Iran’s next move comes in Syria

Last month I wrote that victory in the Syrian Civil War was tied between the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and Iran’s Islamic Repubican Guards Corps – Quds Force (IRGC-QF).

This image posted on a militant website on Saturday, June 14, 2014, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, appears to show militants from the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) leading away captured Iraqi soldiers dressed in plain clothes after taking over a base in Tikrit, Iraq. (Photo credit: AP Photo via militant website)

Now the ISIS and the IRGC Quds Force are facing each other across Iraq in the playoffs.

The ISIS appears now to be conducting massacres of Shi’ite Muslims as they gain control of Iraqi territory, which means my sporting metaphor and informal tone are not nearly solemn enough.

 If I were Khamenei, I would not be popping the corks on bottles of Zamzam Cola to toast Quds Force’s consistent success.

ISIS has been confronting Qassem Soleimani, the foreign operations hand of the Iranian regime, in Syria; and now they are going to confront him in eastern Iraq, close to the Iranian border.

If this really were some sort of sporting contest the smart money would be on Soleimani.  A seasoned professional, he has been managing the consistent success of Hizballah for years, and in spite of the fondest hopes and dreams of Western foreign ministers he has kept Ducky Assad’s head attached to his neck.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran and not the author of this article (photo: Wiki Commons)

Yet if I were his boss, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khameini, I would not be congratulating Soleimani.  I would not be popping the corks on bottles of Zamzam Cola to toast Quds Force’s consistent success.  If I were his boss I would be asking him uncomfortable questions about how ISIS managed to build a firm base in eastern Syria, briskly take control of the Sunni areas of Iraq and start massacring Iraq’s Shi’ite population.

At the conclusion of this interview without coffee, were I the Supreme Leader, I would send him on his way with some encouraging words about how overextended the ISIS has become, and how they can be handily crushed.

The tough thing for Soleimani right now is that ISIS has managed to achieve what Napoleon Bonaparte called the ‘central position’.  That is to say, ISIS is now between Soleimani’s two sets of proxies; and rather than suffering from being surrounded they are able to concentrate their combat power to attack each of them.  ISIS can concentrate against the Alawite heretics of Syria one week and against the Shia heretics of Iraq, as long as they can seize and keep the initiative.

ISIS seized the initiative over the past week, but they do not seem to have gained much momentum.  There are signs today that they have lost the initiative.  You can bet that Soleimani’s task right now is to take the initiative from them and beat them to death with it.  If Soleimani is able to act faster than ISIS can rebalance their forces, I expect him to do that in Syria.

What Soleimani’s proxies in Iraq do is important right now.  Maliki, Sistani and Sadr all need to work quickly to avoid genocide in central Iraq in the next week.  For Soleimani, however, Iraq must now be a secondary consideration.

The way that Soleimani can defeat the ISIS is more likely to come from what Assad’s army can do to it, and what Hizballah can do to it.  This, of course, depends on Assad’s ability to hold on to what he has while Syria’s People’s Army and Lebanon’s Hizballah operate against the ISIS.

At the same time, the Iranian government is engaged in nuclear negotiations with the US, France, Britain, Russia and China in Vienna.  For the Westerners the ‘Iran Nuclear’ issue is separate from the Iran-Iraq and Iran-Syria issues.  They will try very hard to keep the focus on Iran and nukes and sanctions.  For Iran the issues are all of a piece:  they will seek to gain leverage in Vienna by offering assistance (or less opposition) in Iraq.

This is very convenient for Soleimani, since he will want to work in Syria anyway.

About the Author
Dr Lynette Nusbacher is a strategist and devil's advocate. She is Principal at Nusbacher & Associates, a strategy consultancy. She has been a senior national security official in the United Kingdom, was Senior Lecturer in War Studies at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, and served as a military intelligence officer.