President Obama’s pledge to dismantle ISIS, drive it from Iraq, and to strike at its bases in Syria has Secretary of State John Kerry embarking on a coalition-building tour of Gulf and Arab capitals. Kerry’s task is complicated not only by a fast moving military situation, but by an intricate milieu of sectarian hatred, ambiguous allies and conflicting national interests.
Machiavellian though it may be, one avenue open to the United States is to allow one of its old enemies, Iran, to fight one of its newest enemies, the Islamic State. Win, lose or draw, the blood spilled by Iran and the Islamic State will not be American. But is the United States far-sighted and calculating enough to allow this to happen?
Iran has no option but to engage against the Islamic State, and will do so whether or not the United States chooses to commit forces to fight in Iraq. A stable Syria under Assad is the lynchpin of Tehran’s dream of regional hegemony. Iran must defeat the Islamic State and eject it from Iraq in order to support not only Assad, but to maintain and arm Tehran’s military surrogate in Lebanon, Hezbollah. Iran has no other contiguous allies; it must act militarily against the Islamic State to support the only two friends it has.
Ironically, Tehran is facing a problem of its own making. Iran supplies not only weapons to prop up the Assad regime, but ground troops as well. Members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) advise Syrian military commanders, and coordinate the actions of the Assadist paramilitaries that conduct counter-insurgency operations in the Syrian countryside. In supporting and facilitating Assad’s brutality, Iran created the conditions in which ISIS grew and thrived. Numbering approximately 30,000 fighters, the Islamic State terrorist group is a cross-pollenated creation of the Iraqi insurgency and the Syrian civil war.
Merged from a pro-Al Qaeda jihadi group, The Islamic State of Iraq, and the Syrian jihadist faction Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIS fights in Syria as one of twenty or so military, civil, and religious entities combatting the regime of Bashir al Assad. By dint of military competence and the ruthless suppression of the civilian population, ISIS succeeded in inflicting itself on a strip of Northeastern Syria, an area amounting to perhaps a quarter of that country. Using captured Syrian territory as both incubator and springboard, ISIS re-exported jihad into Iraq, where it controls a swath of territory virtually overlapping the traditionally Sunni areas of the country. The area under the Islamic State’s control includes not only the bulk of Iraq’s Sunni minority, but petroleum reserves sufficient to finance jihad for decades to come. Iran cannot afford to ignore an enemy camped on its border, an especially one who shows every appearance of thriving.
The coincidence that two of America’s enemies must fight each other should not compel the United States into anything like an alliance– nor even an alliance of convenience– with Iran. Tehran is no friend of the Untied States. For once, the ironic dynamics of middle-eastern politics favors, rather than frustrates, the interests of the United States. Washington has a unique opportunity to utilize the facts on the ground to diminish one familiar foe and thwart the growth of a potentially global enemy.
America’s air-centric intervention should interdict Islamic State concentrations and bases only within Syria; this will have the combined effect of weakening ISIS vis a vis more moderate Syrian rebel groups, and place pressure on ISIS to logistically support its occupation of Iraq.
By focusing American air power– not on the Islamic State in Iraq, but on ISIS’s lines of communication within and from Syria– the US can shift responsibility for ground combat in Iraq to the shoulders of the Iraqi armed forces. Should the Iraqis prove inadequate to the task of ejecting the Islamic State, it will be the Iranians who will be forced to urgently take up the slack. Drawn into two morasses, Syria and Iraq, Iran will be less able to engage in world-wide jihad, less able to defend the regime of its Syrian ally Bashir Assad, and less able to hold Lebanon hostage with its cat’s paw Hezbollah.
And what if Iran should wind up defeating the Islamic State? What then? It is unlikely that Iran could engage and destroy ISIS in the short, or even medium term. Now equipped with artillery, armor and heavy weapons gleaned from Syrian battlefields, ISIS has made itself into one of the most capable players in the Syrian battle space. It will take Iran’s conventional forces considerable effort, time, blood and treasure to evict the Islamic State from Iraq.
Recent intelligence indicates that the Islamic State is shifting it weapons into difficult to bomb locations, and embedding itself into civilian population centers, thus preparing itself for a drawn out contest. By modulating both its airstrikes and the US of American ground power, Washington has an opportunity to force Iran to engage a near enemy in a drawn out war of attrition. Tehran’s resources, already strained by three years of war in Syria, may be stretched to the breaking point. Any move that weakens Iran militarily is in the best interests of America and its regional allies. In the unlikely event that Iran should defeat the Islamic State precipitously, it would have done the United States a favor. A moribund or greatly weakened Islamic State would clear the pitch for more the moderate Syrian opposition groups that the United States hopes will succeed in overthrowing Assad.
The Islamic State and Iran are on a collision course; America should do nothing to prevent the crash. Long the exporters of jihad and chaos, Tehran now finds found that is has reaped the whirlwind. America should position itself to derive maximum benefit from Iran’s folly.