In Syria the Iran-backed Assad government has won back control over
most of Aleppo, the second largest city in Syria. This would not have been possible without Iran recruiting an army of foreign Shia mercenaries to supplement the Assad forces. That eventually brought in Russia by mid-2015 with air support and, more importantly, help with maintaining the Syrian military’s weapons and equipment. These have long come from Russia but recent international embargos have kept Russia from helping Syria maintain what it had. By sending in an “anti-terrorism” force to help with the UN approved campaign against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) the Russians were able to reinforce and revive the Assad forces.
Syria was one of the many 2011 “Arab Spring” uprisings that failed because of Islamic terrorism. While many Arabs wanted to try democracy too many Arab countries have large minorities who support a religious dictatorship run by Moslem clerics and enforced by brutal Islamic terrorist groups. That was further complicated by the fact that the religious zealots involved cannot agree on the details. Saudi Arabia opposes Islamic terrorism but has long backed an extremely conservative form of Sunni Islam (Wahhabism) that has led to al Qaeda, ISIL and several other Islamic terrorist movements. Worse, there are other form of militant Sunni Islam that are hostile to the Wahhabi version but the Saudis have received over a trillion dollars of oil money since the 1970s and much of that has gone to officially support Wahhabism and unofficially support al Qaeda and ISIL. Iran has been run by a Shia Moslem religious dictatorship since the 1980s. The Shia and the Sunni have been rivals for over a thousand years but that never meant much to the rest of the world until the two major rivals (Sunni Saudi and Shia Iran) got all that oil money and the means to take their struggle global.
Syria became an Iranian ally in the 1980s because Syria was a majority Sunni country run by a Shia minority (the Assad family). The Assad’s were increasingly threatened by their Sunni neighbors (like Iraq, a majority Shia Arab country run by a Sunni Arab minority). Like every other Middle Eastern nation (except democratic Israel) the governments are unelected (either monarchies or dictatorships) and the Assads survived by finding new allies wherever they could. Which brings us to the Syrian civil war that began in 2011 with a popular effort to overthrow decades of corrupt and dictatorial Assad rule. The Assads, true to form, noted that the rebels were quickly dominated by various Sunni Islamic terrorist groups. So the Assads took advantage of the situation.
The rivalry between Syrian and Iraqi branches of Al Qaeda gave rise to ISIL, which was the Iraqi branch of al Qaeda, still recovering from its defeat in 2008 when most Iraqi Sunnis joined the Shia majority to attack the Islamic terrorist groups. ISIL differentiated itself by being more savage towards Shia (and other non-Sunni Moslems) and especially non-Moslems. Videos of mass executions, often by decapitation, were posted by ISIL on the Internet. This made ISIL the most feared Islamic terrorist group but also the one that everyone (including all other Moslem factions as well as the West) agreed had to be destroyed. The Assads seized on that to proclaim it was leading the fight against ISIL and called for foreign assistance. First Iran and then Russia responded. The Western nations, still hoping for a pro-democracy rebel group to unseat the Assads, were forced to unofficially, work with the Assads against ISIL. In Aleppo most of the rebels holding the city were not ISIL but were largely Sunni so the Assads and Iran wanted revenge (for the many atrocities committed against Shia in Syria since 2011) as well as victory. This is not going to get any better because endless cycles of revenge killings are an ancient tradition in this part of the world. Iranians and Russians have no problem with it but most Western nations are aghast and helpless to interfere.
There are numerous examples of this Western impotence in Syria. A recent one was the well covered (by local and Iranian media) of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani touring recently conquered parts of Aleppo. Since 2007 Soleimani has been under numerous sanctions, including ones that are not being lifted by the July 2015 treaty. Soleimani was not supposed to be able to travel to outside Iran but regularly gets away with it. He has gone to Russia twice since 2015 and regularly shows up in Iraq. Russia and Iran usually deny these visits happened. Similarly since 2014 Iran has denied that Soleimani has spent time in Iraq supervising the creation and use of pro-Iran Shia militias. His Quds force began doing that in Syria two years earlier. Another recent incident was a December 20th meeting in Russia by senior Russian, Iranian and Turkish officials to discuss what to do next in Syria and come up with a plan to end the fighting. The U.S. was not invited.
The U.S. revealed evidence of the Taliban getting some help (sanctuary and information) from Iran and Russia in return for assistance in keeping ISIL out of Iran and Russia. The U.S. also confirms the belief that Saudi supporters of Islamic radicalism continue to make major financial contributions to the Taliban. The Saudi government knows about this and rather than shut it down (difficult in a region infamous for its rampant smuggling and money laundering) uses the contributors to provide access with the Taliban leadership and the leaders of any allied groups. When confronted by Afghanistan over this Iran admitted that it has the ability to communicate with Taliban leaders, but does this mainly to gather intelligence and better protect Iran from the Taliban.
In Yemen the key to keeping the Shia rebels going has been having cash rich (since sanctions were lifted in 2015) Iran paying to get weapons and other banned equipment in and the stuff is getting through. This is done two ways. First there are the many dhows (locally built traditional sailing ships) and other small coastal fishing and cargo ships operating in the Red Sea. Yemen Red Sea ports have been the site of dhow construction for thousands of years. Iran can afford (and does) to buy dhows and offer crews high fees to get tons of weapons and munitions landed on a rebel controlled beach or port. Most dhows can carry ten tons or more of cargo. There is also a land route and Sunni tribal militiamen manning checkpoints on the roads from Oman to rebel territory regularly discover trucks carrying weapons and explosives for Shia rebel forces who control eastern Yemen. The trucks from neighboring Oman (which is neutral in the civil war) is still a source for non-military supplies meant for civilians in rebel and government territory. But smuggling has long been a major economic activity in Yemen and there are plenty of skilled practitioners willing and able to take risks to move anything anywhere. Yemen has also long been the source of most illegal weapons in the region. Yemeni smugglers regularly get forbidden arms into just about anywhere, if the fee is high enough. With enough cash you can either bribe your way past security or spend more carefully hiding goods in vehicles or boats and even some of these are caught some will get through. This is expensive but Iran is paying whatever it takes to get weapons and other gear to the Shia rebels. The amount of the being intercepted is growing and so are the size of the bribes offered so a lot obviously gets through. This can be confirmed by high resolution aerial surveillance and items captured on the battlefield or intel from prisoners or pro-government people living in Shia controlled areas.
The undeclared war between Saudi Arabia and Iran is not going well for the more numerous Sunnis (led by the Saudis). At the end of 2016 the outnumbered (by more than five to one) Shia, led by Iran are winning in all the major fronts (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen). That’s a big change from the start of the year. The latest round in this Shia Sunni feud began after more than 2,400 Hajj pilgrims (including 450 Iranians) died during the 2015 pilgrimage because of inept Saudi management of the event that led to a huge stampede. At this point Shia clergy were openly calling for a change in management (from Saudi to Iran) in Mecca and that it should happen sooner rather than later. The implication was that this was an emergency and “any means necessary” (including Iranian nukes) were justified to make it happen. To many in the Persian Gulf it was tantamount to a declaration of war.
This led to Iran encouraging Shia tribal militias in Yemen to attempt a takeover of the government there. That almost succeeded in early 2015 and was avoided only when a Saudi led military coalition intervened. The Yemeni Shia were stopped, pushed back but not defeated and they remain defiant. The Arabs showed they could use all those high-tech weapons they had bought from the West, but lacked the skill and daring to crush the Shia militias. Iran and the Shia Arabs in Yemen believe that the Shia rebels can hold off the Sunni coalition (most Yemenis are Sunni) off long enough to get a favorable (for the Shia) settlement.
In Syria Iran also managed to do the seeming impossible and defeat the Sunni rebels. So yes, there is very much another Sunni-Shia war going on and Iraq, Syria and Yemen are right in the middle of it as are all the Persian Gulf states that control so much of the world oil supply. Much to the distress of the Arabs Iran moves slowly, deliberately and usually wins when their scheme reaches a climax. Arabs have been on the wrong end of this before and do not approach the situation with nearly as much self-confidence. Most outsiders don’t appreciate all this but these ancient animosities, rivalries and conflicts mean everything to the people in the Persian Gulf.
The Great Satans
The recent elections in the United States brings to power a new president and legislature that agrees with Israeli criticisms of the 2015 agreement that lifted sanctions on Iran. The new American leadership announced that it will not only strictly enforce the 2015 treaty but will crack down on Iranian misbehavior in general. That could include declaring Iran in violation of the treaty and then terminating the treaty. In response the Iranian government threatened to destroy Israel and the Gulf Arab states if that were done.
Officially the United States and Israel have long been the principal enemies of Iran. Since the 1980s the U.S. has always been referred to by the Iranian government as the Great Satan. The two countries have had no diplomatic relations in that time. But most Iranians are pro-U.S., and the Islamic clerics that run the country are under a lot of pressure to make up with the United States, and to improve the economy. That happened in 2015, on Iranian terms, as the U.S. and its allies agreed to drop most economic sanctions in return for some vague Iranian promises to behave. Yet Iran continues to call for the destruction of Israel by any means available while also denouncing the U.S. as an enemy of Iran.
The new American president-elect was elected in part because of popular anger over the 2015 Iran treaty. Then there is the fact that the most dangerous threat to Israel is not even Arab but Iran. Iranians are constantly reminded by their leaders that the official Iranian position is that any Moslem nation (especially Saudi Arabia and Turkey) that improves relations with Israel is betraying Islam. Iran also insists that the United States cannot be trusted and that the economic sanctions the July 2015 treaty lifted are not the main economic problem for Iran. That would be the two years of very low oil prices, which is Saudi Arabia’s way (along with some other local Sunni oil states) to put the hurt on Iran. That is only partially true but not relevant to the Iranians. One reason for seeking nuclear weapons is to give Iran the ability to persuade the Saudis to ship less oil and let the price go up. After that there will be the demand to let Iran run the Moslem holy places in Mecca and Medina. The Saudis are not willing to make deals that involve Iranian domination of the region. Yet the low oil prices have hurt the Saudis as well and all the Gulf oil states recently agreed to lower production in an effort to get prices up. What Arabs and Iranians both downplay is that the American fracking technology is changing the oil market more than anything else as is the growing use of non-oil fuels for energy. Even with record low prices the fracking industry survives and as the price of oil goes up more fracking operations resume production. Add to that recent natural gas deposits discovered and rapidly developed in Israel coastal waters and you can see why political relationships are shifting in the Middle East.
Iran has agreed to closely cooperate with Russia and Turkey to deal with mutual interests. This includes Iranian accusations that Iran is allowing Iranian smugglers to provide weapons and munitions to the PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatists) and that Russia is going along with this. The proposal is that Turkey and Iran crack down on PKK supply routes and Iran will join Russian efforts to get Iran and Turkey involved in a new economic union that would allow the three countries to trade with each other using local currencies, instead of a standard trade currency like dollars or euros. Turkey would also return to its previous cooperation to oppose separatist Kurds in Iran, Turkey and Iraq. All this would better enable this “triad” to negotiate a peace deal in Syria. All this is seen as part of a more active alliance by three countries that have long been key players in the Middle East and Central Asia.
December 20, 2016: The government issued a travel warning for Iranian citizens to avoid trips to Turkey until anti-Iranian sentiment quiets down. This warning was triggered by the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey in the Turkish capital yesterday. The killer was an off-duty policeman who shouted “remember Aleppo” before he was shot and killed by security personnel. Since Aleppo fell to Syrian government control over the last two weeks many anti-Assad Turks have demonstrated outside the Turkish and Iranian embassies and criticized Turkish cooperation with Iran, Russia and the Assad government of Syria. All three of these groups have long been seen as enemies of Turkey.
In the northwest, across the border in Kurdish controlled northern Iraq two bombs planted outside the headquarters of the PDK exploded killing seven security personnel. PDK is one of the two Iraqi Kurdish political parties that run the autonomous Kurdish north of Iraq. Iran was believed behind this attack because the Kurdish militias are expected to back Iraqi government efforts to curb the growing power of Iran sponsored Shia militia in Iraq. Iran accuses the PDK of providing sanctuary for Iranian Kurdish separatists.
December 19, 2016: In the southeast, near the Pakistan (Baluchistan) border a car bomb killed an IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) officer and wounded one of his subordinates. Baluchi Sunni Islamic terrorists were believed responsible and the ones responsible for this attack apparently fled back across the border in Pakistan. These Iranian Baluchi separatists regularly operate in Iran from bases in Pakistan and have become a growing problem for both countries. Pakistan is under a lot of pressure to do something about it, so the Pakistani government at least goes through the motions of responding to each incident.
December 14, 2016: Government controlled media reported that another IRGC general (Hassan Akbari) had died in combat, this time near Palmyra.
November 30, 2016: Since late August Turkish forces have taken control of over 1,800 square kilometers of Syrian territory along the Turkish border. The Turks expect to complete their ground operation in Syria by mid-2017. While Syrian Kurds have kept the border areas they control in northwestern Syria free of ISIL and other Islamic terrorist activity Turkey and Iran are largely hostile to some of the Kurdish militias in Syria. That’s because the most active Kurdish rebels have belonged to the PYD (a Syrian Kurd separatist group allied with Turkish Kurdish PKK separatists) and their military forces (the YPG). There are also some Iranian Kurds who came to Syria and joined the YPG and other Syrian Kurd rebel groups. The Turks believe (without much proof) that some of these Iranian Kurds are connected with the Iranian PAK, which is similar to the PYD in Syria and PKK in Turkey. The U.S. disagrees with Turkey on this and in response Turkey issued an arrest warrant on November 23rd for the head of the PYD.
November 29, 2016: Kenyan police arrested two Iranian men near the Israeli embassy. The two men, using a car belonging to the Iranian embassy, were taking pictures of the Israeli embassy. Israel and Kenya have long worked together to deal with Islamic terrorism. In 2014 two young Iranians were arrested in Kenya when they were caught using stolen Israeli passports modified to include pictures of the Iranians. The two were believed on their way to Israel, via Brussels and Israel confirmed that these were passports stolen from Israelis travelling abroad. The two insisted they only wanted to get to Europe and ask for asylum. Kenya prosecuted the two and sent them jail. In 2002 an Israeli hotel in Kenya was bombed killing fifteen people. At the same time two portable anti-aircraft missiles were fired, unsuccessfully, at airliners taking off from a nearby airport. Both attacks were traced back to Iran. Israel has long been on good terms with Kenya, and most non-Moslem African nations. Israel and non-Moslem African nations have a common enemy in Islam, and especially radical Islam. As Islamic radicals have become more active since the 1970s these alliances with Israel have become more popular in Africa.
November 27, 2016: Senior Iranian officials confirmed that over a thousand Iranians have died fighting in Syria so far. This is twice previous estimates, based on public announcements of funerals. Iranian mercenaries have taken far higher casualties. Hezbollah (from Lebanon) has lost over a thousand dead so far and other Shia mercenaries recruited, trained, armed and led by Iranian officers and NCOs have lost over two thousand dead. Thus Iranian losses account for about one percent of the total war related deaths in Syria since the anti-Assad rebellion began in 2011. Iran has also lost over a hundred military personnel in Iraq plus over a thousand Iranian civilians targeted by Sunni suicide bombers.
November 26, 2016: In Iraq parliament finally passed (after much Iranian pressure) a law making the Shia militias a part of the armed forces. Now the militia leaders are demanding a share of the military budget and enough money (nearly half a billion dollars to start with) to build their own bases. There are about 100,000 of these Shia militia and they are a contentious issue in Iraq. For one thing these militias are often out of control and several massacres of Sunni civilians have been linked to them. And then there’s the Iran connection.
Iran has confirmed that it will allow Russian warplanes to again use its Hamadan (in northwest Iran) airbase again. Iraq does not object to Russian warplanes flying overhead to and from targets in Syria. Russian bombers used Hamadan briefly in August but then stopped. It was later revealed that Iran withdrew permission after senior Russian officials told the media that Russian now had a base in Iran. That was incorrect and very unpopular inside Iran. Russia apologized and Iran let them know permission to use Hamadan could be resumed sometime in the future. Use of this base by Russian warplanes is safer and cheaper than operating from a base in Syria, where attacks from Islamic terrorists and rebels in general are much more likely. Russia can get a lot of supplies locally and easily ship in stuff from Russia via ship (the Caspian Sea) and Iranian railroads. Despite this gesture Iran later (in early December) reported that the Russians had no plans for using Hamadan any time soon.
November 24, 2016: Across the border in southern Iraq an ISIL suicide truck bomb went off at a fuel station and killed 70 people. ISIL said it deliberately carried out this attack to kill Shia and in this case 85 percent of the dead were Iranian pilgrims returning from visiting some of the many Shia shrines in southern Iraq. This angle got intensive coverage in Iranian media, pointing out that ISIL is a radical faction of al Qaeda which was founded by many Saudi Sunni Moslems.
In Syria an Iranian made UAV was used by someone to carry out an attack on a Turkish base in northern Syria that killed four soldiers. The UAV was equipped with explosives. It wasn’t until early December that the Turks identified the source of the UAV used and is still unsure who actually carried out the attack (Hezbollah, Syria or Iranian supported Shia militia).
November 22, 2016: Israel accused Iran of smuggling weapons to Hezbollah and the Syrian military using commercial flights from Iran to Lebanon and Syria. Iran or Hezbollah controls airport security on either end of those flights and it is easy enough to move the weapons in luggage or cargo containers.