Coalition Of One: Iran Leads Own Fight Against Islamic State

By Charles Recknagel, RFE/RL

The United States is putting together the first international coalition to try to roll back the Islamic State (IS) militants in Iraq and Syria.

But when the nearly 40-state-strong alliance starts operations, it will find that there is already another coalition on the ground whose presence could complicate the U.S.-led effort in unpredictable ways.

That is a coalition that includes just one state, Iran. But it comprises multiple Tehran-backed regional Shi'ite militias that are already combating the IS jihadists and other Sunni militant groups in Syria and Iraq.

In Syria, the Iranian-backed Lebanese-Shi'ite Hizballah militia is fighting alongside Syrian government troops against rebel groups. That puts the powerful militia on the opposite side of the new U.S.-led coalition, which will back moderate rebels seeking to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a Tehran ally.

In Iraq, Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias are reinforcing the Iraqi Army as it attempts to regain a huge swath of northern and central Iraq lost to IS in June. The Iraqi Shi'ite militias and the new coalition are ostensibly on the same side, as both support Baghdad, but Washington sees the militias as a menace for Iraq because their presence exacerbates the country's already deep sectarian rifts. 

So far, both Washington and Iran have said they see no room for cooperation in the war with Islamic State.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on September 12 that "it would not be appropriate" for Tehran to be in the international coalition "given the many issues…with respect to their engagement in Syria and elsewhere."

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei claimed after the international coalition was announced on September 15 that Tehran had rejected a request by Washington to cooperate, a claim Kerry later told the press he would not get into a "back and forth" with Iran about.

Hard To Ignore

Iran was not invited to the international conference in Paris on September 15 to discuss the threat posed by Islamic State and persuade countries to join it.

But just how difficult it will be for the two sides to ignore each other has become clearer in recent days as both sought to keep Islamic State from overrunning the eastern Iraqi town of Amerli, which has a majority Shi'ite population of Iraqi Turkomans.

The IS militants' two-month siege of the town was finally lifted on August 31 in military action that involved Iraqi regular army troops, fighters from several Shi'ite militias, Kurdish forces, and U.S. air strikes.

After the battle, Washington and Baghdad underlined their cooperation in what was the first major victory for the Iraqi army since June, when its battlefield collapse allowed the IS to seize Mosul and sweep to the outskirts of the capital.

But the regional Shi'ite coalition led by Iran also sought to take credit for the victory in a way that minimized Washington's role. A website affiliated with the Lebanese Hizballah posted a photo purportedly showing Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' Quds Force, on the outskirts of Amerli as the siege was lifted. 

The purported presence of Suleimani, who is the Revolutionary Guards' chief strategist for operations outside of Iran's borders that involve proxy groups, showed how much Iran intends to remain at the forefront in the battle against Islamic State and how much it has the means to do so.

Will 'Common Sense' Prevail?

Analysts say that many of Iraq's Shi'ite militias get their weapons and guidance directly from Tehran. 

"They are getting some of their weapons from cannibalizing the Iraqi government," says Kirk Sowell, a Jordan-based political-risk analyst who publishes "Inside Iraqi Politics." "There was an incident a few weeks ago in [the southeastern province of] Maysan where there was an army arms depot and some group just came in and took all the weapons."

"But clearly there is some aid from Iran," he says. "AAH [the Asaeb Ahlul-Haq militia] is loyal to [Khamenei] as their supreme leader, as their marjah [religious guide]. Kata'ib Hizballah is the same way. The Badr Corp downplays this, but clearly they do [the same]."

At least two of the militias, the AAH and Kata'ib Hizballah, have also been sending fighters to Syria to combat Sunni jihadists there alongside the Lebanese Hizballah and Assad's forces.

The Shi'ite militias are so much part of the fight against Islamic State that the question for the international coalition now will be how to react not if, but when, the two sides find themselves on the same battlefield.

Amerli offers one vision of how the two coalitions might work in parallel even without officially acknowledging each other as allies. 

But less clear is how the two coalitions will interact in Syria, where they are on opposite sides of Syria's civil war. 

Mirrored from RFE/RL

Copyright (c) 2014. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.

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Related video added by Juan Cole

Iran’s President Says ISIS Wants To ‘Kill Humanity’

6 Responses

  1. What baffles people like me is how the portrayal of the protagonists change as per the situation: Yesterday, this group were “sectarian Shia militias”, but during the lifting of the siege of Ameril they became “Shia volunteers” in the news, even though it is obvious that their mentality, allegiances, and prejudices were the same before as they are now.

  2. Mark Brooks

    US domestic politics will not allow for cooperation with Iran regardless of the consequences. Damn shame really.

  3. Hmmm, maybe it’s not nice to question the qualifications of the guest author. I noticed he’s with Radio Free Europe an organization overseen by the US government. Other than that, what are his qualifications?

    I only ask, because his analysis could be taken as a cover for propaganda.

    For example, he calls the US lead anti-ISIL an “alliance”, and calls it “40-strong”. Alliance is a too strong term to use for this coalition, and implies reciprocal promises, a formal declaration, and a defined purpose, none of which I have seen. And although Kerry has used the number 40, I’ve only seen 8 mentioned. And the link he included to support his assertion demonstrates that those 8 support the US only to varying degrees. So why does the author make such dubious claims in what is otherwise an informative article?

    Also, to imply that Iran is a coalition of one is a bit strange. At the very least they are in a coalition of 3, including Syria and most importantly IRAQ. If his article was propaganda I might think that his categorization was an attempt to make it look like Iran was isolated.

    And also inline with a propaganda piece, you seek to differentiate between us and them. In this article it’s the US and its “alliance” on one side while on the other its Iran and its Iraqi militias. Any mention of Iraqi government members? al-Abadi? Sadr (a powerful but complicated figure due to his independence – neither an ally of Iran or al-Arabi)? Iraqi people’s feelings on the matter?

    I know its a fallacy, but I might change my mind about the propaganda nature of this article if I find Recknagel has other credentials beyond RFE.

  4. There seems to be a serious contradiction, sectarian disconnect, confusion and lack of understanding about the whole situation in Syria and Iraq by the US (and perhaps everyone else away and on the ground). The last few sentences sums it up perfectly.

    Supporting a Shia led govt in Iraq, asking them to be more inclusive and stop their sectarian marginalization to avoid a violent Sunni backlash, but then at the same time attempting to exclude Shia backers in Iran who have historic religious interests and are anti-US (and US anti-Iran), but now find themselves somewhat aligned against Sunni extremists in ISIL in Iraq, who were initially welcomed by some Sunni tribals, who are again being armed and encouraged to fight them, with no guarantee that they’d turn against the govt again.

    And then there’s a Sunni coalition, who have their own sectarian marginalization history of Shias, and are trusted to deal with Sunni Islamists in Iraq, who earlier supported them (even Turkey, and mostly in Syria, but Iraq too) in the first place, to knock off Alawite Assad, which helps to send a blow to Iranian interests, which serves sectarian Saudis and Israel (South Lebanon and possibly Syria), but barely harmful to US interests who face a greater threat of Sunni radicals.

    Pretty much the gist of it, with few pieces that can be changed here and there.

  5. If Iran can handle it, more power to them. it saves other countries money and lives. It maybe time for the west to get over their, we can do it better attitude.

    Of course there maybe western politicians and generals who do not want to see Iran “handle” the problem, because it might raise their profile with in the Arab world. Its time to get over it and the west ought to look after their own problems at home in their own countries. When other areas/countries “ask” for help, that is soon enough. it was all that western “help” which got the world into this pickle to begin with. I for one wish our Prime Minister in Canada, would shut his mouth and start dealing with the issues in Canada, like the 1,200 murdered/missing First Nations women.

    • I don’t think the issue is that Iranian victory would raise its profile in the Arab world, but that it would cause the tyrants of the Arab world to freak out and use their oil leverage to escalate the regional war still further and threaten the US with economic ruin (since OPEC props up the $ by using it for all its transactions) unless it attacks Iran. Ordinary Arabs still don’t count in the countries that have money.

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