The nuclear deal and the fall of Aleppo

When the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, the West looked worriedly on but did basically nothing. Oh yes, President Barak Obama did force Bashar al-Assad to desist from using chemical weapons but, on the whole, the war zones were empty of any Western influence. Assad warned the Western powers to stay out of the war while rolling out the red carpet for Tehran to take over the dirty business of a war which had ceased to be an internal “civil” war and now included Tehran’s own agenda in the area, namely supporting Assad, a Shiite-Alawite, in an effort to Export the Islamic Revolution to Syria. Tehran was only too happy to pour in Hezbollah, IRGC and Shiite militant troops while joining Assad’s warning to the West to stay clear of the region. For three years, the war trudged on with no clear winners and many losers.

In 2014, ISIS began its rampage, claiming to set up an Islamic state which would span from Syria to Iraq and inadvertently, the issue of the West’s support to ISIS in its infancy became the perfect cover-up: Tehran and Assad were killing terrorists who were backed by the Western powers and their proxies in the region, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Every horrifying act of terrorism by ISIS only strengthened this narrative even though the West had stopped supporting ISIS long before it began its rampage in 2014. But Assad and Tehran weren’t only fighting ISIS – in fact, most of the war efforts were focused on eliminating any form of opposition against Assad. These efforts took a heavy toll on the Syrian civilian population and led to a massive wave of Syrians fleeing Syria and seeking refuge in Europe but the West still remained politely out of the war.

Meanwhile, the West was trying to clinch the nuclear deal which would, supposedly, keep Iran’s nuclear program in check. But the issue of the nuclear program seemed secondary to most of the EU representatives who eagerly awaited the cash in on the huge potential of the soon-to-be-opened Iranian economy. As the negotiations on the nuclear deal dragged on, the situation in Syria became worst for all sides and still, the West kept its distance, this time out of fear of endangering the nuclear deal. So while suited diplomats from all over the world haggled over the percentages of Uranium enrichment in fancy board rooms in Europe, Syrian men, women and children kept on suffering and getting killed.

The nuclear deal was finally signed in June 2015 and within four months, the red carpet was once again rolled out by Assad (and Tehran) to Moscow, Tehran’s newest and most powerful ally. Russian planes began bombing Syrian rebels while claiming, as before, that it was there for one reason and one reason only: eradicating terrorists. Moscow’s entry to the war was the beginning of the end for the Syrian rebels. It wasn’t only the issue of the Russian air force, it was the fact that such a superpower openly entered the war while the Western powers maintained their distance, demoralizing the Syrian rebels. All this was done while Assad, Tehran and Moscow continued to hypocritically warn the West to stay out of Syria.

Since day one, Tehran has claimed that the only solution to the war in Syria would be a political one and not a military one while at the same time, Tehran and Moscow have invested in the war in Syria tens of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of troops causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrians and the millions of refugees. This glaring discrepancy was once again ignored under the grand goal of eradicating terrorists and the West, once again, sat on the sidelines. As pictures, videos and information regarding the dire situation of the Syrian population leaked out to the world, the pressure on the West to take a stand increased but, once again, nothing. The danger of an escalation which might lead the West to fight against Russia was left the West frozen in indecision.

And then, the siege on Aleppo began and suddenly, the inaction of the West became more unbearable. Most of the troops involved in the siege of Aleppo were not even Assad’s: they were Shiite militants and Hezbollah troops which Tehran had organized. The city was split into two distinct areas: the Western part was pro-Assad while the Eastern part was anti-Assad. As the noose around the rebels tightened, the Russian planes kept on bombing. The war of conflicting narratives sounded like two distinctive echo chambers: One narrative spoke about “liberating Aleppo from the terrorists” while the other narrative spoke about “conquering Aleppo by Tehran and Moscow”. As the siege on Aleppo became more critical, the accusations from the West increased but apart from words, the West didn’t do a thing for fear of “rocking the boat” and being accused of supporting terrorists.

And then, Aleppo fell, or was “liberated”, depending on your point of view and this time, the war of words reached a much higher level. The US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, slammed Tehran and Moscow for having “no shame” in fighting Assad’s war and victimizing millions of Syrians in the process while the Russian ambassador to the UN pointed out that the US wasn’t “Mother Theresa” and was far from being a neutral “player” in the war. What he should have done is tell Power that Moscow and Tehran are not alone in having no shame and that the US should take responsibility over the fact that it shamelessly abandoned the Syrian people to a fate in the hands of Moscow and Tehran. History might not forgive the Iranians and the Russians for what they did in Syria but it won’t forgive the West either for what it didn’t do there either or as Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.

 

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Hezbollah Becomes the Defining Factor

hezbollahLast week, Hezbollah became a defining factor for choosing whose side you are on: the side which thinks that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization or…the other side. And of course, if you happen to think that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization, then it’s just a skip and hop away to designate its patron, Iran, as a supporter of terrorism.

But what’s at stake here is much more than the designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization or not: it defines who are whose allies in a regional conflict which might embroil the superpowers in the not-too distant future.

Saudi Arabia decided to make Hezbollah a defining factor – now everyone has to choose sides and it could get very ugly.

 

Tehran redefines terrorism

For the past two years, since President Hassan Rouhani launched his War Against Violence and Extremism (WAVE) initiative, the identity of a terrorist became a slippery notion. Timing is everything and Rouhani’s timing was perfect: ISIS redefined terrorism by upping the level of atrocities and sharing them with the world through the media and youtube. The terror incited by Qods/IRGC forces of Iran and its proxies such as Hezbollah, the Islamic Jihad, Hamas etc… and local Shiite militias suddenly looked all too tame.

Add to that the fact that Iran/Hezbollah sided with Bashar al-Assad to fight his civil war against a myriad of legitimate rebels, terrorist militias and…ISIS. Add to this the fact that the US and its regional allies had both played a critical part in the development of al-Qaeda and…once again, ISIS. Washington decided to take a step back/out of the conflicts in Syria and in Yemen and Moscow took a step forward/into the battlefields of Syria.

Qassem Suleimani, the chief of Iran’s elite Qods unit in charge of conflicts outside the borders of Iran, not only seemed in control of Syria/Iraq/Lebanon, he was even supported by Russia and many Westerners as the guy who will destroy ISIS.

Rouhani’s WAVE made sense to a lot of people who held anti-US sentiments: the war on terror moved away from Tehran/Shiite-based terrorism to Wahhabi/Sunni-based terrorism. Rouhani’s second initiative took a long time but it ended in a nuclear agreement which supposedly “solved” the nuclear issue, lifted sanctions, opened Iran for business and, most importantly, strengthened Rouhani’s image of Iran/Syria/Russia/Hezbollah as the “good guys” to the US/Israel/Saudi Arabia “bad guys”. The road from being a terrorist state to a partner/champion seemed complete. But not completely…

 

Tehran’s meddling kindles doubts

tehran an diranThe rebranding of terror obviously was a great success in many parts of the world judging from the number of diplomats who compliment Iran on its efforts to eradicate ISIS. But the rest of the world remained doubtful. Old accusations of Iranian-sponsored terrorism in Argentina, Nigeria, Thailand, Bulgaria etc… still bothered many people and new accusations of subversive efforts to overthrow or control governments in Yemen, the Gulf States and lately even Iraq, Lebanon and Nigeria fanned the flames of suspicion.

Tehran’s Modus Operandi in meddling is actually relatively simple: Identify Shiite fundamentalists, organizations and militias critical of their governments and support them under the guise of Shiite cultural centers and military/political “advisers” to take control or to strengthen their control of the local governments. This happened long ago in Lebanon, as Iran backed Hezbollah into taking over the government. It then happened in Iraq and in Syria as Iran backed the local governments against local opposition. It temporarily succeeded in Yemen as the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels overthrew the Yemenite government. Spy-rings were busted in most Gulf States, Baghdad made a big deal of creating a distance between itself and Tehran and even Beirut suddenly became hostile to its patron. Clashes between the Nigerian army and Shiite militants, backed, of course, by Iran, showed an expansion of Tehran’s meddling ways.

The accusations of Tehran’s meddling were met with obvious denials and counter-accusations of sectarian violence based on Iranophobia and anti-Shiite sentiment as well as “juicy” descriptions of racism, radicalism, genocide, propaganda etc…It became harder to decide who was the real “terrorist”. Who was worst? Tehran or Riyadh? Moscow or Washington?

Back in Syria, a big row erupted when the P5+1 tried to make a list of terrorist organizations vs. legitimate Syrian rebels and the US pushed to include Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Tehran countered that the CIA should also be designated as a terrorist organization and the list got stuck and the world looked still undecided who to believe.

 

Riyadh called Tehran’s bluff

Riyadh watched on as the nuclear negotiations brought Tehran out of the cold into the warmth of the approval of the P5+1, and most of the world. Riyadh watched on as delegations from all over the world landed in Tehran in the rush for the golden opportunity of doing business in Iran right after the lifting of sanctions. Riyadh watched on as Tehran continued to support Shiites in Syria (Hezbollah and Assad who is an Alawite, closely related to Shiism), in Iraq (Shiite government), in Yemen (Houthis) and in Lebanon (Hezbollah).

Riyadh watched on…and then called Tehran’s bluff and declared war on the Houthis in Yemen, effectively neutralizing Tehran’s influence there. Suddenly there were two mirror wars in two countries: Iran was actively helping Assad in Syria to fight Saudi-backed Sunni rebels, but the Saudis weren’t fighting in Syria. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia was actively helping the Yemenite government to fight Iranian-backed Houthi/Shiite rebels, but the Iranians weren’t fighting in Yemen.

The busting of Iranian-backed spy rings and terrorist cells in the Gulf states increased and then Riyadh executed 47 “terrorists” including one prominent Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, and all hell broke loose: Tehran denounced the execution, Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran, Riyadh cut off diplomatic relations with Tehran followed by a coalition of Gulf States and other Islamic states supported by Riyadh who did the same. Tehran went on a campaign to delegitimize Riyadh in any way it could and even tried to call for Muslim Unity in an effort to isolate its regional rival.

Riyadh’s next move pointed to Damascus but although it warned that it would send Saudi troops to fight ISIS (and help legitimate rebels against Assad), Saudi boots have not hit Syrian soil yet. Instead, Riyadh decided to hit Tehran at its weak link: It led its allies to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Westerners might not want to accuse Tehran of terrorism, either because they want to make money or because they hold anti-US sentiments, but Hezbollah remained a terrorist organization with or without Tehran’s support. To drive this point home, Riyadh also withdrew its financial support for Lebanon, effectively under Iranian/Hezbollah rule, which led to a number of Lebanese leaders who openly accused Beirut’s Hezbollah government of serving Tehran before the Lebanese people.

Another blow hit Tehran as Israeli intelligence managed to convince Moscow that the S-300 missiles to be sold to Tehran would make their way to Hezbollah to be used in a war against Israel and the deal was frozen because Moscow may want to be associated with Tehran but not with Hezbollah.

 

For two years, Tehran had successfully mixed up the definition of terrorism for many. Now Saudi Arabia wants the world to choose between Hezbollah being a terrorist organization (and Tehran a supporter of terrorism) and between Hezbollah being a freedom fighter (and Tehran a supporter of freedom). It’s an “either, or” time to choose sides.  Not only you as a reader, but all the heads of states involved either in Iran or in Saudi Arabia or both.

 

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Khamenei’s Glass House Syndrome on Terrorism

Despite Tehran’s repeated calls to eradicate terror and its efforts to blame the West for any and all forms of terrorism, it continues to support its own terrorist cells and militias. This doesn’t come as a surprise to many who didn’t buy Rouhani’s rebranding of Iran as a champion against terrorism through his WAVE (World Against Extremism and Violence) initiative but it should act as a warning sign for those who did.

Tehran, of course, denies any connection to terroristic activity and even when the connection is accepted, as in the case of Tehran’s support for Hezbollah’s military factions, Tehran simply redefines terrorism to suit its agenda.

The problem is not only whether Tehran supports terrorism or not (it does), but the hypocritical rhetoric that exemplifies its stance on terrorism: last week, Khamenei once again, addressed the “Western youth” inviting them “reconsider the threat of terrorism in the world, its roots and to find a deep insight into Islam“. Of course, he blamed the US for the wave of global terrorism and didn’t mention once Tehran’s support in the past nor in the present for terrorism on a global scale.

Tehran was, remains and will probably continue to be addicted to terrorism and this should be a warning to Kahmenei: Mr. Khamenei, people who live in glass houses should be weary of throwing stones at others.

 

The Paradox of ISIS


ISIS is, paradoxically, Tehran’s ticket to becoming a champion against terrorism: the horror of ISIS is so great that all other forms of terrorism seem to pale next to it. And since Tehran is supposedly fighting ISIS in Syria and in Iraq, Tehran acquired the legitimacy it sought to cross the fence from supporting terror to fighting against terror.

Iranian politicians, such as parliament chief Larijani,  love to point out that the US coalition against ISIS is not only ineffective, it is simply “a game the US follows to achieve its interests“. On the other hand, Iranians love to point out that Russia is doing a great job at fighting ISIS even though evidence is mounting that Moscow is targeting legitimate Syrian rebels and civilians alongside as well as ISIS.

And yet, there is no hard evidence that Tehran is actually fighting ISIS on any front. Yes, Tehran supports Assad in the civil war against his enemies, which include ISIS amongst all the other rebel factions, but there is a distinct lack of information regarding exactly how Tehran is fighting ISIS.

Tehran gladly presents ISIS in a black & white manner, latching on to the fact that ISIS was developed in an American run prison in Iraq and that the US supported rebels who then joined ISIS, making the US the “bad guy” to Assad’s and Iran’s “good guys”. The truth is not so black and white and is closer to a butterfly effect with many variables including US foreign policy, the invasion of Iraq, the birth of Hezbollah, the Islamic revolution, Assad gaining power, the Iran-Saudi conflict etc…

Iranian troops are fighting in Syria alongside Tehran’s proxy Hezbollah but they aren’t really targeting ISIS – if they had, they would have gladly bragged about any victories against ISIS.

 

Terrorist Cells on a Global Scale


Tehran is continuously meddling in other countries’ politics. Of course, Tehran doesn’t call this meddling and prefers to call its activity “support for the oppressed”. Bahrain is a classic case of Iranian meddling mixed with terror: Last week, Khamenei included in his speech the ending support by Tehran for the “oppressed” people in “Palestine, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and Iraq“. Were Tehran’s activity limited to rhetoric, one could discount such statements as simply politics. Unfortunately for Bahrain, this is not the case. In fact, Manama busted an Iranian-backed terrorist cell “aimed at overthrowing the country’s pro-Western ruling monarchy“. Once again, Tehran denied and accused Manama of playing a “blame-game“.

The same “story” has now developed in Kenya: Two Kenyan Iranians,  Abubakar Sadiq Louw and Yassin Sambai Juma, were recently arrested in Nairobi for charges of “conspiring to mount terror attacks” and recruiting local terrorists to do so. Not only was Iran implicated as supporting this cell financially, one of the terrorists is reported to have been trained in Iran. Tehran quickly denied the allegations. But then, Tehran denied similar accusations regarding another busted terrorist cell in Kenya back in 2012.

Perhaps Tehran may be right about not being involved with an isolated case here or there – but evidence of Iranian backing for local terrorists intent on overthrowing their governments has surfaced in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE and Yemen, to name a few. Are they all simply bogus accusations or is Iran, once agains throwing stones from a glass house?

 

Terrorist Militias in Proxy Wars

In the case of supporting terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas, Tehran chooses to spin terrorists as freedom fighters. To be honest, Tehran is not the first to activate such spins: most countries that supported or support terrorism often did/do the same since it is quite easy to do. Unlike ISIS, Hezbollah is not designated as a terrorist organization by all countries which simplifies the spin: If Hezbollah is not recognized as a terrorist organization in Tehran, Bangkok or Beijing, then claiming that they are freedom fighters can be legitimate.

The fact that Hezbollah often terrorize their enemies, killing and maiming civilians, is deemed irrelevant and is compared to the activities of armies such as the US or Israel. Once again, the problem lies within the subjective definitions of who is a terrorist and what is terrorism.

Since this is a subjective perspective, one must resort to a simple “for” or “against” definition: if the terroristic activity is targeting you, it is terrorism.

Tehran accuses the West of supporting terrorist militias such as ISIS and denies that the militias supported by Tehran are terrorists. The West says the exact opposite.

The bottom line is that Tehran supports Hezbollah which is linked to numerous terrorist attacks or terrorist attempts in Lebanon, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the UK, Argentina, Turkey, Cyprus Egypt, Singapore, Bulgaria, Iraq, Yemen, Thailand, India etc…including two hijackings of planes (TWA 847 and AC 901).

Lots of stones for someone living in a glass house…

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Fighting Terror Becomes a License to Kill

The civil war in Syria is definitely one of the most horrifying conflict of the decade: the war that has raged since 2011 has taken of a death toll crossed the 200,000 mark and 5 million Syrians have fled the country. What began as a civil war instigated by the Arab Spring, quickly became a proxy war for regional and global rivals and threatens to morph into a global conflict.

But more importantly, this war will  notoriously be remembered for the birth of the ISIS rampage, a fact which has worked in Assad’s favor: In comparison to the atrocities of ISIS, Assad, a dictator who inherited his power from his father and refused to hold free elections, suddenly looked like a victim.

Throughout the war, Assad and Tehran have used the “fight against ISIS” as the narrative that successfully empowers them with a “license to kill” anyone who isn’t pro-Assad – and the world has blindly accepted this.

 

ISIS is Assad’s License To Kill

black and white 3Unfortunately for the millions of Syrian rebels who aren’t affiliated with ISIS or any other terrorist group, most of the world accepted this benevolent portrayal of Assad while they were battered endlessly by the Syrian army, Hezbollah militias, Iranian “advisers” and now, Moscow’s best. The feverish quest to wipe ISIS off the face of the earth overcame and efforts to force Assad to earn his power through elections regardless of the fact that had Assad not tried to quell the protests by his people for reform and free elections, the war may never have gained impetus and ISIS might never have existed. This same quest helped Tehran to rebrand itself from a state which supports terror to a state which fights against terror.

This doesn’t mean that these new “supporters” of Assad are “bad” people: they are normal people who are rightly terrified by ISIS. Comparing searches of ISIS to Assad in google trends since 2014 shows that the interest in ISIS is about 43 times more than the interest in Assad. This makes sense and, in a way, explains why people support Assad in the civil war: ISIS is simply scarier.

Assad’s supporters and ISIS’s enemies conveniently blame “terrorism”, a word which is just a rallying call to go to war, and the legitimate plight of the Syrian people who want to be able to choose their own leader was, just as conveniently, forgotten. Furthermore, the hundreds of thousands of casualties by Assad’s army and his supporters (mainly Hezbollah and Tehran) and the millions of Syrian refugees were attributed to the “terrorists” although there is growing evidence that most of the casualties were killed by Assad’s army and most of the refugees fled from Assad’s army.

 

Disturbing Facts and Figures

The facts regarding the identity of the casualties and the refugees (who killed them and who are they fleeing from respectively?) is murky at best: both sides claim to be victims and blame the other. Independent sources are hard to come by and the numbers are so confusing that many simply give up and go with their gut against ISIS…and for Assad.

But what if sources such as the Syrian Network for Human Rights are correct and that 95% of the casualties were killed by Assad’s regime? What if the majority of Syrian refugees are really fleeing Assad? What if the number of atrocities carried out by the regime really do eclipse those of ISIS? What if ISIS was actually a blessing in disguise for Assad (and for Tehran) by giving him the legitimacy he lacked amongst his own people? Is eradicating ISIS really worth the atrocities carried out by Assad and his cronies?

Since Moscow entered the fray, for the purported goal of wiping ISIS out, it has been accused of targeting and killing non-ISIS rebels and civilians. Moscow denies and the world keeps on looking away. Tehran pontificates on the need for Europe to take care of the Syrian refugees while it continues to unwaveringly support Assad to create the reason why they are fleeing Syria. Once again, the world seems content to accept Assad and Tehran at face-value in the all-encompassing hope of destroying ISIS.

 

The Ironic/Iranic Road to Democracy

President Hassan Rouhani made a big point of stating that not only is Iran a democracy but that Iran will “help bring about democracy in Syria“. Iran’s FM Javad Zarif echoed this sentiment by claiming that Syria’s fate should be “determined at the polls and not by weapons“. So, how is Iran “helping to bring democracy” to Syria and allow the Syrians to choose their leaders “at the polls”? By blindly supporting Assad with money, “advisers” and weapons, by allowing Qods chief Qassem Suleimani to call the shots in Syria and by branding any resistance to his regime as terrorism.

It’s time for the world to take a closer look at who really is responsible for this war and to not accept narratives that are mistakenly supported out of fears of ISIS. It’s time to make Assad and Tehran accountable for prolonging this war and for the suffering and deaths of hundreds of thousands of casualties and millions of refugees whose lives could have been normal had Assad accepted to hold elections.

Now, Assad is finally offering the possibility for elections but at “only if terrorists are defeated first“, meaning that by the time he will hold the elections, all forms opposition to his regime will either be dead or outside of Syria. The bitter irony here is that Assad may actually win his power democratically at the expense of the hundreds of thousands he killed, the millions of refugees who fled his forces and the gullible world who bought the “Assad vs. ISIS” narrative hook, line and sinker.

 

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The Black-White Narrative on ISIS

It is impossible to find anything good to say about ISIS. Without a doubt, it has reset the bar for the levels of savagery inherent in a terrorist group: the much communicated beheadings, crucifixions, rapes, enslavements etc…have placed ISIS at the top/bottom of all the scales and have helped redefine the word “terrorism” itself.

In fact, the media hype over ISIS has been so loud that it is nearly impossible to hear anything but condemnations against ISIS and cheers for the nations and the people trying to defeat it. And as with all media hype, the message has boiled down to a very simple black and white “soundbite”. Since, there is an ongoing campaign to place the US as responsible for the birth of ISIS, the simplified narrative goes something like this: “ISIS and its real/imagined backers (US, Saudi Arabia and even Israel) as the “bad/evil guys promoting terrorism” and the anti-ISIS axis (includes nearly the whole world but is basically Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, Iraq and now Russia) as the “good/benevolent guys fighting terrorism”.

Obviously, this simplified polarized version of the situation is as far from the truth as the infamous “axis of evil” tags that President Bush was so fond of using. ISIS is definitely evil and should be eradicated but, and this is a big “BUT”, the core anti-ISIS axis poses an evil that is much larger, albeit less immediate and less graphic, than ISIS itself.

 

The Birth of ISIS in Many Shades of Grey

birth isisOne fact is certain: as Obama would later admit, ISIS was born as an “unintended consequence” of the US’s mismanagement in Iraq.

The birth of ISIS as it is today began in 2004 in the US-run prison of Camp Bucca in Southern Iraq: Most of the would-be commanders of ISIS were at one time prisoners at Camp Bucca and it was there that they developed their network and their extremist ideologies. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was one of the key figures but he wasn’t even close to becoming its leader.  When the US pulled out of Iraq, it left a vacuum of power that was to becoming the womb for the birth of ISI (Islamic State of Iraq). Old rivalries were set aside and new allies were created to fight different wars on a constant basis. ISI’s goals were mostly anti-Shiite and anti-US but these goals were relatively fluid depending on the environment at each moment. In fact, ISI was, at one time, supported by Assad’s own government in an effort to topple the Iraqi government. Al-Qaeda was and remained for a long time the most powerful terrorist organization that all other factions had to deal with.

In 2011, the rumbles of a civil war began in Syria and Al-Baghdadi, decided to expand ISI’s territory of operations beyond Iraq into Syria through a Syrian rebel called Abu Muhammad al-Julani who formed Jabhat al-Nusra for the purpose of fighting Assad who had refused to hold free elections and had answered local protests by killing and jailing demonstrators.

Events came to a peak when in 2013, al-Baghdadi announced that al-Nusra and ISI were one and the same, resulting in denials by al-Julani and a condemnation by al-Qaeda who felt that ISI was growing too big too fast. But by this time, al-Baghdadi felt strong enough to make his move: he led multiple raids on Iraqi prisons in order to free more than 500 hard-core prisoners who later pledged their allegiance to ISIS. By 2014, al-Qaeda broke its ties with ISI and after much infighting between al-Nusra and ISI in Syria (al-Nusra wanted to topple Assad, al-Baghdadi wanted to create a Sunni stronghold within Iraq and Syria), the two groups finally consolidated.

In June 2014, al-Baghdadi proclaimed the worldwide Islamic State and ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and ISIS’s rampage across Syria and Iraq quickly followed. Meanwhile, the civil war in Syria raged on with Syrian rebels backed by the US and Saudi Arabia fighting against Assad and Iranian-backed Hezbollah militias. Some of these Syrian rebels joined ISIS in the hope of overthrowing Assad while others fought against ISIS in a classic Middle Eastern melee.

So, who’s to blame for the birth of ISIS? Like any recipe for disaster, there are many ingredients: Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, the US invasion of Iraq, the pro-Shiite government in Iraq, the incarceration of would-be ISIS leaders in a US-Iraqi prison, the subversive efforts of Syria in Iraq, the civil war in Syria, the break with al-Qaeda, Iran’s efforts to export the Shiite revolution and many more links that would eventually become the horror that is ISIS. Sorry, no easy black/white, good/bad picture here…only many many shades of grey.

 

From Shades of Grey to Black and White

isis beheadingThe savagery of ISIS made huge headlines. These were terrorists who knew that a youtube video of the beheading of one single person is worth more than a bloody battle. News of the horrors of ISIS were smartly disseminated through media outlets and social media and within a few weeks, ISIS became the terrorists everyone loved to hate.

This strategy helped to build ISIS’s image but also, as a direct consequence, rebranded Assad and his supporters in Tehran as the world’s saviors who were doing what the whole world wanted to do – kill ISIS. The US joined the fray in bombing ISIS strong-holds but the involvement of the US was criticized and denigrated by Tehran as cynical (since the US was identified with the rise of ISIS) and worthless (no real examples of success). Riding this sentiment, Rouhani developed his WAVE (World Against Violence and Extremism) initiative which placed Iran and Assad in the White Corner and ISIS, the US and Saudi Arabia in the Black Corner.

The public admissions by Obama and several key US political and military leaders of being a part of the birth of ISIS weren’t balanced by admissions by Assad, Baghdad or Tehran of their own responsibility for creating ISIS or for supporting terrorism and the simplified black-white narrative of ISIS began to take traction. In such a black and white picture, there was no room for shades of grey of the massacres carried out by Assad, Hezbollah and Iran on Syrian citizens and legitimate Syrian rebels (not ISIS). The facts that Tehran had not only been a part of the birth of ISIS, has invested over $10 billion a year in the Syrian civil war and was supporting numerous terrorist militias and faction in the Middle East, Europe and the Americas were dwarfed by the world’s hope that ISIS would be destroyed – any questionable shades of grey were pushed to the extreme black-white picture of the situation.

The fact that despite Tehran’s repeated calls for foreign entities to not get involved in the civil war in Syria, Tehran dispatched 15,000 Iranian troops and increased its supplies of weapons to Syria.

Even as Syrian refugees landed in Europe, many who were escaping Assad’s coalition, and not ISIS, Rouhani continues to bang the drum of guilt over the US’s head: “Assad + Tehran = Good/White, ISIS + US = Bad/Black”, in other words, killing “bad guys” turned Tehran into the “good guys”.

 

Putin, The White Knight

putin 2Before Moscow joined the war, many other nations took part in trying to destroy ISIS: the US, Canada, Australia,  UK, France, Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE have all joined in air-srikes against ISIS in Syria/Iraq while Egypt has targeted air-strikes against ISIS bases in Lybia, Germany and Italy have supplied weapons to fight ISIS and Qatar supplied humanitarian aid.

For years, Moscow watched wearily as Assad’s future dangled precariously while at the same time pressuring the US to sign a nuclear deal with Iran in order to begin a new era of trade and partnership with Iran. In June the JCPOA was finally inked and the following month, Iran’s Qods chief Suleimani visited Moscow (despite sanctions against him to travel) to convince the Russians to take a more dramatic part in saving Assad. What Suleimani showed Moscow must have been alarming and Suleimani next visit to Russia in September clinched the deal, bringing Moscow to invest its full power to support Iran and save Assad.

Within weeks, Moscow deployed its jet fighters and suddenly, Assad’s precarious fortunes turned rosier and Moscow enhanced the black-white narrative of ISIS by placing itself, together with Assad, Tehran and Hezbollah as the “good guys”. The Russian jet fighters, directed by Assad’s commands, began bombing Syrian rebel outposts regardless of whether the rebels were factioned with ISIS or not. The US looked on worriedly as Russian jets bombed US-backed rebels and pictures of Syrian casualties from the Russian bombings began flooding the media.

The EU, high on the success of the JCPOA called for diplomatic interventions to save Syria while keeping Assad in power and both the EU and the UN reinforced Iran’s role in helping to end the war, reinforcing, once again, the black-white ISIS narrative. Both Rouhani and Putin made it quite clear in their speeches at the UNGA: Assad must remain in power in order for the conflict to be resolved.

Saudi Arabia, a long term rival of Assad and Tehran called unsuccessfully on Russia to step down and even threatened to join the war against Assad but will probably not do so since it a) reinforces the blackened image of Saudi Arabia as fighting against the fighters against ISIS and b) increases the chance of turning a proxy war in Syria to into a global conflict.

 

No doubt about it, ISIS should be destroyed and so should Assad. But the anti-ISIS axis is much more dangerous in the long run to the West than ISIS itself. Unfortunately, in a world of simplistic media sound-bites, the grey intricacies of this war are lost. In the shorter scenario, while the West looks on, the Syrian rebels who legitimately called for the removal of Assad will die along with ISIS and the world will hail the anti-ISIS axis as its savior. The other scenario is much more worrisome: If the Russians continue to hit US interests in Syria and if their blitz turns out to a protracted war, the chances of the a global war emanating from Syria will dramatically increase. In any case, the Middle East looks like its spiraling into a “meltdown“, and the superpowers (specifically Russia and China) are jostling to fill up the vacuum.

 

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Tehran and ISIS – It’s Complicated

iran and isis

The relationship between Tehran and ISIS is a complicated one:

  1. Iran consistently accuses the US/Saudis of creating ISIS and thus supporting terrorism.
    But in reality, ISIS was born out of the vacuum or power and stability in Syria and Iraq, a vacuum that was filled by Tehran.
  2. Iran and ISIS are enemies and are at war in the fields of Syria and Iraq.
    But fighting ISIS legitimizes Iran’s political and military involvement in Syria and Iraq which suits Tehran’s regional aspirations.
  3. Iran has taken the lead, as well as the costs and the glory, of fighting ISIS.
    But fighting ISIS has also forced Tehran to cooperate with the “Great Satan” and other regional enemies, a situation filled with tension and mistrust.
  4. ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) has not yet targeted Iranian territory.
    But fighting ISIS may result in an invasion by ISIS of Iranian soil in the future.
  5. Both ISIS and Tehran’s raison d’aitre is to promote a global Islamic revolution, although one is Sunni and another is Shiite.
    But Khameini is constantly calling for a global unity of Muslims under Islam regardless of religious factions
  6. Tehran has a long history of promoting Islamist extremist/terrorist militias such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Taliban etc… for its agenda so, why not ISIS?
    But Tehran modus operandi with terrorist militia is based on Tehran controlling the agenda and ISIS isn’t listening to Tehran.

Whatever the case may be, Tehran will continue to wage a tactical war against ISIS but underneath it all, ISIS may be serving Tehran’s regional and global strategy so well that if ISIS did not exist, Tehran would have had to invent it.

 

Iran Also Created ISIS

isis 1There is evidence that proves that leaders of ISIS were once supported by the US and Saudi Arabia in an effort to promote US interests in the Middle East but those ties were severed once ISIS “went rogue”. Meanwhile, the civil war in Syria and the weakening of the Iraqi government, both of which are connected directly to Tehran, created the instability that ISIS required: there were enough disgruntled Syrians and Iraqis to join ISIS and enough weak areas in which wars could be waged. The fact that the US pulled out of Iraq only made it easier for both Iran and ISIS to march in.

 

ISIS is Iran’s Tactical Enemy and Strategic Ally

isis 5Tehran may be fighting ISIS in the battlefields in Syria and Iraq but without ISIS, Tehran’s military involvement in these countries might warrant a foreign military intervention just as its involvement in Yemen brought on a military reaction by Saudi Arabia.

There is growing criticism within and outside of Iran against the regime in Tehran for supporting Assad in his civil war. The cost of supporting Assad is believed to be approximately $10-$15 billion a year and now that Tehran is sending troops to Syria, the cost is bound to grow financially and in the loss of Iranian lives as well.

As to Iraq, Tehran is eager to bring Baghdad and has been supporting the Shiite factions there for the past few years. Baghdad is a key city in the vision for an Iranian empire as outlined by Rouhani’s chief adviser on Ethnic and Religious Minorities, Ali Younessi.

With Lebanon already under Iranian control, Syria and Iraq on the way, and Yemen and Afghanistan in its sights, Tehran can finally begin the process of building a regional empire.

In contrast, the US remains Tehran’s strategic enemy even if it is Tehran’s tactical ally against ISIS.

 

A Common Enemy Creates Strange Allies

isis 7When ISIS began its rampage last year (29th of June, 2014), the tone from Iran complacent: IRGC generals spoke about ISIS as an isolated issue with no real repercussions to Iran. But as ISIS stormed through Iraq, the same generals changed their tune: Tehran, as a regional leader and a friend of Baghdad and Damascus, would eradicate ISIS…in fact, Qods chief Suleimani claimed that only Iran could wipe ISIS off the map.

The nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 suddenly created a situation in which Western forces, specifically the US, were ready to fight beside the Iranian forces in the effort to eradicate ISIS. This strange coalition of enemies was fragile from the start and the Iranians wasted no time in criticizing the US for its “ineptitude” on the battle field.

 

Will ISIS Wage War on Tehran?

isis 3ISIS, even within its name, makes no territorial claims over Iran. And even if it did, it would seem pointless: ISIS is a Sunni movement which is trying to carve out a Sunni kingdom within Syria and Iraq and would never be welcome by the people of Iran who are Shiites.

Furthermore, ISIS is winning in Syria and Iraq because both of these countries lack any stability at this point in time while Iran’s regime is firmly entrenched with a powerful army. So, even in their wildest dreams, the leaders of ISIS probably do not view themselves entering triumphantly through the gates of Tehran. But they will probably find a way to bring the war to Iran on its borders with Iraq.

 

Two Sides of the Extremist Islamic Coin

isis 4Yes, ISIS is Sunni and Iran is Shiite. But both are striving for a world that will be Islamic and religious. They do not strive for a modern and updated version of Islam but want their citizens to be part of the ancient version of Islam based on Shaariah laws.

The chances of a unity between Iran and ISIS seems as close as a unity between Tehran and Riyadh but one must not forget Khamenei’s
fervent vision of a Global Islamic Awakening and his calls lately for unity among all Muslims of the world.

 

The Fine Line Between a Terrorist and a Freedom Fighter

isis 6The leaders in Tehran were quick to use ISIS in an effort to redefine terrorism: Rouhani’s first foreign policy initiative was to create WAVE (World Against Violence and Extremism) using ISIS as the clear definition of terrorism. Obviously, Rouhani conveniently forgot to mention Tehran’s ties with terrorist militia. Suddenly all the Iranian leaders placed themselves firmly and righteously against extremism, violence and terrorism.

But what about Tehran’s support of Hezbollah, Hamas, Taliban etc…What about Tehran’s support for the Houthis rebels in Yemen? What about Tehran fighting its wars in Syria and Iraq with Hezbollah and Taliban militia? And what about the atrocities carried out by these same militia in Syria and in Iraq?

Whether Tehran likes it or not, in many cases, ISIS and Tehran are very similar in many respects.

 

In reality, ISIS is really a localized problem – 10-15 thousand militia on a rampage in Iraq and Syria. But the horrors of ISIS and Tehran’s involvement in both these countries make the fight against ISIS a global one. Paradoxically, Iran needs ISIS as a way to free itself from its connection with terrorism and as a card of legitimacy to spread its military power over Iraq and Syria.

 

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Iranian Involvement in Syria Escalates Alarmingly

15000 troops

Assad’s war against the Syrian rebels is going from bad to worse: A series of critical losses against the rebels and dwindling coffers have weakened Assad to a point where some believe that his days as ruler in Damascus are numbered.

so he naturally called on his closest ally, for help and 15,000 Iranian troops are on their way to Syria with another 35,000 to be deployed in the very near future.

Iran’s increasing involvement in Assad’s civil war should light some serious warning signs and the main question remains what exactly will Tehran expect in return.

 

Up until now…

31iht-ednisman31-articleLargeFor a while, Tehran was content to support Assad politically and financially while downplaying its military aid in the civil war raging in Syria. It seemed, outwardly, satisfied to let its Hezbollah militia to spearhead the fight against the Syrian rebels while supporting the militia with IRGC “advisers” and “Afghan volunteers“. Although there were rumors that some of the casualties were Iranian troops, Tehran stuck to denials: Tehran supported Assad but Iranian troops were not involved in the battles and Assad himself joined in these denials.

At the same time, Iranian leaders such as Zarif and Larijani continued to warn foreign powers to stay away from the Syrian conflict and to let the Syrians deal with the civil war by themselves. Whenever talks of foreign involvement by the West or the UN arose, these same leaders would cry “foul” and call these efforts “meddling” while accusing “the West” of being responsible for the civil war in Syria, the birth of ISIS, the rise in extremism etc…

 

From bad to worse

Qassem Suleimani with a group of peshmerga fighters in KurdistanLast week, Hezbollah requested Iran “send 50,000 soldiers from the infantry force to Syria to manage the war there and prevent the fall of the Assad regime, which has begun to collapse recently”. Qods leader Suleimani wasn’t far behind and announced that “the world will be surprised by what we and the Syrian military leadership are preparing for the coming days” and sure enough, word has leaked out that 15,000 Iranian troops are on their way to Syria.

What is not surprising is that numerous Iranian officials, including Rouhani, Zarif and Larijani reiterated over the past few days support for Assad. Rouhani ominously vowed to support Syria “until the end of the road” adding that Tehran has “not forgotten its moral obligations to Syria and will continue to provide help and support on its own terms to the government and nation of Syria“.

 

Many questions arise

Iran-and-Syria-flags-combinedThis latest move by Iran raises three key questions:

  • Is Iran’s involvement in Assad’s civil war legitimate? Iran and Syria signed a military agreement endowing both sides to aid each other in case of war. But in this case, Syria is not fighting a war against another country. Tehran argues that the rebels are supported by foreign powers, namely Saudi Arabia, which gives it the right to aid its ally. This is a classic case of the “chicken and the egg” since the Saudis stated that their support of the rebels is in response to Iran’s support of Assad (echoes the situation in Yemen in which the Saudis are bombing the Houthi rebels who managed to overthrow the Yemeni government with the aid of Tehran).
  • Does this involvement reflect the will of the Iranian people? Tehran’s decision to finance a civil war in Syria (estimated at $10 billion) comes at a time when the Iranian economy is still weak. Zarif said that “the government of Iran follows the people not the other way around” but does the Iranian people support such an escalation of Iran’s involvement in Syria? Are the Iranian people ready to kill and fight for Assad? Nobody knows because nobody asked the people.
  • What does Iran expect in return from Assad? Trade, an obvious reason, can not be a reasonable option since Syria’s economy is shaterred. Some might argue that Tehran’s increased involvement reflects its fears of ISIS and other militia hostile towards Iran and or Shiites. Others believe that Syria is destined to be part of Iran’s aspirations for an empire that will include Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen for now.

Whatever the case may be, Tehran’s increased support in Syria will not be overlooked by the regional powers nor the UN. If Assad is destined to fall in his civil war, Iran’s intrusion can only escalate the involvement of other regional powers in the area, namely Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

West Too Desperate To Trust Iran

keep calm

Should the West Trust Iran?

The discussions between the West and Iran concerning the nuclear deal are boiling down to one word – “TRUST“.

For years, Tehran, and specifically, Supreme Leader Khamenei, reiterated time and again that militarizing its nuclear program is not an option…but nobody really believed it because at the same time, he was spewing anti-Western rants (he still does) and the nuclear program had literally gone underground (it still is).

And then, President Rouhani took office in a whirlwind of promises for change and moderation. Suddenly, the faces representing Tehran showed up with smiles paving the way to the nuclear deal. For a while, it seemed that Tehran could be trusted. IAEA inspectors flew in, nuclear plants were open for inspections and uranium enrichment beyond 5% diminished. Sanctions were lifted and hardliners on all sides had to sit back and simmer for a while.

3 Reasons Not To Trust Iran

Unfortunately, the smiling diplomats from Tehran headed by Rouhani and Foreign  Minister Zarif worked hard to find loopholes in the deal and they were joined by the hardliners to state the obvious – There would be no “freezing”, “dismantling”, “reigned in”, “rolled back” etc… as the West believed. At most, Tehran was ready to press the “pause” button. And yet, the West kept on hammering at a deal in the hope of winning the day through diplomacy as a worthy alternative to a military option.

But then, there’s the issue of Iran’s support of Syria (Assad). Although Tehran continues to support Assad politically, financially and militarily as we have shown in earlier posts, the same smiling diplomats set up a wall of denials in an effort to distance themselves from the atrocities and from Hezbollah itself. In the face of all the evidence to prove otherwise, each denial represents another crack in the wall of trust Rouhani had worked hard to create. Efforts to link Iran’s involvement in Syria to the nuclear talks were immediately shot down by Tehran and so, the West plods on.

Finally, the interception by the Israelis of a ship loaded with weapons originating in Syria, travelling through Iran and headed for Gaza poked another big hole in Tehran’s veil of trustw. While the Israelis touted the “smoking gun” they were seeking, Zarif immediately set up a wall of circumstancial denials. First, he ridiculed the munitions seizure by spinning it into an attempted PR stunt by Israel coinciding with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s presence at the annual AIPAC meeting in Washington – “Amazing Coincidence! Or same failed lies.” He then stated that it would be “inconsecutive” for Assad to send missiles to Gaza when he needs them badly himself.  And although he may be right about the great timing vis-à-vis the AIPAC convention and that Assad needs the weapons, the fact remains that containers of missiles and ammunition emanating from Syria and shipped through Iran are now in Israeli custody in Eilat. And the fact remains that, despite yet another reason to mistrust Iran, the West continues to bet on diplomacy.

So, Can Iran Be Trusted?

Rouhani and Zarif have proven themselves to lack trustworthiness in their denials on the nuclear program, on their involvement in Syria and on their involvement in attempted terrorism against the civilian population in Israel. If this were a baseball game, the umpire would shout out “strike three, you’re out” and Tehran would be sent off the field.

Unfortunately, it seems that after so many denials by Rouhani and company, it is the West’s turn to be in denial, preferring to ignore all the warning signs in an effort to let diplomacy save the day. And although it is admirable to do everything possible to avert a war, if Iran can’t be trusted, what’s the use in a deal?

Syria and Iran: Ties of Mass Destruction

Image: ISNA

The Washington Post had reported that in recent years the Syrian regime expanded it’s chemical weapons of mass destruction with the aid of Iran. According to the Washington post, Iran, a close ally of Syria, had provided Syria with both chemical precursors and expertise.

While, the chemical precursors may be used both for military and civilian purposes, the Washington post quotes experts in the chemical weapons field who stipulate that the procurement undertaken by the Syrian regime does not fit the profile of procurement for civilian purposes.

The help provided by Iran to Syria’s chemical weapons program is inline with the close military ties between the countries. These ties are perpetuated in the fact that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corpse is taking an active part in the oppression of the Syrian uprising. Furthermore, according to the website Khabar online, the Iranian vice president Ali Saeedlou had described the Tehran-Damascus ties as “deeply-rooted and strategic, and [that] Iran sees no limits to expansion of its cooperation with friendly and brotherly country of Syria”.