Radical Iran-led Axis Finally Meets US Resistance
The conflict in Syria has long ceased being a civil war; rather, it has become a clash between coalitions and opposing blocs battling for control of the entire Mideast region.
The Iranian-led axis is the most dangerous and highly armed bloc that is fighting in Syria. Russia joined the Iranian axis in 2015, acting for its own reasons. Bashar Assad’s regime is not an independent actor, but rather a component of this wider Iranian-Russian axis. In many respects, Assad is a junior member of the coalition that has been set up to fight for him.
This coalition has enabled the Assad regime to conduct mass murder and ethnic cleansing, and to use unconventional weapons against civilians in an effort to terrorize rebel organizations into submission.
Feeling confident due to its growing control of Syria, Iran is also using its coalition to arm, finance and deploy Shiite jihadist agents all over the Middle East, and to attack those that stand in the way of Iranian domination.
And over the past few years, the Iranian-led axis has been able to spread violence, terrorism and Islamic militancy without facing any repercussions.
Until recently, the United States had focused its attention in Syria exclusively on Sunni jihadist threats — ISIS and Al Qaeda-affiliated groups. While these terrorists certainly need to be fought, turning a blind eye to the activities of the more powerful radical Shiite coalition in Syria only encouraged the region’s destabilization.
This Western inaction helped embolden Assad to use chemical weapons. It also gave the Iranians confidence to magnify their meddling in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain and many other states. That sent a troubling message to America’s regional allies, who, in the face of these threats, formed a de facto coalition of pragmatic Sunni states to counter Iran — a coalition that included Israel.
But on April 6, the US sent a message that something may have changed.
A cruise missile attack on an Assad regime air base, in response to a savage chemical weapons massacre in Idlib, Syria, was, first and foremost, a moral response to an intolerable act of evil. But the strike also carried a wider prospective message about Washington’s new willingness to enforce red lines against Assad and his Shiite allies.
It showed that the US is potentially willing to use its military prowess beyond its objective of targeting ISIS, and that America is willing to confront the Iranian-led axis. “What you have in Syria is a very destructive cycle of violence perpetuated by ISIS, obviously, but also by this regime and their Iranian and Russian sponsors,” National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster told Fox News Sunday.
According to US officials, the April 6 missile attack destroyed 20 percent of Assad’s fighter jets. It was the first time that Washington had taken military action against a member of the Iranian-led coalition.
Analysts believe that the strike might also be viewed as a deterrent by anti-Western forces, and cause some countries to think twice before considering using unconventional weapons in the future.
On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that Russia must choose between its alignment with Assad, Iran and Hezbollah, and working with the United States.
According to numerous experts, Washington must continue to exercise muscular diplomacy — the only kind that is effective in the Middle East — and inform all members of Iran’s pro-Assad coalition that the deployment of unconventional weapons will not be tolerated. They say that the US should also begin to rally and strengthen the pro-American coalition of states in the Middle East to help keep a lid on both ISIS and Iran.
With American officials indicating that they are “ready to do more” in Syria if necessary, signs suggest that the strike represents the start of a policy of deterrence.
In theory, should Washington decide that Iran’s transfer of weapons and extremist Shiite military forces to other lands has reached unacceptable levels, or that Iran’s missile development program has gone far enough, it could call on Tehran to cease these activities. This call would carry substantially more weight following last week’s missile attack.
There is little reason to believe that conventional weapons use against Syrian civilians is going to stop any time soon, or that the enormous tragedy suffered by the Syrian people is about to end. And there is certainly no indication that the US is planning to initiate large-scale military involvement in this failed state.
But the strike will have an impact on Syria, Iran and Russia’s thinking. And North Korea, which helped build Syria’s plutonium nuclear plant (destroyed in 2007 in a reported Israeli air strike), and which maintains close links with Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, can be expected to take note as well.
If a policy of strategic deterrence follows the April 6 strike, it could also have an impact outside of Syria.
In Syria, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) oversees ground operations. But the IRGC and its elite Quds Force are also helping to fill Hezbollah’s weapons depots in Lebanon. Syria acts as a bridge that grants Iran access to Lebanon, and allows it to threaten both Israel and Jordan.
Hezbollah, a Lebanese-based Iranian Shiite proxy, has sent 7,000 to 9,000 of its own highly trained members into Syria’s ground war. It helped rescue the Assad regime from collapse, and took part in battles stretching from Aleppo to the Qalamoun Mountains northeast of Damascus. Last year, the Arab League and the Sunni countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council all declared Hezbollah to be a terrorist entity.
The IRGC’s network also extends to Iraq, and to Yemen’s Houthi Ansar Allah forces, who receive Iranian assistance. Ansar Allah, a heavily armed Shiite military force, fires ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia on a regular basis. And the IRGC and Hezbollah have also been linked to a recent large-scale terrorist plot in Bahrain.
Perhaps the US strike in Syria will send a message to Iran’s leaders that these actions will no longer be tolerated — and that the US is prepared to stop them if necessary.
Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs correspondent. He also conducts research and analysis for defense think tanks, and is the Israel correspondent for IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly. His book, The Virtual Caliphate, explores the online jihadist presence.