The Syria Connection to Iran, Afghanistan and China
A crucial question has been consuming policymakers in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon: Does the Trump administration have a strategic plan for the Middle East or not?
Few are more apt to answer than Saadallah Zarei, dean of the Institute of Strategic Studies Andishe Sazan-e Noor in Tehran. Zarei, a soft-spoken, extremely discreet man I met in Mashhad a few days ago, happens to be not only one of Iran’s top strategic analysts but also a key brain behind the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Qods Force commander Gen. Qasem Soleimani – the ultimate bête noire outside the Beltway.
So US strategists could do worse than paying attention to Zarei.
While the US “owns 37 fixed military bases and almost 70 movable bases in the Middle East”, Zarei said, “We do not observe specific and exact strategies.”
He stressed his perplexity with “contradictory behavior related to the Shi’ite population. America’s behavior in terms of the Shi’ite population of Bahrain and their rights, the Zaydi Shi’ite population in Yemen and Kashmir and also the Shi’ite population in Lebanon, which is 35% of the total population, is not specified and nobody knows how the Americans think about Shi’ites and how they act.”
Zarei also notes that “America does not have a specific policy about the democracies of Turkey and Iran. There is not any specific strategy about democracy in Iraq and Lebanon too. America talks about democracy as an American value and tries to generalize it, but in this region, we see that the best friends of the US are countries where there is no election in their political systems.”
The bottom line, according to Zarei, is that “the US strategy is not coherent in the Middle East. I think this is the main reason for the failure of American policies in this region.”
Enter the Hazaras
Now zoom in from the macro-analysis to the micro-view on the ground. Compare Zarei to Komeil, a 24-year-old Hazara Shi’ite from Kabul. Komeil is one among as many as 14,000 soldiers, all Hazara Afghans, carrying an Afghan passport, which made up the Liwa Fatemiyoun brigade fighting in Syria. We met in Mashhad, where he is spending Ramadan, before going back to the frontlines next month.
One of the key founders of Fatemiyoun, in 2013, was Abu Ahmad, killed by a missile, of unknown origin, near the Golan Heights, in 2015. At first, the brigade was a religious organization set up “to defend Shi’ite holy shrines in Syria” or, as Komeil prefers to stress, “defend humanity, weak people”.
No Fatemiyoun fighters carry Iranian passports – even though some, like Komeil, do live in eastern Iran; he’s been in Mashhad since 2011. Almost all of them are volunteers; Komeil followed “friends” who joined the brigade. He undertook military training in Bagram airbase when he was part of the Afghan Army.
Komeil told me he engaged in direct combat with an assortment of Salafi-jihadis – from Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra to smaller outfits that were part of the vast, rambling Free Syrian Army umbrella. He’s been on the frontlines non-stop for three years, fighting mostly in “Sham and Zenaybi” near Damascus, and was also present at the liberation of Aleppo.
He described Daesh jihadis as “very difficult” in battle. He says he saw Daesh fighters wearing “American clothes” and carrying American-made rifles. Captured prisoners had “food from Saudi Arabia and Qatar”. He personally captured a “French lady working with Daesh” but did not know what happened to her, saying only that “Commanders treat our prisoners well.” He swears “less than 10%” of Daesh jihadis are Syrians – “There are Saudis, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Pakistanis, English, French and Germans.”
In contrast to the propaganda barrage across the Beltway, Komeil is adamant there are no Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) military commanders active with Fatemiyoun, and no Hezbollah. They fight “side by side” – and the Iranians are essentially military advisers. He depicted Fatemiyoun as a totally independent outfit. This would indicate their military training was mostly acquired as members of the Afghan Army, and not via the IRGC.
Komeil said the fabled Qods Force commander Gen. Qasem Soleimani did visit the group, but “only once”. Each force is responsible for its own area of operations; Fatimiyoun; Hezbollah; the Syria Arab Army (SAA); the Pakistanis (“strong fighters”); the al-Defae-Watan, which he portrayed as an equivalent of the Iraqi Hashd al-Shaabi (also known as the “People Mobilization Units”); and the Medariyoun also from Iraq.
The ‘Shi’ite crescent’, revisited
The Obama administration admitted at least that Iranian military advisers, alongside Russia air power and Hezbollah fighters, helped the SAA to defeat Daesh and other Salafi-jihadi outfits in Syria.
But, for the Trump administration – in sync with Israel and Saudi Arabia – it’s all black and white; all forces under Iranian command have to leave Syria (and that would include Fatemiyoun). That’s not going to happen; the virtual total collapse of what is loosely defined in the Beltway as “moderate rebels” – al-Qaeda in Syria included – yielded a power vacuum duly occupied by Damascus. And Damascus still needs all these forces to extinguish Salafi-jihadism for good.
Iran exerts influence throughout an arc from Afghanistan to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. As Zarei analyzed: “The Islamic Republic of Iran has a specific strategy in the region. We have specific principles, friends, and capabilities. In addition, we have a coherent understanding of our enemy and we know where should we stand in the next 20 years. Therefore, we try to use our capabilities carefully and manage the job gradually.”
This has nothing to do with a threatening “Shi’ite crescent”, as suggested by Jordan’s King Abdullah way back in 2004. It’s been essentially a slow-motion Iranian countercoup against the US non-strategy across Southwest Asia since “Shock and Awe” in 2003 – as Zarei identified it.
The Qods Force – formed during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s – is the extraterritorial extension of the IRGC. I talked to quite a few war veterans in Karaj, where they gather in an association set up in a replica bunker serving delicious osh soup – a Persian equivalent of Tuscan pasta and fagioli – after meetings. Commander Syed Mohammad Yayavi said there is no way the Trump administration’s demand, expressed by Secretary of State Pompeo, for Iran to dismantle the Qods Force, will ever be accepted.
The Qods Force could be described as an equivalent of the US Special Forces and CIA special ops all rolled into one. For Washington, that’s a terror organization. Yet in practice, the Qods Force is as much an arm of Iranian national security policy across Southwest Asia as the Pentagon and CIA enforcing US national security interests all around the world.
And there’s remarkable continuity. At the “bunker” in Karaj I talked to Mohammad Nejad, a retired Iranian Air Force colonel who acquired his Iran-Iraq battle experience when he was in his mid-twenties, fighting in Bushher. Two years ago he was back in Syria for two months, serving as a military adviser.
All eyes on the SCO
The incoherent US strategy in the Middle East described by Zarei also applies to Afghanistan. Another demand by the Trump administration is that Tehran must stop supporting the Taliban.
Facts on the ground are infinitely more nuanced. The endless US war in Afghanistan has generated millions of refugees; many of them live in Iran. In parallel, Washington has set up a permanent network of Afghan military bases – which Tehran identifies as a serious threat, capable of supporting covert ops inside Iran.
So what happens is that Tehran, with minimal means – and in tandem with intelligence services from Pakistan and Russia – does support small groups in western Afghanistan, around Herat, including some that are loosely linked with the Taliban.
But that fits into a much larger Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) strategy. SCO members Russia, China and Pakistan, as well as future member Iran, not to mention future member Afghanistan, all want an Asian, SCO-driven solution for the Afghan tragedy. And that must include a place for the Taliban in the government in Kabul.
Now compare that with the avowed Trump administration ploy geared to provoke regime change in Tehran. Saudi Arabia is already on it. Riyadh, via a think tank allegedly supported by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, known as MBS, has been funding a string of hardcore anti-Shi’ite madrassas in Balochistan in Pakistan, which borders Sistan-Balochistan province in Iran.
The Saudi plan is to at least disrupt the emergence of Chabahar port, which happens to be the entry point of India’s own New Silk Road to Afghanistan and Central Asia, bypassing Pakistan. BRICS member India, alongside Russia and China, won’t be exactly pleased; and India is also a new SCO member, and absolutely adverse to all forms of Salafi-jihadism.
Adding even more trouble to this heady mix, the Attorney General for Pakistan, Ashtar Ausaf Ali, on a visit to Iran, received a warning that Daesh “is being moved” to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Who’s doing the moving is unclear. What’s certain is that ISIS-Khorasan, or ISIS-K – that is, Daesh’s Afghan branch – is actually fighting the Taliban.
Coincidentally, US airpower is also fighting the Taliban, via Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. One report detailed how “the number of US weapons released in support of Freedom’s Sentinel increased to 562 in April, the highest monthly total of 2018 and the second highest total for any month since October 2011.”
So, it’s the Taliban that are getting heavily bombed, not ISIS-K. No wonder SCO nations are on red alert. The real mystery is still to be unlocked by Pakistani intelligence: that is, in what part of the porous Af-Pak border are over 4,000 well-weaponized ISIS-K jihadis being lodged?
Who will rebuild Syria?
And that leads us to the ultimate inter-connector: China.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Syrian colleague Walid Muallem have a very close relationship. President Xi Jinping is a firm supporter of the Astana peace process featuring Russia, Iran and Turkey. China announced last November that it would deploy special forces to Syria against all strands of Salafi-jihadism; the Chinese goal is to “neutralize” 5,000 Uyghur fighters who have acted as “moderate rebels”, because of concern about militants causing violence if they return to Xinjiang.
But most of all, China will be deeply involved in Syrian reconstruction; towns, villages, roads, railways, bridges, schools, hospitals, all connectivity networks. Syria will be rebuilt by China, Russia (energy, infrastructure) and Iran (power grids), not the US or the Gulf petro-monarchies. US and EU sanctions are still in effect, banning commercial operations both in US dollars and euros.
This coincides with a meeting in Beijing last week of SCO security council chiefs. Politburo heavyweight Yang Jiechi, director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the CPC Central Committee, discussed matters extensively with top Russian security expert Nikolai Patrushev.
The 18th SCO summit will be held in Qingdao on June 9. Russian President Vladimir Putin will be there. India and Pakistan will be there. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani will be there, representing Iran as an observer, and will meet face to face with Putin and Xi. That’s where all Syria-Afghanistan connections will converge.