Home inFocus Borders, Nations and Conflict (Spring 2014) Arc of Instability or Shiite Crescent?

Arc of Instability or Shiite Crescent?

Clare M. Lopez Spring 2014

A view is taking hold across the Middle East and beyond that the United States is determined to implement a policy of withdrawal from international leadership—or at least from leadership of the free world and those who dream of being part of it. Withdrawal from both Afghanistan and Iraq, where Islamic Law, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and Iran already are moving to fill voids left by Western forces, set the stage for what increasingly is perceived as U.S. abandonment of natural and traditional allies throughout the region in favor of the equally jihadist Sunni Muslim Brotherhood and Shiite Iranian regime. Regional upheavals driven by al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood that began in 2010 are seen as having gotten their “green light” with President Obama’s June 2009 Cairo speech. Speaking directly to the Muslim Brotherhood representatives whom he’d invited sitting in the front row, the president spoke of a “partnership between America and Islam” and said that “America is not – and never will be – at war with Islam.”

The absence of a coherent U.S. national security doctrine that codifies a plan for dealing with jihadist adversaries, whether Shiite or Sunni, at the nation state or sub-national level, undoubtedly contributes to the impression of U.S. policy as directionless and stumbling; absent such a strategy, adversaries like al-Qaeda and Iran have been swift to seize the advantage. A “New World Disorder,” as Foundation for Defense of Democracies’s Cliff May put it, is the result. Across the heart of the Middle East, the Levant, and northward to Turkey, expanding chaos defines the region as an arc of instability where intra-Islamic sectarian strife rages and the U.S. appears undecided about whether to back Shiites or Sunnis. It has wound up supporting some of each, but never the pro-democracy groups that ought to be natural allies in efforts to nurture liberal civil society and hold the line against chaos and tyranny. The Iranian people and exiled opposition, at Camp Liberty and throughout the diaspora, despair of American help to stand up to bullies and thugs. The Jewish State of Israel, the most obvious of American partners in the Middle East, increasingly faces hostility and pressure from a U.S. administration apparently more interested in outreach to those who declare openly their genocidal intent.

Against this backdrop, a number of complex and confusing conflicts are reshaping the region in ways that make it unlikely the status quo ante can be restored. Ancient hatreds and rivalries, not just between Shiites and Sunnis, but among ethnic, religious, sectarian, and tribal entities are shredding post-WW II maps drawn up by 20th century Western powers. Nation states such as Iraq and Syria, whose constituent ethnic and sectarian elements—Shiites, Sunnis, Alawites, Christians, Druze, Jews, and Kurds—were cobbled together by strokes of a pen and held together for decades only by sheer force of terror are now being torn apart. Thousands of jihadist militias with constantly shifting allegiances swarm across these landscapes, fighting the Nouri al-Maliki and Bashar al-Asad regimes and increasingly, each other as well. Chaos reigns and yet, behind the scenes, power brokers are moving pieces on the chess board, each seeking to shape outcomes to best advantage.

The central conflict at the moment that inexorably draws in all around it is the civil war raging in Syria since 2011. Originally an unarmed civilian uprising against the brutal Asad regime, over a period of months the government’s savage response ensured that the largely-Muslim Brotherhood-inspired opposition would arm itself in self-defense. Defectors from among Asad’s senior military ranks brought fighting capability and organization to what began as a rag-tag assortment of community-based militias. Soon enough, however, big power backers entered the fray on both sides. Tehran, which views Syria as a critical link to its Hezbollah terror proxies in Lebanon, committed quickly to keeping Asad and his Alawite-Baathist regime in power. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei initially provided financial and weapons assistance, then, as rival Saudi and other Gulf sponsors began to arm the rebels, upped the ante and sent additional IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), Quds Force, and MOIS (Ministry of Intelligence and Security) cadre as advisors and strategists. Soon enough, thousands of Hezbollah fighters also were ordered into Syria, as rebel forces began to seize more territory.

Providing Weapons to the Fighters

By early 2012, President Obama had signed a Presidential Intelligence Finding to provide “non-lethal” assistance to the Syrian rebels, which were and remain heavily dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and other jihadists. The Treasury Department Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) followed up in July 2012 with a waiver that authorized the Syrian Support Group to provide direct financial assistance to the Syrian Free Army (SFA). Unfortunately for the out-financed, out-gunned, and out-numbered elements of the SFA that were genuinely pro-Western, the Syrian Support Group turned out to be a Chicago-based front group for the Syrian National Council (SNC), itself a Muslim-Brotherhood-dominated political umbrella group, some of whose top members came from U.S. Brotherhood fronts such as CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations), ISNA (Islamic Society of North America), and IIIT (International Institute for Islamic Thought). Once again, instead of seeking out and supporting proponents of civil society, U.S. leadership systematically by-passed the liberals and selectively engaged with avowed jihadists.

Weapons flowing in every direction only add to the conflagration. As post-Qaddafi Libya struggled to form a stable government, thousands of weapons looted from government stockpiles as well as shipped in under U.S. direction from Qatar and elsewhere during the 2011 revolution began now to flow outward, again with U.S. assistance, to Syrian battlefields. Thousands of jihadist fighters also began flowing into Syria from near and far. By 2012, Syria had become the number one global destination for hard-line jihadist foreign fighters, who according to The New York Times, were also the ones receiving the majority of weapons shipped by Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The Wall Street Journal reporting from early March 2014 indicated that Saudi Arabia, apparently with U.S. backing, has agreed to provide Syrian rebels with advanced weaponry, to include shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. Unfortunately, the designated recipients are fighters from the Yarmouk-Brigade-dominated Southern Front—which collaborates with Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian al-Qaeda franchise.

Adding to the Conflagration

Inevitably, as the conflict tore Syria’s complex ethnic and sectarian social fabric apart, it also has spilled across borders, threatening destabilization in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. That spillover includes massive numbers of refugees whose needs additionally strain the already stressed economies of Syria’s neighbors. Retaliatory car bomb attacks claimed by al-Qaeda affiliates including the Abdullah Azzam Brigades and Jabhat al-Nusra have struck repeatedly deep inside Hezbollah’s Dahiyeh stronghold in southern Beirut. Lebanon’s always-tense balance of power, which Hezbollah dominates, has been shaken—ironically by al-Qaeda, which Hezbollah itself trained in bomb making and explosives skills. Israel, too, has been drawn into the Syrian conflict, launching at least half a dozen air strikes intended to prevent Damascus from transferring qualitatively more sophisticated weaponry, usually missiles, to Hezbollah.

The roles played in the Syrian civil war by Turkey and the U.S. are as complicated and contradictory as any. Early in the uprising, Turkey openly sided with the key Muslim Brotherhood rebel leadership, demanded that Asad step down, hosted the Syrian National Council, and worked with the CIA to facilitate the movement of fighters and weapons across Turkish territory and into Syria. According to Israel’s military intelligence chief, al-Qaeda has set up logistics and training camps for Syria-bound fighters in Turkey (as it has, even more surprisingly, inside Iran). The Free Syrian Army still runs its operations out of refugee camps strung along the Turkish-Syrian border while U.S. Special Forces train “moderate” elements of the FSA in Jordan. Additionally, Turkey has kept a wary eye on its restive Kurdish minority for signs of collaboration with Syrian Kurdish groups, which as it turns out, have sought mostly to stay out of the fighting while consolidating control over their own ethnic enclaves.

Things took another unexpected turn in late 2013, when reports emerged of a budding rapprochement between Turkey and Iran. In January 2014, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, beleaguered at home by a corruption scandal and acrimonious rift with erstwhile allies loyal to fellow Islamic neo-Ottoman Fethullah Gulen, flew to Tehran for two days of meetings with Iranian regime leadership figures.

Although no senior U.S. administration figure has yet paid a visit to the Iranian Supreme Leader, relations between Iran and the U.S. likewise have warmed considerably since the (completely unacknowledged) Iranian collaboration with al-Qaeda in the attacks of 9/11 and the decade that followed of Iranian backing, funding, intelligence, and explosives supply to jihadist militias fighting, killing, and maiming U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. From the earliest days of the Obama administration, accommodation and outreach to Tehran have marked the theme of the bilateral relationship. Iranian and Hezbollah support to the Asad regime, continued harboring of al-Qaeda cells on Iranian territory, Iran’s growing hegemony in Iraq, and holding of American citizen hostages (Christian pastor Sayeed Abedini and former FBI agent Robert Levinson) all notwithstanding, the Obama administration has focused single-mindedly on the nuclear negotiation process. Senior Iranian military and regime officials openly mock Secretary of State John Kerry and call Obama “the low-IQ U.S. president” while boasting of having bested the P5 + 1 negotiators who demanded so little while conceding all of the Iranian key objectives: the right to continued nuclear enrichment, retention of Low Enriched Uranium stocks, freedom to work on newer, faster centrifuges, ballistic missiles off the table, and best of all, the effective end of the international sanctions program. For good measure, just in case the contempt were not already glaringly obvious, in February 2014, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif traveled to Beirut for the annual commemoration of the 2008 assassination of top Hezbollah terror chief Imad Mughniyeh (who directed the 1983 Marine Corps barracks bombing and helped recruit and train some of the 9/11 hijackers), and laid a wreath on his tomb. To top it all off, reporting since September 2013 indicates American officials are engaged at a minimum in indirect talks with Hezbollah (with the British as go-betweens) and perhaps are even in direct contact.

For erstwhile U.S. partners in the region, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states, the spectacle of the U.S. not only engaging with the rising regional hegemon, but offering significant concessions with so little to show in return is disconcerting, to say the least—and likely will prove destabilizing as well. American capitulation to Iranian interests, to the detriment of U.S. national security interests and those of America’s regional allies, occasions deep concern and ultimately will do irreparable damage to both non-proliferation and stability objectives. The United States’ perceived acquiescence to an Iranian nuclear weapons capability may catalyze even worse sectarian conflict, as the Saudis in particular fear Shiite Persian designs on their east coast (where most of the Saudi oil wealth as well as its Shiite population are located). Prince Bandar’s failure to dislodge Asad may lead to more than his loss of the Syrian portfolio: leaks about the Saudis acquiring a nuclear capability from the Pakistanis have made their way into the open media. A regional race to match Iran’s nuclear capabilities would destroy whatever is left of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, taking with it any hopes for regional stability.

Fragmented and uncontrollable as they are, the concentration of hard-core Islamic jihadist forces on the delivery end of well-funded backing from terror-supporting states like Iran and Saudi Arabia sooner or later is bound to expand operations beyond Syria. The threat from trained, battle-hardened, ideologically pumped jihadis, many hundreds of whom have come from Canada, the U.S., and Western Europe, cannot be confined to Syrian battlefields. Just as the Afghan mujahedeen, Chechen war veterans, and Iraqi terror militias eventually began to think about the “far enemy,” returned home, and moved on to other arenas, so too will these fighters. The threat to U.S. interests and those of our friends and allies and once again, even to the American homeland, is very real and only grows the longer conflict persists.

Absent a national strategic vision of American leadership, the Obama administration not only fails to defend core U.S. interests, but has not even chosen between Shiite and Sunni, al-Qaeda and Iran. Instead, rather unbelievably, it’s managed to provide material support to them all. The U.S. failure to confront Iran’s jihadist Shiite regime and willingness to engage in a policy of appeasement toward that regime’s expansionist, genocidal, and hegemonic agenda matches up disturbingly closely to the blueprint of action laid out in Robert Baer’s 2009 book, “The Devil We Know.” Except for the confusingly simultaneous U.S. support for Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman ambitions and Syrian al-Qaeda and Brotherhood affiliates, it might seem U.S. policy to see what Jordanian King Abdullah called a “Shiite crescent” come into being. As it is, it’s merely a muddle of conflicting initiatives.

The continuation of conflict, national disintegration, and internecine civil strife across this arc of instability is devastating to Iraqi, Lebanese, Syrian, and Turkish national cohesion, and left to run its course, threatens not just those already-fractured societies, but because of great power involvement, international stability itself.

Clare M. Lopez is a strategic policy and intelligence expert with a focus on Middle East, national defense, WMD, and counterterrorism issues.