Of the fifty Muslim nations on Earth, only four are majority Shia: Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, and Azerbaijan. The last two are geopolitically irrelevant. Shia Muslims are, at best, fifteen percent of the total Islamic population on the planet, the other 85 to 90% are Sunni. Iran, of course, is the flagship for the world’s Shia Muslims. Syria, though it is a Sunni-Majority nation, is run by the powerful Alawite Shia tribe, to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs. Iran supports the continued presidency of Assad. Given the Shia grasp on the Prime Minister’s office in Baghdad, its majority in the Parliament, and the ouster of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni Baathist Party, Iran is the dominate Islamist power in an unbroken swath of land stretching from Tehran, west through Baghdad, down to Damascus. Throw Lebanon's Shia Hezbollah troops into the Syrian civil war and we have a burgeoning Shiite military force arrayed in support of Assad’s Shia regime.
Still, Assad’s government was in danger of collapse and defeat in mid-2015. The Syrian Army was exhausted by five years of combat against an eclectic collection of rebel forces, some of it populated by defections from Assad’s own army. ISIS was also chewing on the outskirts of Syria’s carcass as it had captured Aleppo, Ar Raqqa, and Deir al-Zor to extend its Sunni caliphate from its Iraqi origins. Assad’s future looked grim as his neighbor and once friend, Sunni President Recep Erdogan of Turkey, permitted foreign fighters to cross its border into Syria and join with ISIS. It certainly looked as if President Barack Obama would get his wish. Assad would go away.
However, Russian President Vladimir Putin, following a series of secret, high-level meetings, clandestinely joined the fray in support of Assad in the last quarter of 2015. Fortunes reversed. Putin deployed sophisticated surface-to-air missile defense batteries and politically incorrect air power on Assad’s behalf. Russian airstrikes were conducted against anti-Assad rebels, indeed, with much less regard for civilian casualties than was the case with tepid sorties by the United States against ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, both terrorist groups engaged against Assad and simultaneously in contention with the United States.
The triangular conflict would just as often see Russia and the United States bombing the same jihadists, as it would Russia bombing Syrian rebels whom the US trained and equipped. All the while, Turkey, a nominal NATO ally, played both ends against the middle because Erdogan was more concerned with the Syrian Kurds accumulating territory on his border than he was with either ISIS or Assad’s loyalists, even though the Kurdish YPG was fighting Assad as well. Messy, yes, but then, this is the Middle East. Russian airstrikes were soon followed by ground operations conducted by a coalition of Syrian Army units, Shia militia from both Iraq and Syria, Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, and the Iranian Quds Forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Assad was rescued by Russians leading a newly constructed Shia vanguard.
The Iran-Russian connection exploded in the faces of the watcher community last week after Russian Tu-22M3 long-range bombers and Su-34 fighter-bombers carried out a series of strikes in Syria using Iran’s Shahid Nojeh Tactical Air Base north of the city of Hamadan. It was the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that Iran has permitted a foreign power to use its territory for military operations. The usually secretive Russian Ministry of Defense was a bit over zealous revealing this diplomatic coup, which forced Tehran to issue a declaration stating the Russian use of its air base was a temporary measure and has been halted. The arrangement could possibly have violated a provision of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, otherwise known as the (SIND) silly Iranian nuclear deal. Billions of dollars were at stake for Tehran. Some of those dollars were likely destined to go to Moscow, and Putin is desperate for a cash infusion into his struggling economy. Consequently, Lord Russia accepted the public spanking from its vassal, Iran.
In other developments, IHS Jane’s 360, on 23 August, reported Kalibr cruise missiles fired by Russian’s Black Sea Fleet from the Mediterranean at targets in Syria. The 3 missiles destroyed facilities used by al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise. Additionally, Iranian General Mohammad Ali Falaki, in an interview reported by the Long War Journal on 24 August, revealed an Afghan component to the hostilities. Apparently, Hazara Shia Afghanis, have been involved in the Syrian civil war since 2012. The Hazaras fight with the Fatemiyoun Division of the IRGC, a force estimated to be as many as 10,000, but most likely 4 or 5,000. Falaki called them the Shia Liberation Army. Whatever their numbers, they fall under the command of the notorious General Qassem Soleimani, probably the best know warfighter of the 21st century.
Summary: The balance of power in the Middle East has shifted from Washington, D.C. to Moscow. The Sunni dominance in world diplomacy, via the U.S.-backed House of Saud, is in danger of total collapse given the ascendency of the ancient Persians versus the manufactured status of a Kingdom created from the rubble of World War One by British and French diplomats. At this juncture in history, a Muslim nation is better served by the resurgent Russians than a feckless United States. Saudi Arabia was riding the wrong horse. Iran saddled up with Russia. What of Iraq?
Brian Fairchild of Reuters wrote: In early October 2015, Iraq secretly established a new Russia-Iran-Syria-Iraq intelligence center in the middle of Baghdad that surprised and angered American military commanders. Worse, after Russia’s increasingly effective Syrian air campaign, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called for Russia to begin unilateral airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq. The Pentagon became so alarmed by the possibility that Russia might get a strategic foothold in Iraq that on October 21, 2015, it dispatched Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford to Baghdad to deliver an ultimatum to the Iraqi leadership. Dunford told the Iraqi Prime Minister and Defense Minister that Iraq had to choose between cooperating with Russia or the US. Upon his departure from Baghdad, General Dunford told the media that he received assurances that Iraq would not seek Russian assistance, but just three days later, Iraq officially authorized Russian airstrikes in-country.
This analysis does not touch on the machinations of Turkey, following a failed coup of suspicious origins, the Saudi invasion of Yemen to combat rebel Shia forces, or the effect of these fast-moving developments on Israel, still the ultimate infidel. Whatever the indeterminate outcome of these peculiar alliances, the one conclusion apparent to even the casual observer is, in the absence of United States leadership, American capitulation to Russian diplomacy has opened a door through which Vladimir Putin boldly walked. After a decade and a half of combat operations and billions of dollars expended by the United States, the future of the Middle East will be determined by Russia, and this monumental reversal was accomplished by Putin in less than a year.
This week President Putin met with Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, in the Kremlin. Putin’s intends to broker pace talks between Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinians. Even more curious than Russia supplanting the United States in this most intractable negotiation is the source of the information: Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Why? Because President Obama has been at odds with Egypt since al-Sisi kicked Muslim Brotherhood’s Muhamed Morsi out of office in 2013. Somehow the former KGB officer is able to work with people with whom the Community-Organizer-in-Chief, cannot. Somebody has to do it.