by Prof. Eyal Zisser
-- the winner in the Russian-American squabble is actually Iran, which is silently but surely establishing for itself a realm of influence that extends from Tehran to the Mediterranean coast, over which it will have complete control
It appears that there is already a clear winner in the struggle over prestige between Russia and the United States. No, not Russian President Vladimir Putin. Though he did succeed where all Russian leaders before him failed over the last century -- in belittling and humiliating the United States and in loosening its grip on the Middle East. The struggle between Putin and Obama, and anyone who will soon succeed the latter, is far from over. As for Putin, despite his show of force, he has limited power. No, the winner in the Russian-American squabble is actually Iran, which is silently but surely establishing for itself a realm of influence that extends from Tehran to the Mediterranean coast, over which it will have complete control.
Iran's accomplishment comes with its fair share of irony. Only six years ago, when the Arab Spring began, it appeared that the upheavals in the Arab world would deliver a decisive blow to Iran's efforts to create an "axis of resistance" under its own influence that would stretch from Tehran, though Baghdad and Damascus, all the way to Beirut and Gaza. At the end of the day, the Arab Spring proved to be nothing other than an Arab-Sunni awakening directed more against the Iranian threat and Shiism than against Israel. And so Iran watched with longing as radical Sunni Islam -- with the rebel groups in Syria and the Islamic State group on the Syria-Iraq border -- prepared to overtake its grasp on Syria, Iraq and even Lebanon.
However, the Russian involvement in Syria that began in September 2015 changed the game. The Russians saved Syrian President Bashar Assad from a near-certain ouster, and they even returned to him broad swathes of the country. But the Russians did not come alone. The platform upon which Moscow based its return to the region was an Iranian-Shiite one. And indeed, Russian involvement in Syria is based on Iranian and Shiite fighters, who complete the work of Russian aircraft and fight Moscow's war on the ground.
But the Iranians are not joining in for the sake of altruism, nor strictly for their love of Assad or Putin. They also do not intend to be used as pawns on Putin's chess board. This past August, a senior official in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard revealed that Tehran is working toward the establishment of a "Shiite liberation army," using Shiite volunteers from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, along with, of course, Hezbollah fighters. This army, he explained, includes units separated by ethnicity: an Afghan unit, a Pakistani unit and an Iraqi unit, alongside the Lebanese Hezbollah. This army is deployed along the battle fronts where Iran is fighting, from Yemen, to Iraq, to Syria. It helped save Assad's regime and push Islamic State out of Baghdad, but it's ultimate goal, the Iranian official explained, is to destroy the State of Israel, the fight against which is Iran's lifeblood.
There were those who saw in this declaration and in other similar ones heard from Tehran nothing more than the baseless boasting we are used to hearing from Iranian spokespeople from time to time. But just this week, Western media reported about Iran's intentions to advance plans for a land passage from Tehran to the Mediterranean coast. This plan, includes the management of two critical campaigns: One in the Syrian city of Aleppo, which the Iranians and the Russians have been crushing in recent weeks. And in addition to this, a campaign to conquer the Iraqi city of Mosul from Islamic State and to ensure reinforced Shiite control in Iraq as well as Iraq's connection to Syria.
Iran's path to the Shiite land passage from Tehran to Beirut is still a long one, but under the auspices of the Russian-American quarrel, and with Moscow's quiet blessing, Iran is advancing its interests in the region. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's remarks that Assad and the Russians are fighting Islamic State and serving the American interest may be indicative of new winds blowing in the West, of an inclination to see Iran as a partner and its presence in Syria and Iraq as a stabilizing force. This would certainly be an unpleasant scenario for Israel.
Prof. Eyal Zisser
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