesser extent, the Yom Kippur War) eliminated the broad appeal of Nasserite Arab nationalism. Instead, it could create a sense of urgency among the Arabs (Palestinians in particular) to peacefully negotiate a solution to the conflict. 
For a long time, war hawks have stated that the best way to eliminate the next threat of the "Axis of Evil" would be a direct attack against Iran. This could be a risky move. While Iran's military is not particularly strong, the mountainous terrain of much of the country would prove difficult to invade, much as it does in Afghanistan. The population of Iran is young and largely seeking more Western-style freedoms. And yet Iranians are a very proud and nationalistic people, with an ancient civilization and heritage. Invading Iran (with attacks that could potentially cause great harm to historic sites that are cherished by its citizens) could inflame the population and unite them with the regime. Obviously, if Iran violates the nuclear deal, then its nuclear sites must be eliminated for the safety and security of the entire world. But an all-out invasion would be a mistake. Instead, making the regime look less appealing to the people it governs is the best answer. Already, a large segment of Iran's youth seeks freedom from oppression and a stronger economy, and questions why they haven't benefited from the nuclear deal, as opposed to the Assad regime, Hamas, or Hezbollah. 
The United States and its regional partners should display that this was all wasted money and a wasted opportunity by adopting an "outside-in" approach, much as President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu are trying to do with the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process. The United States should aim to work with Kurdish fighters (and hopefully in the future, an independent Kurdistan), moderate Sunnis, and a coalition of imperiled minority groups in Syria and Iraq to target Sunni as well as Shiite terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria, thus, rolling back Iranian power while securing and stabilizing the region. In the Gulf, the Saudi-led coalition must bring a quick end to the Houthi rebellion and stabilize Yemen to end the humanitarian crisis and Iranian expansionism. And Israel, in its inevitable next war with Hamas and Hezbollah, must bring a quick but brutal end to the two terrorist groups, so as to prevent a dragged out conflict, or smaller, numerous, future wars that future generations will have to bear the burden of. With a destroyed, delegitimized, or otherwise weakened proxy network in the Arab World, the Sunni Arab states will regain control of their own countries; Israel will regain its unquestioned dominance regionally; and the United States will restore its international prestige that has been eroded under former presidents Bush 43 and Obama. The result in Iran will be a population that questions the effectiveness and usefulness of a tyrannical government that risks inviting a devastating war (and a potential second Arab Conquest) to a proud and ancient civilization.