James Jeffrey, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, made a provocative assertion Tuesday when he said the burgeoning alliance between Iran, Russia and Syria is the primary problem facing the Middle East today.
Speaking during a panel discussion for the launch of the Atlantic Council’s new Task Force on the Future of Iraq, Jeffrey, who served as ambassador from 2010 – 2012, said that Iraq has actually been relatively successful compared to the rest of the region, but warned of a worrisome trend he had seen recently.
“We have an Iran, Syria, Russia problem right now in the Middle East, that is the number one problem in the whole region,” said Jeffrey, “considering we also have ISIS, that’s saying a lot.”
Bold a conclusion as it may be, ISIS has been at least slightly rolled back in Iraq by the U.S.-led coalition in Operation Inherent Resolve. The town of Ramadi, less than 100 miles from the capital of Baghdad, was retaken in early January. Significant damage has also been done to ISIS oil market, a prime financial source for the terrorist group. Coalition air strikes against ISIS cash reserves have cut hundreds of millions of dollars out of the ISIS treasury.
Russia, Syria and Iran, however, have made a significant strides in Syria, and the regional as a whole. This time last year, it appeared that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster was all but inevitable. Now, he has secured his southern front and may be poised to move on the key city of Aleppo. With his Russian and Iranian allies in tow, al-Assad is making a charge toward the de facto ISIS capital of Raqqa.
The Iran-Russia-Syria alliance has grown remarkably close over the last year. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been an ally of both Russia and Iran for some time. Though Russian-Iranian relations have at times been strained, the formulation of the Iran nuclear deal in July has allowed the two countries to pursue several economic and military agreements, all the while continuing to support their mutual ally in Syria.
Russia has expanded its influence in Syria to include more than just aiding al-Assad. It has recently established connections with Hezbollah, a Lebanese terrorist group backed by Iran. Reports in late January claimed that Hezbollah and Russia have been working in concert backing their mutual ally al-Assad as he continues to fight rebels in Syria.
Though Iran and Iraq were once mortal enemies, Iran has cemented its influence with the new(ish) Shia-dominated government. Securing de facto control over Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) has been one of Iran’s primary methods in cementing its new influence. Though the Shia Muslim PMUs are technically under the umbrella of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), which report to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, it is Iran’s paramilitary Qods force that ultimately control and supply them, experts say.
In regard to Iran’s strategy in particular, Jeffrey noted that “most, but not all, observers believe [Iran] is trying to establish a regional power position.” The Iranian goal is to “unite all of the Shia with a combination of … diplomatic relations as a state and a political ideological movement as a party.”
The alliance between Russia, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah became formalized in September 2015. Writing for Al-Akhbar, an Arabic daily newspaper, editor-in-chief Ibrahim al-Amin said that the five groups engaged in secret discussions and created a military alliance referred to as the ‘4+1.’
“The agreement to form the alliance includes administrative mechanisms for cooperation on [the issues of] politics and intelligence and [for] military [cooperation] on the battlefield in several parts of the Middle East, primarily in Syria and Iraq,” wrote al-Amin.
He claimed that the agreement is “the most important in the region and the world for many years.” While the alliance was ostensibly created to counter ISIS, it is both unclear and unlikely that is their only goal, especially given the evidence of Russia, Syria and Hezbollah directly engaging with Syrian opposition forces.
“Things have been shifting not in our direction,” said Jeffrey, in regard to the changing political climate.
In an op-ed for Israel’s Haaretz, Ely Karmon of the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzilya, hinted that the possibility of Iraq becoming more intimately involved in the alliance could occur over time. “The longer the Russian military campaign in the region, the stronger the alliance with Iran and Hezbollah will become, and possibly with the Baghdad Shia regime,” he claimed.
Sergey Aleksashenko of the Brookings Institution has described the ongoing conflict of interests in Syria, and the Middle East as a whole, as a “three-sided disaster,” shared between the U.S., Russia and Iran.
“It may sound surprising, but the weakest partner in the triangle is the United States,” wrote Aleksashenko. He explained that the U.S. has faltered in its ability to secure political alliances, while the common interests shared by Russia, Syria and Iran has allowed them to gain a growing foothold that may be difficult for the U.S. to counter.
“If you do not have boots on the ground, if you do not have an American military presence in a potentially dangerous and difficult place, Washington’s ability to do hard things, to focus on a very important but … ever more peripheral issue that is in the green or quasi-green category, drops and drops and drops,” said Jeffrey, noting the increasingly difficult position of the U.S. in the region.
In the short term, the 4+1 alliance is a roadblock to a successful ceasefire, or ‘cessation of hostilities,’ as it is being termed by the negotiating parties. Last week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and several other nations called for the cessation in a joint statement. Though Russia was party to the talks, it did not make a commitment to cease its bombing activities against rebel forces. In fact, Russia actually increased the campaign while the talks occurred, according to a U.S. Army spokesperson.
“Until Assad’s regime is once more at risk, neither he nor Iran has any reason to make concessions or help resolve the deeper geostrategic struggle in the region,” wrote U.S. Army Gen. (ret.) Wesley Clark in an op-ed for USA today in early January, “Russia have little need to reach a long term settlement to the Syrian War that returns control of Syria to the Syrian people.”
[dcquiz] Clark, a former commander of NATO, believes countering Russia in Syria could start with NATO “strengthening frontiers” in the Baltics and Ukraine, in addition to new European sanctions against Russia.
In Iraq, Jeffrey believes it is important to renew U.S. influence by finding ways to support things that are “inherently Iraqi,” while keeping a realistic mentality as to U.S. limitations.
For his part, Aleksashenko believes before a strategy to fix the problem is created, U.S. policymakers first must have a goal. “The U.S. ‘wait and see’ policy won’t help it formulate clear strategic interests and objectives in Syria. It’s not possible, after all, to formulate a strategy to achieve a goal you don’t even have.”
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