Things are not getting better in Iraq.
Kata’ib Hezbollah — an Iranian-supported Shia militia in Iraq and ally of the Lebanese Hezbollah — is escalating its allegations that the U.S. military is supplying weapons to ISIS. And Iran’s fingerprints are clear.
Watch this video from Iran’s Press TV (the Revolutionary Guard’s English-language propaganda arm). Recorded by Kata’ib Hezbollah, it claims to show a U.S. Chinook helicopter resupplying ISIS forces. While this allegation is patently absurd, it reflects Iran’s effort to further degrade U.S. influence in Iraq.
Though few in the West realize it, Iran’s massive commitment against ISIS isn’t ultimately about ISIS. Instead, Iran is using the ISIS threat to enable its broader theological project in the Middle East. Funneling military support to Iraq, Iran is turning Iraq into a client state. In the long term, Iran wants to marginalize Sunni political empowerment in Iraq and lock the country’s Shia political groups (which aren’t a unitary bloc) under its dominion. Offering security in return for fealty, Iran is thus ensuring that Iraqi politicians understand that nothing comes free. Iran’s medium-term intention is to replicate the political structure of Lebanon, a state ruthlessly repressed by Iran’s ideological ally, Hezbollah. This strategic reality illuminates the challenge posed by these helicopter threats.
As one well-informed individual told me, “This [is] bad news. They really think the U.S. drops ISIS weapons, and they may start shooting these helicopters down.” Though some commentators assert that Iran’s desire for a favorable nuclear deal means it wouldn’t shoot down a U.S. helicopter, that’s a risky gamble. Like a vulture, Iran is always stalking its enemies, and it might gamble that its Shia militias offer plausible deniability vis-à-vis potential U.S. retaliation. But as the U.S. considers arming the Sunni tribes of western Iraq and eastern Syria, and the U.S. military increases its supply and support missions to Iraqi forces, this threat is likely to grow. Correspondingly, President Obama should warn Tehran that if U.S. personnel are killed by Iran-supported militias, the U.S. will retaliate directly. Simply hoping for the best is folly.
Nevertheless, this weekend also brought a sliver of hope for U.S. interests in Iraq and Syria. Why?
Because on Saturday, in concert with the Kurdish YPG militia (see my thoughts on YPG-Turkish relations here), Turkish military personnel relocated the remains of Suleyman Shah (a father figure of the Ottoman Empire) from his tomb in Syria — to a new site that is also in Syria. This very important signal shows that the mission was about more than protecting Turkey’s religious-nationalist heritage (important to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party). Raiding Syrian territory and establishing a new tomb site, Erdogan sends an unmistakable message to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Moreover, the reaction by Syria and Iran illustrates that they’re worried that Erdogan might be seeking direct confrontation with Syria.
As I’ve noted before, America has an opportunity here. With Erdogan showing new willingness to directly confront ISIS, pursue alliances of convenience with Kurdish militias, and confront Assad and Iran, the U.S. could furnish a counterbalance to Iran by playing to Erdogan’s ambitions. At best, this might deter Iranian aggression against U.S. interests. At worst, it would complicate freedom of action on the part of both ISIS and Assad. Regardless, this opportunity mustn’t be ignored.
To be sure, recent days have shown the evolving complexity of the Syrian civil war. Yet they’ve also proved the necessity of decisive American leadership. We can take risks to define circumstances in our favor, or continue to allow a maelstrom of chaos to overwhelm us.
— Tom Rogan, based in Washington, D.C., writes for the Daily Telegraph. He is a panelist on The McLaughlin Group and holds the Tony Blankley chair at the Steamboat Institute. He tweets @TomRtweets.