As was expected even during Donald Trump’s election campaign, US-Iran relations are touching the lowest ebb—again. While the nuke-deal is still very much intact, the new confrontation, however, is part of the new US game-plan for Syria, where the Islamic Republic has become, in the eyes of the US CENTCOM commander, Joseph Votel, the biggest threat to US interests. It is true that Iran has spent billions to fund the war in Syria, a war if not fought well in Syria will soon reach the Islamic Republic’s own borders, or even inside its cities. Hence, the imperative of defeating an enemy i.e., ISIS, that has been raised to eliminate the ‘un-believers.’ While it is strange to see the US confronting Iran, a country that has successfully resisted and played a pivotal role in rolling back ISIS, it is Iran’s very success against ISIS that has led the US to demand for its exclusion from Syria.
It is by excluding Iran from Syria that the US can achieve its two immediate objectives: a) it can re-galvanize its Arab allies in the conflict and buttress its proxy militias, b) by re-activating jihadist groups in Syria it hopes to reverse the gains the Russian and Syrian forces have achieved. As it stands, this is the only way the US can use to achieve its original plan of encircling and destabilizing the entire region stretching from West Asia to Central and Southeast Asia.
Confrontation with Iran and the latter’s portrayal as an “enemy of peace” is, therefore, only a smoke screen for public consumption. What lies behind is larger agenda of maintaining American hegemony in the world, defeat its arch competitors (Russia and China) by spreading militancy and consequently prevent them from dominating the world’s most resource rich region militarily and economically. While, the US has so far failed to achieve this objective, the renewed confrontation with Iran is yet another attempt on its part to activate dark forces of conflict.
Despite the success of Iranian and Russian successes in Syria, reports of some new jihadi groups being assembled in Southern Syria are emerging. Named after Khaled Ibn al-Waleed, the celebrated Muslim general who united Arabia and conquered Syria in the 7th century, the new force is reported to be deeply engaged in recruiting fresh fighters from groups that have suffered heavy losses from Russian led operations in Aleppo and elsewhere.
Led by Abu Mohammad al-Maqdisi, a well-known jihadist who received his training in Saudi Arabia and fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s against the Soviet Union, the Khaled Ibn al-Waleed Army has suddenly become a serious threat to Russian and Iranian interests in the region and is starting to sound a fresh boost to the falling ISIS.
Close to the heart of Al-Baghdadi, Maqdisi’s primary objective seems to encircle the entire southern Syria and bring it under his grip as a means to revamp their lost position in other parts of the country. There are already approximately 55 to 60 rebel groups already operating in the Syrian south, loosely merged into an alliance called the Southern Front. They are reportedly funded and armed by Gulf and US officials from the Amman-based Military Operations Center.
Al-Maqdisi’s task includes to either bring them under his command, or destroy them to relieve himself of their competition in the Daraa countryside. As it stands, he has already put the plan in motion.
All that the new front of Baghdadi now needs is enough financial support to both attract more fighters and win enough battlefield victories against other groups in order to leave its impact on them and attract those groups’ fighters by proving both its financial and military strength.
This scenario is developing into something that both Jordan and Russia are seemingly determined to halt, before ISIS overruns the Syrian south just as it did when left unchecked in strategic cities such as Deir ez-Zour, al-Raqqa and Albukamal in Syria, and Mosul and Ramadi in Iraq.
And as it stands, it is certainly again being left unchecked by the US. Donald Trump, following Obama in its footsteps, seems to have embarked on the policy of not taking the necessary action to impede the growth of the extremist-virus. That is again the kind of support the US provided to ISIS back in 2011-2012 and is again silently providing to this new chapter of Daesh. So much for the US to keep conflict alive in the region to achieve its core objectives against Russia and China!
Russia, for its own sake, is alive to what is being hatched in that part of Syria. Accordingly, it has been proactively courting Jordan (read: Jordan was invited to take part in Astana talks on Syria) into its alliance and seeking to use it to eliminate ISIS in Daraa, a city lying in southern Syria, close to the Jordanian border.
By courting the king and specifically asking him to join the Astana process, Putin was acknowledging that Jordan will have a big role to play in the country’s future. Jordan’s king, on the other hand, has been rather silent, if not silently supportive, of Russia’s military operations in Syria, which started in September 2015. That same year, the two countries signed a US$10 billion deal to build a Russian nuclear plant for Jordan, and king Abdullah reciprocated by hailing his “crucial role” in bringing peace to Syria and the Middle East at large.
The Western-Arab agenda of using Sunni militancy to deal with its enemies is very much alive and so is counter-alliance led by Russia in the Middle East. Therefore, despite the success against ISIS in other parts of Syria, conflict is far from over and it will not end effectively as long as groups like ISIS and Khalid bin Waleed army continue to receive support from their Arab and Western sponsors.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.