The Rise of the Sunnis and the Decline of Iran, Iraq and Hizbullah: The Middle East in 2013

2013 will see Iranian influence in the Middle East continue a decline that began with the Arab upheavals of 2011. Iran’s two major allies in the Arab world are Syria and Lebanon. In Lebanon, Iran arms the Shiite party-militia Hizbullah, and does so overland through Iraq and Syria. Since Israel controls the Mediterranean off Lebanon and can, when it wants to, control Lebanese air space, the land corridor for Iranian supplies to Hizbullah is key to the latter’s ability to confront Israeli expansionism into Lebanese territory.

Hizbullah could well have its Iranian lifeline cut. Its secretary-general, Hassan Nasrullah, has come out strongly in favor of the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, because both of them are Iranian clients. If Syria falls to the Sunni Arab revolutionaries, the latter will have a grudge toward both Iran and Hizbullah for supporting the Baath government, and will likely cut the latter off from resupply through Syrian territory. Instead, Syrian support will go to the Sunnis of Beirut, Sidon, Tripoli, Akkar and the Biqa Valley.

Between 2003 and 2012 the United States, in a fit of absent-mindedness, made Iran a regional hegemon. Washington overthrew the Taliban in Afghanistan and delivered it into the hands of the Northern Alliance, a set of strong Iran allies. A brake on Iranian influence in Afghanistan was removed. Then the Bush administration overthrew Saddam Hussein, the Sunni ruler who subjected the Shiite majority and stood as a barrier to Iranian penetration of the Middle East. Without meaning to, the US brought to power a religious Shiite government that naturally allied with Iran. Then the US Congress targeted Syria for deep sanctions and the Bush hawks drove it firmly into the arms of Iran. The Bush administration backed Israel’s attack on Lebanon in 2006, which strengthened the Shiite party-militia Hizbullah, which now is a key backer of the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Miqati. The pro-Iran capitals stretched from Kabul to Beirut (light blue in the map below), and Iran suddenly became a much bigger player in Levantine affairs than it had been in the 1990s. The Israeli security establishment, indeed, fingered Tehran as their most pressing threat. Iran was lionized in the Arab world for supporting Hizbullah against Israel in the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War.


If al-Assad falls in Syria and is replaced by a Sunni government of revolutionaries, they will be beholden to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey (and Libya), all of them Wahhabi or Sunni powers. They will likely punish Hizbullah for its support of the Baath government, and will support Sunni forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood, in Lebanese politics. If Hizbullah can’t replenish its stock of rockets, its geopolitical significance could decline, even as that of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood rises. The partitions in the following map, of Iraq and Afghanistan, are meant only to depict the regional divide over foreign policy, not to suggest an actual break-up of these countries (but who knows?)

What the Middle East might look like if Damascus falls to the revolutionaries:


A Sunni-dominated Syria might well exert influence in northern and western Iraq far beyond what Shiite-dominated Baghdad does. The Sunni Arabs of central, western and northern Iraq are chafing under the rule of Shiite religious parties, and resent Iranian influence. Mosul (now Nineva) Province famously was undecided after World War I which country to join– Turkey, Syria or Iraq. At Versailles, Clemenceau cavalierly gave Lloyd George Mosul for Iraq. The story is that Lloyd George felt he had gotten Mosul so easily that he regretted not having asked for more from his French colleague. Anyway, you wonder if Mosul’s choices might not open up again in the coming years, a century after Clemenceau’s friendly gesture to the UK.

Likewise, as the US withdraws from Afghanistan through 2013, with a final withdrawal of active combat troops in 2014, Iran’s allies in that country could be weakened in the face of a resurgent, Pakistan- backed Taliban.

The Muslim Brotherhood will likely benefit from Iran’s decline. If the new Sunni government in Damascus is tinged with Brotherhood influence, it may well reach out to Cairo and forge the strongest Egypt-Syria alliance we have seen since the failure of the United Arab Republic (comprised of Egypt and Syria, 1958-1961).

The Israel lobbies in the United States have pushed for a US war on Iran, which the Obama administration seems unwilling to pursue. In the absence of military action, AIPAC and groups to their right (the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, the American Enterprise Institute, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy) have succeeded in persuading the US Congress to impose a financial blockade on Iran, extending even to throwing up financial obstacles to the sale of Iranian petroleum.

But what if all this time the Israel lobbies were barking up the wrong tree? What if, even without US sanctions, Iran is geo=politically in decline?

A new, Sunni coalition in the Levant would group Lebanese Sunnis with Palestinians (whether PLO or Hamas); would rule Damascus and Cairo; and might well give extraordinary support to the Palestinians, especially to Hamas (an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood itself). It may be that not Tyre but Khan Yunis is the greater security threat to Israel in the new Middle East that is forming before our eyes. Sunni activists may well be much more committed to giving practical help to the PLO and Hamas than was al-Assad, who merely paid lip service to the plight of the Palestinians.

A Sunni, and possibly Muslim Brotherhood Syria could thus emerge as a major player, in Arab-Israeli affairs but also in northern Iraq. And, the salience of the Jordanian monarchy is reduced in case things develop in this direction.

A Sunni-dominated Levant would not necessarily be hostile to the US, though it is likely to bear some grudges for US inaction in Syria. But it would likely be severely hostile to Israel. A galvanized Syrian population and a revolutionary government, plus their support for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, could introduce dangerous new frictions, at a time when the Likud Party in Israel is moving even further to the right. Increased Syrian-Israel tension is likely to be one outcome. A strengthened Hamas might well be another (Hamas is realigning away from Syria-Iran and toward Egypt-FSA).

Iran is far from Israel/Palestine and has limited clients in that region. If it is forced out of the Levant, it will lose a talking point in domestic elections at most. Israel on the other hand is rather outnumbered by Egypt and Syria, both of them immediate neighbors.

Posted in Uncategorized | 49 Responses | Print |

49 Responses

  1. Dear Professor Cole

    Oh what fun! Scenarios.

    This is a good one, which we will all recognise of course if I title it the “Gertie Bell Scenario”.

    Well thought through and set out. There are a few extra dimensions and factors that need to be taken into account though.

    Like Libya we need to look at consequences too, so we don’t end up with the equivalent of the “Mali and the 10,000 missing SAM” or another Genocide.

    Alongside Sir Paul Newton’s work on Syria this is one of the best things I have read recently.

  2. Dear Dr Cole

    I agree with your analysis but I think the dynamics of Iraq in 2013 and beyond are not as clear to me as a native Iraqi.

    Baghdad’s control over Anbar and Mosul will be decided not by military force but by economic leverage. Anbar has some gas reserves but should they want to chart an independent course or latch on to Syria, they would lose a huge financial support from Basra petro dollars.

    The issues of KRG and Turkey also seem to be up in the air as far as I can see. I honestly don’t see a clear turkish strategy. Iraq will not allow KRG to have indep pipeline to turkey and still remain part of Iraq.Yet, I can’t see Turkey encouraging KRG independence for this would surely lead to an eventual loss of south east turkey and 20 million Turkish Kurds as well as emergence of Kurds from Syria. So doesn’t a weaker Iraq pose a bigger long-term threat to turkey. If KRG and sunnistan break off from Iraq, the remaining Shiastan with all the massive oil reserves will likely have much stronger dependence on Iran than present day Iraq does. I can’t see the USG or Turkey for that matter allowing for such a scenario.

    Do you see a coherent Turkish policy with respect to Iraq? I certainly dont.

  3. This is helpful in understanding how the events may unfold in Middle East. But i think what is missing in the text is Shiite-Sunni factor driving domestic conflicts which may shape regional politics in a different way. Rising Shiite Sunni Schism may take Gulf states more closer to Israel( of course through covert channels). The Sunni regime in Damascus and Egypt will look at Israel through more practical rather than ideological lenses.

  4. A very interesting point of view. I believe however, that this analysis depends on Syria successfully emerging from its civil war, and it is far from clear to me how it will do this. The Alawite Assad regime will probably not last another year, but the rebels will then be faced with deciding who runs the country. Right now, the Islamists are its strongest fighters, but they are not indigenous, and so a post-Assad conflict will be set up, wherein the Islamists contend with the locals. I believe that the Islamists will (rightly) feel that they have contributed heavily to the victory against the Assads, and so feel (wrongly) that they should have a strong say in the post-Assad government there. They will have a lot of confidence in their arms. But the non-Islamists have provided them with a lot of local knowledge, and once this conflict starts, the Islamists will be fighting with less of this, and be less dominant, making for a long post-Assad struggle.

    If the Syrians do manage to settle their governance quickly after Assad, they will probably be weaker than Assad’s government, because the Saudis don’t have nearly the knowhow and wherewithal to build up military and intelligence powerhouses in their clients that Iran/Russia have.

    Thus, while this article foresees Syria taking a path similar to that of Egypt, I think the more likely path is that of Libya.

  5. “2013 will see Iranian influence in the Middle East continue a decline that began with the Arab upheavals of 2011.”

    But is any loss of Iranian influence in the Levant a problem? Your penultimate sentence sentence provides the answer for readers who read that far and aren’t over-awed by the scary headline with its ‘decline in Iranian influence.’

    Iran is far from Israel/Palestine and has limited clients in that region. If it is forced out of the Levant, it will lose a talking point in domestic elections at most.

    Actually Iran never did have much influence in the Middle East except in Lebanon and Palestine, and they were charity cases for Iran. Iran’s future is to its north and east, not its west. That’s where the economic growth is, and Iran will have a piece of it.

    Iran excels at diplomacy – it has to – and it is using its strength to extend its influence with Central and South Asia, particularly India which wants Iran as a corridor to Central Asia and even Europe.

    Iran has the energy that Asia needs. It exports oil, gas and electricity and has found new energy sources. Plus, regarding contiguous states, Iran does have Iraq and probably the new Afghanistan as allies, Turkey still wants Iran energy, Turkmenistan is an ally, Russia isn’t far away and Pakistan badly needs Iran gas.

  6. @Dr. Cole.

    I bet your wishful thinking will make Netanyahu very happy. However, Obama just signed the Countering Iran in Western Hemispher Act, passed by AIPAC-controlled lawmakers early this year showing that Iran is gaining influence even in Latin America.

    Hizballah has already proved in 2006 – that the Jewish army is no match to its fighters. Hizballah doesn’t receive aid from Tehran but directly from Ayatullah Khamenei’ trust. On the other hand, Syria receives more aid from Russia than Iran.

    Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both 100% Sunnis – proved in November 2012 – how they can humiliate mighty Jewish army.

    Sunni Turkey and Egypt are no match to Israel as their leaders are US-NATO clients. Iraq, on the other hand, is recovering from its 10-years of US-Israel occupation.

    As Lord David Owen, former British foreign secretary wrote in UK daily Mirror in December 2011 – “the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq has made Iran the most powerful nation in the region”. And if I’m not mistaked, he included Israel in his statement.

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  7. Just because Iran is not totally isolated and has limited relation with few immediate state through a strong cultural unity and religion which are also occupied and hapless does not make for influence. Influence comes from the barrel of gun, US treasury and access to Washington and London, neither of which Iran possess.

  8. Thanks for this piece, Juan.

    I think it will be very interesting to see what happens after the Syrian civil war.

    1. I’m not entirely sure there will be a Syria as we currently know it. It’s possible we may see yet another version of ‘Fragmentistan’, as different faiths, tribes and ethnicities attempt to create their own enclaves / republics, or attempt to ally with like groups across borders. We may ultimately see the greatest redrawing of lines in the region since the fall of the Ottomans and Sikes-Picot / partitioning.

    2. The mantle of resistance to Israel long (and fraudulently) worn by the al Assads / Syria may pass to the Saudis and Gulf states – and perhaps the wider Arab world – as they attempt to distract their growing populations from declining lifestyles and growing oppression. It’s intriguing to speculate as to what would happen in the US – and thus ultimately to israel – if the Gulf states were to begin actively to lobby / finance elections as a counter to AIPAC, AEC et al. We know who has the deeper pockets there.

    3. Hezbollah may find other patrons hoping to maintain a strategic balance to Israel in the north. (Turkey comes to mind, as well as some Gulf states.) Nasrallah will soon have to choose new partners in any case, as his support for al Assad becomes more and more untenable ethically as well as logistically. Significantly, what Hezbollah will need is not so much arms per se, but technology transfers and cash to create their own. (And in an open source world, those resources flow across borders much more easily than actual hardware.)

    4. If the US and Israel weren’t so foolish as to give the mullahs an external enemy to blame for the same declining lifestyles and growing oppression that most Arab states are experiencing, the next Iranian revolution might well be underway already. The Iranian regime is not only facing a decline in influence, but its own existential threat. Rising expectations too long unmet sooner or later lead to destabilization and revolution.

    Multiply all that by modern communications / social media and the continuing ‘evolution of lethality’ in, and access to, weaponry and you have the manifestation of the Chinese curse, ‘May you live in interesting times.’

    Happy New Year indeed.

  9. This is accurate, probably, in a realist sense, but I find it shocking that the rights of minorities, including Shia in Lebanon, Allawites and Christians in Syria, do not merit a mention and that we are indifferent to the rise of sectarian exclusivism in the Middle East in the name of opposing Iran. I think that the blood and treasure spent in Iraq to urge sectarian comity and mutual tolerance are about to be sacrificed in another fit of inattention… Some kind collective ADHD, I call it…

    • The article isn’t about advocacy, it is an analysis of regional geo-politics. It doesn’t suggest doing or not doing anything because of Iranian influence; only that if Bashar falls, the latter will likely be reduced. There is a difference between analysis and policy advocacy, which is apparently increasingly difficult to understand for those living in our propaganda information system.

      • However, is not the disregard for their welfare profoundly un-realist? Isn’t their legitimate concern about the potential for widescale ethnic cleansing a pretty darn big card in the favor of urban Syrians, whether Assad stays or goes? Do you think that, for example, any Ikhwan government, will have access to any domestic revenue if the factories of Aleppo are quiet? This conflict is now, broadly speaking, an urban-rural fight. Those boys either have to go home to raise the crops (drugs or otherwise), or live off of what the cities produce/kidnap/steal/whatever. This ain’t about any central government. It’s essentially about the US’ deep state that prefers unresponsive or nonexistent states for people in the ME (aside from Israel). From what I can see, all that has ever mattered was simply removing Assad as a geopolitical factor. He can stay as mayor of Damascus if he likes, or there can be some ineffectual government dependent on GCC cash. It doesn’t matter.

        Anyways, I do, broadly speaking, think Assad will win. No cohesive military or political regime? No real supply chain? The circumstances where this sort of “rebellion” can succeed are really limited. In Panama and FARC Colombia, you have high mountains and persistent civil conflict. In Somalia, the government was isolated and friendless. Aftghanistan wasn’t really about changing the government so much as enforcing a favorable clientelism. That’s what Syria is actually about, but I think the fundamental misunderstanding of the enterprise here, is that Syria is pretty urban, that not very many people can live off of the land, etc, etc. Assad pretty much only has to wait until next fall, before this whole thing becomes a massive tarbaby for the Ikhwan and the GCC. No crops, no real money for import, no way to make anything, either. Rebels probably making themselves far more hated as well.

        So just how long, do you think, that anyone can keep an army in the field–without real organization? Absent intervention, the rebels will lose.

        • all you have to do is make 18 maps of Syria, one for each of the last 18 months, each showing how much of the country is contested by the revolutionaries, to see that the trend line is against the regime. I’d give it only a 10% chance of surviving another year.

          Anyway, my scenario does not predict what will happen, it simply lays out the likely consequences should Bashar fall.

        • Self-organizing groups are generally far more resilient than we imagine, not least because they generally only have to not lose, whereas regimes have to win.

          The Talib in AfPak are well over a decade on now and gaining momentum. Hezbollah has a win / loss record any army would be proud of. S Sudan is now a state.

          Overall, mapmakers have done very well the past few decades, redrawing lines as former colonial / imperial constructs implode and reform – generally into smaller, more homogeneous entities. (193 seats at the UN now, up from 51 at the outset.)

          The Syrian rebels now have borders and safe zones for refuge and resupply – generally considered necessary for insurgent success – as well as growing access to deep pocket external support.

          Who now will invest in the al Assad regime? How will they pay those troops and replace those armaments with what appears to be a looming cash shortage? Anybody willing to buy their paper?

          Part of the reason I see a Fragmentistan scenario as a significant probability is the retreat of the Alawi and regime diehards to the home turf when forced to do so by logistics.

  10. I know Sudan has good relations with Iran, but are they really so much better than Sudan’s relations with, say, Saudi Arabia as to justify coloring Sudan blue, as if it was part of a pro-Shiite bloc?

      • The Sudanese government seems eager to downplay the claim that their friendliness towards Iran represents a turn away from the Saudis, while ongoing Saudi investments in agriculture, mining, and infrastructure in Sudan indicates that the two countries still have strong ties.

        It looks more like Sudan has gone from being part of the Sunni bloc to being neutral, more than joining the Shiite bloc.

  11. Future, I guess, will be contrary to what you claim but (to some extent) for reasons you mentioned. In the longer term, after an inevitable regime change in Iran (do not worry, it will happen) it will be again a semi-secular country, countering – in cooperation with Europe, USA, and Israel (yes!) – Sunni/Arab influence in the Middle East. Iran will be only on the rise, and (again in a longer term!) – its geopolitical position will increase. It may seem to you surrealistic – but only now. Wait and let’s see.

    • I agree.

      By the end of the 21st century, there will be an alliance with the United States, India, and a democratic Iran at its center that will be as important as the NATO alliance was in the 20th.

    • So what you’re saying is that the West/Israel cynically switch sides back and forth between Arabs and Persians to keep both of them weak. Culling the herds, so to speak.

      • Or as one might say, how Brits switched sides between Germanic and Franco-Roman people to culling the herd so to speak. That did not end up too well for the cullers as one might recall the events of 40-45. Germans and French on the other hand seem to have solved the problem and are basically in a economic- and quasi-political union without the meddlers muddying the water. An example to follow?

  12. Questions about the African countries on the map:

    Why is Djibouti, an Arab League and OIC member country with an overwhelmingly Sunni country made up of ethnic Afar and Somalis and easily pressured by the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia not colored in yellow?

    Why is Eritrea, with a “non-Muslim” tyrannical regime passing for a “government,” designated as “Sunni Muslim” according to the yellow color when it belongs to neither the Arab League nor the OIC?

    Why is northern Sudan, with an overwhelmingly Sunni population, colored in blue, indicating being “pro-Iranian” when its politics are far more complicated? Yes, they have been “trans-shipping” arms from Iran to Hamas and perhaps beyond that in exchange for political and other support, but it also has ties with Egypt, especially the MB, the Gulf and Saudi and others in the Arab and Muslim world.

  13. “Saddam Hussein…..stood as a barrier to Iran penetration of the Middle East.”

    Hussein’s antagonism of Iran in the Iran-Iraq war actually was a key factor in the release of American hostages that were taken from the U.S. Embassy in Teheran in 1979. The Carter administration’s freeze of $5 billion in Iranian assets in the U.S. caused Iran to negotiate a release to free up cash that was badly needed to replenish its military supplies to be used to defend Iran against Iraq.

    The casualty figures that were inflicted upon Iran during that conflict were staggering. Remember the CIA complicity in the 1980s in getting massive FDIC-insured loans via an Italian bank so Iraq could purchase military hardware. The Hussein regime in Iraq was a valuable anti-Iranian ally of the CIA during that decade – even though it was publicly an ally of the Soviet Union.

    Although there was the apparent outrage over the Reagan administration sale of arms to Iran in quasi-exchange for the release of hostages in Lebanon, it should be remembered that those arms were needed against Iraq rather than harming purely U.S. interests. Iraq, again, indirectly aided the U.S. during this time frame by the pressure exerted from the prosecution of its war against Iran.

    The CIA and Mossad have reportedly aided the Free Syrian Army, and while it is correct that the deposing of Assad may cut off the arms supply to Hezbollah from Iran, Israel may in the long run suffer more from a Muslim Brotherhood-controlled government in Damascus that could be instrumental in bolstering support of Hamas against Israel.

    Since the Second Lebanon War, Israel has been shifting to the right politically and the far-right of the Homeland Party led by Avigdor Lieberman has been gaining steadily more power in both the Knesset and Israeli Cabinet despite its own shortcomings – the Israeli Justice Ministry just obtained a criminal indictment against Lieberman. Morsi’s election in Egypt was instrumental in holding Israel and Hamas in check in Gaza during the last conflict – Morsi no doubt prevented a recurrence of the atrocities of Operation Cast Lead by sending a delegation to Gaza during the IDF bombardment and by assisting in negotiations to prevent a protracted IDF military incursion. The impotence of the world community to stop aggressive IDF actions in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead had been apparent.

    It is ironic Israel wanted Saddam Hussein removed from power, yet that removal brought to eventual power the same Shi’ite Islam worldview that was already existing in Israel’s arch-foe Iran.

    • Does anybody ever really know?

      I mean, how stuff like the initiatives and quarterback sneaks and Statue of Liberty plays that Players in the CIA and the rest of Compartmentaldom pull? Things like getting US taxpayer full-faith-and-credit guarantees for the Pope’s bank to lend money to the Iraqi dictator to “keep the pressure on Iran” because they dissed the CIA’s Chosen Overlord?

      These are people with “people skills” of a certain sort, a pretty ugly set on the whole, that are pretty good about executing (pun intended) their plans, but so often that guy Murphy seems to step in, like every time, and “re-direct” all that negative energy that the Shadow Governments inject into the system into, Suprise! Unintended Consequences! that just REQUIRE even more idiot destabilizing but oh so elegant and complicated “intervention.”

      And then along come the Spinners, once the Limoges is shattered, to either continue the deniability game and escape opprobrium for net failure of the Grand-Plan-as-memo’d-and-sold as one option, or figure out a way to carom the missed shot off the fenders so that they can say “That’s really what we wanted to happen all along,” thus protecting their little Supra-legal lairs and fiefdoms and snares and delusions from suffering too much attention of the “career-limiting” kind.

      Who lost China, again? Who lost Vietnam? Who lost Iraq? Who’s losing Notagainistan? What are the next losses over the equatorial horizon? [And in all of that, what the hell were the “national interests” that were supposed to be at stake, again? Other than protecting the bureaucracy of the “decider,” and “saving face” by exposing our butts? and, of course, that old unstated root of all evil, Upward Wealth Transfer?

      And who suffers the pains and deaths and horrors of those losses, and all the crap that got stirred in by all the Players who think they have all this under such nice control, or at least know they can stupe and stalk around like overweight raptors, stirring up and terrifying the herds of critters who actually do something useful toward maintaining the ecology, even if it’s only to churn up the ground for seeds, and adding their dung and eventually their carcasses to the topsoil?

      • As long as Americans are culturally indoctrinated to view foreigners as not quite human, because anyone who is poor is subhuman and anyone who is rich and doesn’t act white is insane, our endless foreign policy fiascos, blowbacks and catastrophes can always be excused by officials:

        “We meant well; those people over there are crazy.”

        And our citizens will always nod their heads in empathy.

  14. After 32 years of hostilities,containment,economic sanctions,diplomatic isolation & sever sanctions against Iran,where even medicines denied,yet Jan article has depicted Iran as super regional power,where a super power called US failed to do so & instead SUNNI power would make the decline of Iran.Question is Iran is having substantial population of SUNNI, then what is the definition of SUNNI as power in relation with US?Is it alliance or another US proxy??

  15. Interesting piece. I think it overstates Sunni solidarity (especially as linking non-Arab Turkey with Syria or Saudi). It’s hard for modern states to fragment unless there are established internal lines of demarcation, as in Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, so I find it hard to envisage Syria fragmenting along Sunni/Shia lines. But there is likely to be greater opportunity for Sunni in Iraq and Syria to forge alliances, possibly backed by Saudi (as observed, where the Kurds fit in will be a question). But this would push Syrian Shia across the border into Lebanon or into Iraq, strengthening Shia parties in both. And Shia, as the largest bloc in Lebanon, will retain considerable political strenght regardless of the outcome in Syria.

    I would also note that Iran is in a different class economically than Syria or the petro-states. It has a large industrial sector (and sanctions are probably encouraging local development). It’s closer to Turkey or Brazil as an emerging industrial power than to a petro-state. Hence the problems it poses for israle and the US.

  16. A long reply to the above thread:

    Assad, to me, clearly has a plan, that plan really does seem to be a Fabian one. How he wins or loses matters. Moreover, just like Hannibal going all over Italy, a set of 18 maps generally will not convey the actual situation. If Hannibal (or Hannibals) can’t actually muster real centralization of logistics and violence, then defeat is inevitable–all the men will wander off without renewed victory or spoils. The only way this “war” can be kept going is by the largesse of the various external parties to this process. That gets expensive, quick. All those refugees in neighboring countries gets troublesome, quick…

    And by steadfastedly presuming that Assad will fall from power, we avoid thinking about the regime, why people would support the regime, and how a new one would evolve, just like what we did in Iraq–the destabilizing failure of the original reconstruction aims of the original US policies is a major contributer to Saudi-Qatar-Turkey frenemy actions vis á vis Syrian actors. Westerners also tend to have a nasty tendency to map Sunni-Shiite rivalries along their original racial concepts (encouraged by native actors that stand to benefit), when all of their relationships are far more complex than which mosque one goes to.

    One of the real implications that I think many of those involved in thinking about geopolitics are utterly failing to comprehend is just how angry the situation is on the ground. Beyond that, I also think such people get far too cute about the idea that a state would be dismembered into small statelets. That traditionally does not happen for a whole host of reasons. As such, I think that people are drastically overestimating the extent that there will be a pliable Syria at the end of the road, or the chances that Syria can genuinely bog down in some long, drawn out civil war along the lines of the Tamil Tigers or Eritrea in undeveloped regions. And we aren’t talking about the tiny pro-Russian enclaves in the Caucasus–we’re talking about the major cities like Homs or Aleppo that cannot be separate from the web of internal communications, transportation, and economic relations without consequence.

    I think you, as well as others, are fundamentally not grokking just how much consent of the public, not least the danged army, matters to the flow of events and the final outcome. Which matters because the deep state of Syria still exists, and no foreigner Ikhwan quisling will be able to rule over it, never mind the native business class(As it is, I think Qatar is fundamentally in misapprehension about how much they can drive Egyptian politics via control of the pursestrings). So long as the Syrian deep state still exists as an organized arm, the rebels will be out-organized and out-armed, and I think any real discussion by Russia or Iran about post Assad possibilities have far more to do with the ongoing infrastructure damage and what that means to their foreign policy rather than any real concern for Assad.

    • So long as the Syrian deep state still exists as an organized arm, the rebels will be out-organized and out-armed

      Certainly, but the Syrian rebels have been out-organized and out-armed throughout the entire war. Those shortcomings haven’t prevented them from steadily improving their position and growing over the past almost-two-years. Take a look at the defections, and how unidirectional they are.

      You mention “consent of the public.” I don’t think that particular vector moves in the direction you assume.

      • It’s a proxy war fought on Syrian soil, with many militias filled with foreign nationals. What the Syrian public wants has had nothing to do with nothing during the fighting. They want Assad gone, but who they want are probably leaders that actually lived in Syria, honest leaders. If you’re going to give them some smooth-talking Chalabi fool with his sticky hand in Western/Qatari/Turkish/Saudi pies, they will almost certainly stick with Assad.

        As far as gaining territory? Let me repeat this, for all of the good it will do with you, but with no governance, gaining territory does squat. No state institutions? Starving, fled, terrified populace? Not the recipe for any kind of longterm presence, especially if militarily contested. Assad is doing what he’s doing because he doesn’t want to spend gas and reliable troops moving against irregular combatants that can hit him on his roads at will. He’s also facing troops that are supplied and financed by external powers–let THEM spend the money and arm their troops. Let THEM distribute bread to people in a state of anarchy, or if truly desperate, to only the fighting men. This situation is absolutely untenable for the rebel personnel in the field, and the supply chain from Turkey will be dramatically overtaxed as rebels start having to fight desperate civilians. That’s the theory, anyways. And it should work, unless the rebels got their act together, or a major foreign intervention happens.

  17. What Mr. Cole forgets is that the Sunni in Fallujah and alike have not forgotten the massacre nor the ongoing effects of the first radiological warfare “humans” have conducted. Don’t count on it that if your hypothesis is true, the outcome will benefit you. In Farsi we say “If ‘if’ is planted no plant is going to grow out of it.

    • The essay is agnostic on whether these developments will harm or benefit the United States.

      Among the leaders of the anti-Maliki protests is Abu Risha, an American ally. Al-Anbar is not a simplistic as you think.

  18. Good article but assumes a lot and does lay most eventualities out.
    There is one angle not discussed much in the Western Media – The schism between the Sunnis and the Shia. This is not a major focus at present but does have its beginnings in Pakistan where an increasing campaign by Sunni extremists against the minority Shia population is gathering pace.
    Pakistan is struggling to contain anything in its borders and the campaign above will grow legs.
    I would like to see more comments from locals in the countries mentioned in the article – This is an article written from Western eyes.

  19. I thought the Alawites lived on the Mediterranean coast of syria. So you could end up with a Shite coast from Israel to Turkey, protected by the Russian navy.. Your aanalysis should also mention that Iran is becoming an industrialised nation, unlike Sunni majority Arab nations.

    BTW, are the Kurds and Turkey coming to some sort of understanding?

  20. One of the real implications that I think many of those involved in thinking about geopolitics are utterly failing to comprehend is just how angry the situation is on the ground. Beyond that, I also think such people get far too cute about the idea that a state would be dismembered into small statelets. That traditionally does not happen for a whole host of reasons. As such, I think that people are drastically overestimating the extent that there will be a pliable Syria at the end of the road, or the chances that Syria can genuinely bog down in some long, drawn out civil war along the lines of the Tamil Tigers or Eritrea in undeveloped regions.

  21. Prof Cole – very interesting analysis as always. Many thanks for your excellent work during 2012, and best wishes for 2013.

    I wanted add that we should not assume Sudan will always stay an Iranian ally. It has historically tried to balance relations with the Gulf esp Saudi and Qatar (for investment, religious reasons, and Qatar – before it got engaged in the Arab Spring – decided to take a leading role on Darfur peace processes and reconstruction) on the one hand, and Iran on the other hand (essentially pragmatic reasons – supplier of arms, money, oil, and a friend (something Khartoum doesn’t have too many of).

    But the relation with Iran (and Hezbollah/Hamas), though it provides certain benefits, is by no means uncontroversial domestically, and has costs too. In September, the Yarmouk arms factory in Khartoum was bombed. Shia proselytising in Sudan is deeply unpopular. And it annoys the Saudis. Plus it’s not very rational in terms of foreign policy – Khartoum is pro the Syrian opposition yet Iran supports the Syrian regime. And the Khartoum regime is facing numerous challenges – economic, security, political. In the event of regime change (coup or popular uprising) or a managed transition (a national unity government), Sudan may reorientate itself closer to the Gulf/Turkey.

    Even without that, as Iran’s economy gets hit by sanctions and mismanagement, will it be able to sustain its level of support for Sudan?

    A wider story is the Iran vs Israel battle for influence in Africa, played out across the new Sudan-South Sudan international border.

  22. I don’t see Sunnis in Iraq or Syria preventing Shiites from combat with Israel in any way, shape, or form. Not all Sunnis hate Shiites despite recent sectarian conflict, and if even if a local Sunni militia was faced with the decision (do we stop and report these Shiites transporting weapons intended to fight Israel, or do we let both of our foes do each other in?)
    Some data on interceptions of weapons shipments specific to this theory would be valuable.

  23. The irony is that Charlie Rose, in an interview with Dan Ayalon(?), former Shin Bet(?), of about three months ago, made exactly the same prediction, a Sunni arc to supplant Iranian and Hizb power, aided and abetted by Israel.

    • Danny Ayalon is the deputy foreign minister of Israel and a member of the extreme right-wing Homeland Party.

      Electronic Intifada and Mondoweiss did nice investigative pieces showing statements Ayalon made to Israeli reporters all but confirming the Israeli government was behind an ill-fated lawsuit against the Olympia Food Coop in the State of Washington in which five plaintiffs attempted to overturn a board of directors resolution to boycott Israeli-made products. Judge Thomas McPhee not only dismissed the case but later awarded each of the sixteen defendants $10,000 in damages and requested that the defense submit an itemized attorney fee request for his consideration.

  24. Hard not to see a rise in Sunni Islamist extremism overall as well, regionally and globally.

    If Pakistan is any indication, or even Egypt, it may not look good for the Shia and/or other non-Sunni populations scattered around the ME.

  25. A few points, Juan:
    1. Iraqis are famously a nationalistic people. The Iraqi flag is a prominent sight in the current Sunni protests in Iraq and the Sunnis there see themselves as the natural rulers of the country. Their identity is heavily dictated by this with the city you mentioned, Mosul, being the location where many Iraqi military officers come from. To suggest that these individuals would think about seceding from the territory that is known as Iraq is highly unlikely I think. Arab Iraqis remain dedicated to a united state, they merely have different ideas of what that state should look like, but they are dedicated to it.

    2. The Muslim Brotherhood won’t pose a meaningful security threat to Israel. Your own sectarian dichtomoy illustrates this aptly I think. The Sunnis backing the Syrian revolutionaries are composed of the traditional US-allies (Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey). Crucially, Qatar funds the MB and the AKP in Turkey are allied to the MB as a pan-regional movement anyway. The two states also enjoy heavy US support. Despite Erdogan’s diplomatic gestures and Qatar’s aid to the Palestinians, it’s fair to say that there’s an invisible line that they know not to cross. To illustrate this, I’ll pose a question: How would the US react if it knew that these states were arming Hamas? There would inevitably be fury from the US and it would end immediately (or more likely, wouldn’t happen in the first place). However, knowing that they are arming the rebels in Syria and the lack of any protest from the US indicates that these is indeed a tactic endorsement of their actions. These states are reliant on US support and are close allies. They are both part of the same geopolitical side. They would not pose any serious military or economic threat to Israel. Israel knows this too. Without resorting to superlatives regarding Israel’s strategic nouse, there’s a reason why the state and its lobbies have not focused on the MB threat. Because they know it’s non-existent.

    3. Your hypothetical about a resurgent Sunni Syria is unlikely too. Firstly, this conflict is likely to be a prolonged one. Given the massive regional stakes which you yourself have illustrated, it would be several years in my opinion. Secondly, the character which the state would take is difficult to predict. Assad and those allied to the regime currently are not going to go away. There is a real potential that any peaceful government which emerges must be one that represents them to a degree. Like the duration of the conflict however, it’s a difficult prediction to make. One prediction however, remains easy. That is, whatever kind of state does emerge – it will not be a powerful one. The nation will almost certainly be divided and crushed on an economical and military level. Their threat potential to Israel, is once again, non-existent.

    • As to point No. 3, agreed.

      There are estimated to be only several hundred Islamic extremists that are fighting the Assad government in their separate militias. The U.S. State Department has labeled them as a terrorist organization.

      The civilian organizational body that is linked to the Free Syrian Army has representatives that cover a broad spectrum of Syrian society. Other than a Kurdish group that has not joined this body, all ethnic minorities and and major stakeholders e.g. the feminist movement, have latched on to this organization that recognizes the Free Syrian Army as an advocate of its interests.

  26. As long as the rising “Sunni” states don’t make nice with Israel or the US, Iran doesn’t really give a fig. Either way, it works out to Iran’s benefit.

  27. Framing the developments as a decline of Iranian influence and reach would be more accurate than framing it as a Shia/Sunni thing. Azerbaijan is the only other Shia majority country in the world and it has a completely different politics from Iran.

    • Typically in the post-Soviet states at least half the population is atheists and a further portion are not religiously observant. Azerbaijan is Shiite the way France is Catholic. Less so.

  28. Great post Prof. Cole!!
    The possibilities are intriguing. As many prominent Generals in the defense establishment have routinely mentioned, Iran is a rational actor. With waning power their rationality will be put on a test for sure.

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