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US and Iran both fear jihadis in Syria, but far apart on war

Neither the US nor Iran wants Al Qaeda to win. But Iran has vowed to fight hard to keep Bashar al-Assad in power.

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A Sunni Sheikh (l.) leads people in prayer at Osama Bin Zayed mosque in Aleppo, Syria, August 9, 2013, calling upon worshippers at the mosque to join a jihad against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Despite deep strategic differences, Iran sees its interests as aligned with the US over containing the growing contingent of Sunni jihadis in the ranks of those fighting against Assad's regime.

Hamid Khatib/Reuters

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Iran and the US may not agree on much, particularly when it comes to Syria. But despite deep strategic differences, Iran sees its interests as aligned with the US over containing the growing contingent of Sunni jihadis in the ranks of those fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

While US President Obama is trying to drum up support for an attack on Syria over US contentions that chemical weapons were used by the government, Iran has been trying to dissuade the US from acting, warning it could end up helping Al Qaeda-style fighters.

The country has even suggested that rebels are armed with chemical weapons themselves. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told the Tehran weekly Aseman last Sunday that his country told the US nine months ago that "radical" rebels had received "handmade" chemical weapons, including sarin.

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Iran's official line is the same as Russia, that jihadist rebels conducted the chemical incident, creating a "trap" to drag the US into the war on its side. Shiite Iran hasn't veered from its decades-long support of Syria, while the US has repeatedly insisted that President Assad must step down. But the growing presence of Sunni fighters and Al Qaeda elements has alarmed both countries, and Iran's warning that US action could boost jihadis on the battlefield mirrors similar concerns by many politicians in the US. 

“Syria is not entirely a zero-sum game as far as Iran and the United States are concerned. Both have a common enemy, as in 2001, in Al Qaeda,” says Mohammad Ali Shabani, a PhD candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, currently in Tehran. He notes the “paradox of Iran backing a Baathist regime accused of gassing its own people” – precisely the same role that Iran’s arch-enemy Saddam Hussein played in the 1980s – “while America is about to enter a war to support an Al Qaeda-led rebellion on the same [anniversary] week as 9/11.”

“At this point, it doesn’t really matter who carried out the chemical strike,” says Mr. Shabani, of the Aug. 21 attack in a rebel-held Damascus suburb that the US blames on the Assad regime and says claimed more than 1,400 lives with sarin. “The main point is the day after, and the day after looks worse for both Iran and the United States.”

Iranian officials have consistently opposed chemical weapons use anywhere in the world – and by any side in Syria – since tens of thousands of their own soldiers were targeted by Iraq’s chemical munitions in the 1980s. Yet for Iran, Syria plays a critical regional role as a bridgehead to the frontlines of the Arab-Israeli conflict and to Palestinian militant groups, and as a supply route for Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah militia. Together they form an Iran-led “axis of resistance” against US and Israeli influence. 

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Ulterior motives

Iran’s warnings about empowering anti-American Sunni fighters also aim to divert attention in Washington from the US-Iran disconnect over Syria and other issues such as Iran’s nuclear program.

“We believe that the Americans are making mistakes in Syria and therefore will feel the brunt of it and will certainly be damaged,” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei said on Thursday. The US and Western regional presence is, he said, “invasive, bullish, greedy, and has the goal of eliminating any resistance,” and the US was now using “the excuse of chemical weapons” to do so militarily.

Revolutionary Guard chiefs have paraded their own warnings. Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani reportedly said on Wednesday that Iran would support Syria “to the end."

“In the case of an attack on Syria, seven countries – Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, France, England, America, and Israel – are at the front line and indeed believe in the downfall of Bashar al-Assad,” Maj. Gen. Soleimani said, according to Fars News Agency, which quoted an unnamed member of the Assembly of Experts who attended the general's closed door speech. Now they “oddly insist that Bashar should leave and even say that if Al Qaeda comes, it is better than Bashar.”

Iran’s warnings come as reports emerged today that Mr. Obama has ordered the Pentagon to expand its list of targets in Syria. The White House “is creeping closer to carrying out military action that also could help tip the balance on the ground, even as the administration argues that this is not the primary intent,” the New York Times reported. Speaking in St. Petersburg today, Obama said the report was "inaccurate." 

Anonymous US officials claimed yesterday that they had intercepted an order from Soleimani to Shiite militia groups in Iraq to attack the US Embassy in Baghdad and other US interests if Syria were attacked, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Honor and interests

Those US claims could not be confirmed, and were questioned by some analysts in Tehran.

“Iran has the ability to sabotage but this is not what Iran has usually done in these kinds of situations,” says one analyst in Tehran, who asked not to be further identified. “If they do something, it is not something like that in Iraq.”

In his speech to the Assembly of Experts, Soleimani added that Syria had become a “matter of honor for America.” And indeed in Washington, during lengthy hearings this week, senior US officials sought to understand the impact of any Syria action on Iran – though in terms of the “message” that failure to act in Syria might send.

In laying out their case for Syria strikes, senior officials argue that US credibility is at stake. Obama explicitly laid down a “red line” regarding chemical weapons use in Syria, and as he has insisted that Iran will “never” be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon, an ambition that Iran says it rejects.

“Iran, I guarantee you, is hoping we look the other way,” US Secretary of State John Kerry testified.

Congressman Tom Cotton (R-Ark) made a point echoed by several others, when he said: “The day the United States doesn’t act is the day that Ayatollah Khamenei spins his [uranium enrichment] centrifuges into overdrive.”

US lawmakers also raised questions about foreign jihadists among rebel ranks. Their numbers have grown since late May, when the octogenarian Egyptian-born cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, called for all Sunni Muslims to join jihad in Syria and said Shiite Iran was organizing "massacres" against Sunnis in Syria. “Anyone who has the ability, who is trained to fight…has to go…support their brothers in Syria,” he said from his base in Qatar. "How could 100 million Shiites defeat 1.7 billion Sunnis? Only because Sunni Muslims are weak."

Already by July an estimated 5,000 Sunni fighters from 60 countries  – half the number of foreign jihadis that ultimately joined the Afghanistan resistance in the 1980s, according to an article in Foreign Affairs. The foreign fighters have let “the genie of militant sectarianism…out of the bottle" wrote the authors Aaron Zelin and Thomas Hegghammer.

Kerry testified that “there is a real moderate opposition that exists” in Syria, and that no more than 20 percent were “bad guys” – a portion far less, lawmakers said, than they had been briefed about.

For Tehran that factor, coupled with possible American strikes, means the US “is attempting to rebuild the collapsed terrorists’ morale…and return operational balance to the benefit of the takfiri opposition,” said Iran’s Defense Minister Brig. Gen. Hossein Dehghan. He warned the result would be a “viral expansion in all political arenas [with] negative and unpredictable effects on global security.”


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