Well, that’s it. The war is over, ISIS is beaten and on the run. We can all relax and bring the boys home. Mission accomplished.
In May, President Trump stood before the assembled leaders of the Sunni Muslim world and called on them to ‘drive out the terrorists and extremists … from this earth.’ Well, they have succeeded. An extraordinary coalition of Syrian, Russian, American, British, Turkish, Kurdish and Iraqi military forces have crushed ISIS’s ‘caliphate’, killed most of its leadership and made the heroic ‘Fighters for God’ flee as fast as their strictly non-suicidal legs will carry them.
Unfortunately it’s not over. Islamic State survivors have dispersed into the global undergrowth to set up a network of IS franchises known as ‘wilaya’ (Arabic for ‘provinces’) stretching from the southern Philippines to Nigeria. ISIS is far from finished. Instead it has rebranded itself by merging with existing religious fanatics who hate the West and all it stands for, and who have pledged allegiance to IS’s aims. More ominously it has also absorbed – or taken over – the legacy of Osama bin Laden’s global network, al-Qaeda. Its new leader is thought to be none other than Osama’s son, Hamza bin Laden, who resurfaced in 2015 when al-Qaeda’s Zawahiri introduced him as the torchbearer of his father’s legacy. Hamza has sworn revenge on the United States in retaliation for Osama’s murder. He is considered by intelligence agencies to be the next charismatic leader of global jihadism.
That’s the bad news. The worse news is that after ISIS’s defeat there is now a vacuum in the Middle East. However, ‘as any fule kno’, nature abhors a vacuum and nowadays Iran is only too happy to fill that vacant space. The truth is that Iran played a larger role in the battles for Mosul and Raqqa than the Coalition admits, and Tehran is determined to cash in on its victory. The war between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, between Arabs and Persians, continues with an undeclared new war stretching from Iraq to Lebanon on the Mediterranean coast.
The problem is that Washington, firmly focused on the Korean nuclear crisis, has been forced to take its eye off the ball and concentrate on the problems of the Far East rather than the Middle East and the consequences of Obama’s feeble nuclear deal with Iran. The US is well aware of Tehran’s regional power grab; but Washington can only deal with one major foreign policy crisis at a time. Iran is shaping up to become a major problem, not just for US diplomats but for the whole region.
Colonel Richard Kemp, former head of international terrorism on the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee has warned that the Iranian Shi’a Ayatollahs’ destabilising actions are not just a threat to the Middle East but pose a grave threat to wider international security. In a recent interview, he said, ‘I see Iran as the greatest threat to world peace today. Not just to the Middle East, but elsewhere in the world.’
Kemp has a point. Iran is spoiling for a fight and has effectively declared war on Sunni Saudi Arabia. Intelligence reports are clear. Openly funding and arming the mainly Shi’a Houthi rebels in Yemen, Iran is now fighting a proxy war against the Saudi-backed Yemeni government. Earlier this month the rebels launched an Iranian-supplied Scud ballistic missile across the border at Riyadh International Airport. It was brought down by a Saudi surface-to-air missile. That looks like a war.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are now locked in a fierce struggle for regional dominance. The ancient feud between Arab and Persian is made worse by deep religious differences. Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and guardian of Islam’s holy places, sees itself as the leading Sunni state and leader of the Muslim world. However, the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution, with its theocratic regime of rule by the Ayatollahs, is a permanent challenge to the Saudi monarchy. Shi’ite Iran openly declares itself to be a ‘Revolutionary Muslim’ state, anxious to export its revolution beyond its own borders.
Both nations seek to ally themselves with countries with Sunni or Shi’a majorities, and who instinctively look towards Saudi Arabia or Iran for support. The uprisings across the Arab world have also added to the political instability throughout the region. The 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Arab, removed an intransigent Iranian adversary. Since then Iran has moved into Iraq – politically, militarily, economically and religiously – intent on establishing itself or its proxies across the region and determined to build a land corridor west to the Mediterranean. Intelligence photographs show the Iranians constructing a network of roads, electricity and communication lines extending from Iran through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
In its turn, Saudi Arabia is working hard to thwart Tehran’s growing influence and regional ambitions. When Shi’a Houthi rebels seized control of Yemen’s capital Sana’a in 2014 and began pushing south to take over the country, Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Sunni Arab states intervened to support their neighbour’s government. The result is that Yemen has now become a major battleground between Riyadh and Tehran.
This intervention by the Saudis’ Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – now Saudi’s de facto ruler – has exposed wider regional tensions. However, in his efforts to stem Iranian influence, ‘MbS’ has found an unusual ally: Israel. Strange bedfellows indeed! For years Saudis have been taught that Israel is the ‘eternal enemy‘ and Jews are the descendants of apes and pigs.
The real reason for this curious alliance is that both are equally nervous about Tehran’s ambitions. Israel and Saudi Arabia were the two countries most adamantly opposed to Obama’s 2015 international agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear programme.
Both warned that the treaty did not go far enough to prevent Iran obtaining the bomb. The danger is that Israel’s alliance with Saudi inevitably brings any proxy conflict uncomfortably close to Lebanon and Cyprus.
Tel Aviv is well aware that Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese allies, lead a politically powerful bloc and, crucially, control a large, well-armed Shi’a militia. Hezbollah in Lebanon is spoiling to begin another civil war like Syria’s and poses a serious problem, because any conflict in Lebanon will almost certainly draw in Israel. This could lead to yet another devastating Israeli-Lebanese war. Israel is right to be worried by Iran’s growing threat. With Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Al-Quds brigades now parked on Israel’s borders, the risks to regional peace are obvious.
The other risk is a direct war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. That Iran is preparing for trouble across the Persian Gulf is not in doubt. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has recently installed sophisticated radar, surveillance and communication equipment covering all the routes from Iran to Basra, Najaf and Karbala on Iraq’s southern coast. Intelligence sources warn, ‘The purpose of these devices, which can be used for eavesdropping and spying on mobile phones and wireless Internet services, is to cover the Iraqi-Saudi border and monitor all communications and aircraft movements.’
This build up risks a much broader conflict across the waters of the Gulf. For the US and other Western powers, freedom of navigation in the Gulf is essential. Any conflict that blocked that waterway – vital for international shipping and oil transportation – would swiftly draw in US naval and air forces.
There are other indications of serious trouble. The sudden resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister because ‘he feared an assassination attempt by Hezbollah’ simply doesn’t pass muster. The truth is that the Saudis were furious at him for holding secret talks with Iranian and Hezbollah officials. The Middle East is breaking up; and Lebanon is directly in the firing line.
With Saudi Arabia now united with Israel against Iran, plus troubled Lebanon on the brink, a new desert storm is brewing in the Middle East.