In two statements in August 2014, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah claimed that the Islamic State was a threat to the region. “The danger does not recognize Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, or Druze, Yazidis, Arabs, or Kurds,” he said. “This monster is growing and getting bigger.” He argued that ISIS threatened the Arab monarchies stretching from Jordan to the Gulf. Then he revealed the real goal of his Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement. “Going to fight in Syria was, in the first degree, to defend Lebanon, the resistance in Lebanon and all Lebanese.”
Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Iran, Hezbollah, and the various Shia militias in Iraq that make up the Hashd al-Shaabi are riding a wave of victories. Never before have Iran’s proxies, extremist militias, had such legitimacy and power in some areas, while in others they play a polarizing role.
To fight Iranian influence, some have argued, ISIS and other jihadists should be encouraged to fight a war of attrition against Hezbollah and its allies. “In Syria, Trump should let ISIS be Assad’s Iran’s, Hezbollah’s, and Russia’s headache — the same way we encouraged the mujahedeen fighters to bleed Russia in Afghanistan,” columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times on April 12. Friedman was the Times’s Beirut bureau chief in 1982 and was posted to Jerusalem later in the 1980s. He was familiar with the initial rise of Hezbollah and with U.S. policy in Afghanistan, where America spent hundreds of millions aiding fighters resisting the Soviets.
Efraim Inbar of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies argued in August 2016 that “the destruction of Islamic State is a strategic mistake.” It would be best to “keep bad actors focused on one another rather than on Western targets and hamper Iran’s quest for regional hegemony,” he explained. In this theory, like the one Friedman later advanced, Hezbollah was being “seriously taxed by the fight against ISIS.”
From a moral perspective, ISIS must be defeated in Iraq and Syria because of its crimes against humanity, particularly its massacre of Yazidis, a religious minority, in 2014, and its selling 5,000 women into slavery. Those who argue that nonetheless ISIS should be left to “bleed” Iran and contend that this strategy is pragmatic, based on U.S. or Western “interests.”
The problem is that there is no evidence that ISIS has “bled” Iran, the Syrian regime, Hezbollah, or Shia militias any more than it has advanced Tehran’s interests. Before ISIS attacked Iraq in 2014, the Baghdad government still had to pretend to curry favor with Sunnis. After ISIS arrived, Shia Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued his famous fatwa calling on all Iraqis to defend their country. Tens of thousands flocked to the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Units. In December 2016, they became an official arm of the Iraqi security forces.
ISIS provides Assad legitimacy, as ‘the lesser of two evils.’
As Iraq has battled ISIS, Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, has been a frequent visitor to the front lines: ISIS didn’t weaken Iranian influence in Iraq, it put it on steroids. Before ISIS, Iran would never have been able to create a Shia militia coalition and make it an official part of the government. Its militias were seen as sectarian extremists. Now on the battlefields around Mosul, as I witnessed in a visit there in early April, the Shia flags fly everywhere, and they pose as liberators.
Similarly in Lebanon: On the arrival of pockets of ISIS on the border in 2014, Nasrallah, a turban-wearing blowhard who runs an extremist religious militia, spoke of “barbarians” at the gate. Hezbollah leveraged the crises with Syria and the supposed threat from jihadists to hold the presidency of Lebanon hostage for more than two years until it maneuvered Michael Aoun into power in 2016. Lebanon’s sectarian constitution requires that the country’s leader be a Christian, but Nasrallah wanted a Hezbollah-allied Christian. Fighting ISIS and other jihadists in Syria allows him to pose as a “defender” of Christians and minority communities in Lebanon. He continues to claim that Hezbollah is “resisting” Israel by fighting in Syria. How is that? Nasrallah claims that Israel supports ISIS.
The extremism of ISIS has discredited the Syrian rebellion. Prior to the arrival of ISIS and the beheading of Steven Sotloff and James Foley, the world’s attention was focused on the brutality of Bashar al-Assad. After August 2014, the U.S.-led coalition of 68 nations was busy bombing ISIS. The claim that letting ISIS off the hook would have somehow “bled” Assad is incorrect. In 2014, ISIS concentrated its war against Kurds in Syria and Iraq and rarely posed a threat to the Assad regime. That was threated by the Syrian rebels. The regime identified the rebels as ISIS and al-Qaeda, monsters. ISIS didn’t counterweight Assad. It provided him legitimacy, as “the lesser of two evils.”
Supporting religious extremists, as the U.S. did in Afghanistan in the 1990s, is not a counterweight to other extremists. The struggle against Iranian hegemony must be waged alongside other pro-Western or allied administrations such as Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. Supporting jihadists leads to instability. It doesn’t countervail Iran.
— Seth J. Frantzman is a researcher, a Jerusalem-based journalist, and an op-ed editor of the Jerusalem Post.