Iran is expanding its strategic influence in Syria through the deployment of a few hundred special operators from its elite Quds Force, backed by a diplomatic effort centered at its embassy in Damascus. Though Iranian diplomats suggest that Iran’s guiding principle in the conflict is “no foreign interference,” and that their participation in the war is merely to “combat terrorism,” the political aims of the Iranian state are definitely advanced by the deepening dependence of the Syrian military on its Iranian advisers.
Most analysts agree that Iran’s direct military presence is indeed fairly modest. It is led by the elite Quds force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and is thought to number in the hundreds. Iran also works with Hezbollah, its close Lebanese Shia ally, and with units of Shia fighters from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.
Outside the Damascus embassy the Iranians keep a lower profile than the Russians, who have a naval base near Latakia and a more visible role boosted by the arrival of new equipment and personnel.
Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps advisers, who are occasionally spotted near the frontlines, shun publicity. Fit-looking Iranians in civilian clothes are sometimes seen crossing the Lebanese border, handing over their passports en masse without being required to leave their vehicles – a sure sign of their discreet VIP status…. the consensus among many Syrians and foreign experts is that their role is extremely important – though very shadowy.
“We know quite a lot about what the Iranians do in specific places – we see weapons, equipment and intercepts – but we still don’t have an understanding of what they do in institutional terms,” says Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “The question is to what extent they are involved in planning and command and control.”
Meanwhile in Baghdad, the United States Embassy has manifestly failed to attain the success its designers imagined for it. Within two months of the precipitous US military withdrawal from Iraq commanded by President Barack Obama, the embassy slashed its plans for diplomatic personnel by half. Today American personnel are officially not free to travel outside the Green Zone.
US Embassy Baghdad was planned to be the largest Embassy in the world, a beating heart of US influence that would keep the nascent Iraqi democracy on track. It would ensure the stability of the new nation by making sure that the Shi’a majority kept the promises negotiated with the Sunni and Kurdish minorities under the auspices of the American military. Reconciliation efforts had led to a large raft of promises of fair treatment and just integration of minorities into the Iraqi system. In order to secure this peace and realize the legacy, the United States planned to keep ten thousand troops in Iraq as a stabilizing influence, as it had in German and Japan after wars there. Instead, the administration failed to successfully negotiate a deal that would permit US forces to remain in Iraq without being subject to Iraq’s legal processes. The President elected to withdraw all forces instead.
The State Department intended to pick up the ball that the US military would leave behind by securing freedom of movement throughout Iraq, so that they could themselves keep an eye on the fair implementation of reconciliation agreements. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was hotly opposed to the President’s disinterest in keeping adequate forces in Iraq, but in the end the President’s will prevailed.
Instead, Iraq’s Shi’a majority became nervous without the security of a large American presence that could guarantee stability. They began to suspect the Sunni minority of plots, and Shi’a Prime Minister Maliki acted to suppress the Sunni leadership. Maliki moved to arrest Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, who escaped first to the Kurdish region and then into Turkey. He was sentenced to death in absentia. This began an overarching suppression of Sunni political interests, as well as a defiance of the many negotiated deals that were designed to keep the peace and reconciliation on track. America no longer had the tools in place to influence the process. The rise of ISIS is explained in large part by this failure to keep the Sunni population engaged in a process that was fair and respected their just interests.
Instead, today, the Russians, Syrians and Iranians have set up a coordination center in Baghdad that is cementing regional power in the way that America’s embassy was supposed to do. The arrival of substantial new Russian forces in Syria has changed the balance of power away from the United States in the Middle East, and the nuclear deal appears poised to free Iran from its few constraints while also infusing it with vast new money and investments.
Why couldn’t the United States do what Iran has managed to do in Syria, with a smaller but more effective footprint? The question is the more poignant because of a parallel American success in the Republic of the Philippines. The United States has just stood down its Joint Speical Operations Task Force-Philippines following its remarkable success in helping the Philippines stabilize its southern regions against radical Islamic terrorist group Abu Sayyaf. Just at the Iranian embassy in Damascus, the American embassy in Manila had formal leadership of all efforts. Just as in Syria, the American commitment was a few hundred special operators assigned to training and advising rather than direct combat roles. Our diplomats also stated, and with greater truth, our commitment to the formal independence of the government of the Philippines, and that our efforts there were merely to assist them in combating terrorism. The same US State Department leadership that oversaw the disaster in Baghdad oversaw the success in Manila.
It is not, then, that the Iranians had a better plan. It is not even that Iran was more competent than the American administration. It is that the American administration mishandled Iraq, in spite of the clear commitment of its Secretary of State. Iran’s regional flowering is partially a product of its own competence, but it is largely a product of a personal decision by the President of the United States.