TSG IntelBrief: The Competition for Iraq and Syria
March 11, 2015

The Competition for Iraq and Syria

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• Despite the vast resources of other states in the Middle East, the two powers that matter most are Iran and Turkey

• Iran is currently ascendant in the region and takes every opportunity to wield its influence

• Saudi Arabia is trying to build a Sunni alliance that might challenge Iran’s dominance—even if it is not clear how

• Efforts to bring Turkey on board the Sunni alliance may founder on differing interests—not least Turkey’s own ambitions.

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There are only two regional powers with the ability to change the political picture in Iraq and Syria through the use of force: Turkey and Iran. Jordan, despite its well-trained air force and army, is too small for the task and would find it politically impossible to make any worthwhile intervention on its own. Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states have some capacity, but lack the resources necessary for any sort of sustained campaign. Egypt is otherwise engaged, and any Israeli intervention would be disastrous.

Iran has become the main provider of troops, equipment, and training to Iraq, and has made its support very public. Qasim Sulaymani, the Commander of the Qods Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), is leading the Iranian effort and has become a constant feature—and quite possibly a cause—of the newly invigorated Iraqi military campaign against the so-called Islamic State. One day he is pictured waving to the troops from the back of a motorcycle, the next he is seen visiting the front line at Tikrit. He is a constant reminder of the importance both of Iraq to Iran and of Iran to Iraq.

At the same time, the evidence of Sulaymani’s direct involvement in the campaign, and of the influence that Iran has on the fighting, demonstrates to all regional powers the extent to which Iran has become the dominant power in the neighborhood. The fight against the Islamic State will be determined in the short term by the success of Shi’a militia, who are more likely to support Iran than an inclusive non-sectarian Iraqi government, as well as the Kurdish Peshmerga, who received supplies and help when they were most needed from Iran after the Islamic State took Mosul. The Kurds will happily cooperate with the Shi’a towards achieving greater autonomy and Iran will prove an important ally in making such an arrangement work.

In Syria too, Iran—again directed by Sulaymani—has been an essential ally, not just in getting Hizballah to stiffen the crumbling Syrian army in the west of the country in the early days of the uprising, but also by providing supplies and troops to shore up the regime’s hold on Damascus. Furthermore, Iran has kept the Syrian economy afloat with vast injections of money. By all accounts, it is highly unlikely that Assad could have survived without Iranian help.

And then there is Yemen, where Iran has played a minimal role so far in encouraging the Houthi power grab, but clearly could exploit its traditional political and sectarian ties with the new rulers of Sana’a.

Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni states look on with concern. Their view is that any Iranian gain is a loss for themselves, but at the same time they appreciate the difficulty of reducing Iranian influence without empowering an enemy that might turn out to be even worse. Whether it is the Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra in Iraq and Syria, or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, Iran’s adversaries are groups that have also made direct and credible threats against Saudi Arabia and its allies. For the moment however, Saudi Arabia is not prepared to seek an alliance, or even an understanding, with Iran that would recognize the political shifts that have taken place in the area since 2003.

In the absence of a more muscular intervention by the United States in Iraq and Syria, the only other possible candidate that could roll back Iranian advances and at the same time contain and degrade the Islamic State is Turkey. As part of his effort to create a Sunni alliance, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman hosted Turkey’s President Erdogan, Egypt’s President Sisi, and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Riyadh last week. He was hoping to patch up the various quarrels in the region that are loosely based on the differences between those that support the Muslim Brotherhood and those that do not. But although he was able to make progress between Egypt and Qatar, Erdogan proved more stubborn.

Salman may hope to create enough understanding between his Sunni allies to focus on external threats rather than internal differences but Turkey will be the hardest as well as the most important to bring on board. Not only is Turkey pro-Muslim Brotherhood, but it also has a long and stable relationship with Iran. Furthermore, Erdogan also has ambitions; one is to see the back of President Assad, for which he will find a good deal of support from Sunni states, but another is to expand Turkish influence in the process, for which he may not.

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