Shia Ambitions in the Future of Syria

1/10/2017 8:28:00 AM
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Diliman Abdulkader
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“If we can be successful against Daesh and liberate our soil, we can go into Syria if our brothers there need help against Daesh", said former prime minister of Iraq, Nouri Al Maliki, in Tehran at the beginning on the month.

Iraq failed under Maliki, depriving the Sunni population while gambling against the Kurds in the North. The former PM gave full control of Baghdad to Tehran's Ayatollah. Today, Iran controls not only Baghdad, but Damascus as well. The expansion of the Shia crescent into Syria leaves the United States without any real leverage. The next US administration must consider realistic alternatives; this translates into recognition of Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria.

The Obama administration’s back-seat approach to the Syrian civil war only boosted Russian and Iranian influence over Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. The Iraqi Shia militia group Hash’d al Sha’abi, or Popular Mobilization Force (PMF), is funded and under the legal responsibility of the Iraqi government and backed by Iran. The PMF’s maneuver into Syria is a clear threat to the region, growing Iran’s military capabilities.

First, Syria’s majority population is Sunni, who have for decades suffered under both Hafez and Bashar Assad regimes. A continued Assad presence would delegitimize the Syrian civilian resistance, and hundreds of thousands of lives would have been lost during the civil war without a change in leadership. Assad’s policies towards minorities, while favoring his own Alawite community, has strained Syrian society for decades. It is difficult to believe ordinary Syrians would welcome an Assad presidency, the likely outcome would be further sectarian conflict similar to that of its neighbor Iraq.

Second, with a strong Shia presence in Syria, it would mean Kurds would once again become stateless peoples. Since the start of the civil war, the Kurds have made significant progress in defending themselves while repelling attacks from ISIS and other terrorist organizations alike, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA) now backed by Turkey. Since 2011, Syrian Kurds have worked to build an inclusive society which recognizes the diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds which Syria offers. Originally named Rojava (West, Kurdistan), Kurds declared an autonomous region, the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS). This is in contradiction of the Obama administration’s stance, in May 2016, US State Department Spokesman Mark Toner stated that “We’ve made it clear to these Kurdish forces as well that they should not seek to create autonomous, semi-autonomous zones.” With only a few weeks left until a new administration takes office, the Kurds remain hopeful that they will have stronger backing from a Trump presidency.

Third, even if Assad does lose power, Iranian influence is there to stay, building a heavy military and political authority which assures a long term agenda. By empowering the Lebanese Hezbollah, the PMF of Iraq, and using its own Quds Force (part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps - IRGC), the Shia state is not reliant on Assad. Furthermore, the many Shia factions in Syria can trigger a larger regional conflict between Iran and the Sunni states, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. This can result in a catastrophic humanitarian crisis the international community is not prepared for and cannot afford at the moment.

Fourth, Shia ambitions in Syria would empower Iran and would put Israel on alert, forcing the Jewish state to put possible military options on the table. Israel would be caught in sectarian disputes between both Shia and Sunnis. Similar to the United States, it would be in the interest of Israeli national security to support and recognize a Kurdish entity in northern Syria. Strategically, this would weaken Iranian dominance in the region. Both the United States and Israel must be prepared to oppose Shia influence and approach the regions conflicts through a non-status quo attitude, meaning recognizing failed states like Iraq and Syria.

Iran is solely responsible for the sectarian warfare in Iraq post Saddam Hussein through its puppet actor Nouri al Maliki. Iran is once again attempting to take advantage of yet another war torn country to dominate the region, this time in Syria. The civil war is in its fifth year and ISIS is nearly defeated; the future of Syria is in the hands of Russia and Iran. Unless western powers, especially the United States, wishes to have any significant weight in the future of the Middle East, it must begin in Syria.

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Diliman Abdulkader is a NRT English columnist and Masters student at the School of International Service, American University in Washington DC. He is studying Peace and Conflict Resolution, with a focus on Global Kurdish Studies. He is also a research associate at the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET). Follow him on Twitter: @D_abdulkader