War across the borders – one sectarian war in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon

 A version of this article appeared in the February 2014 issue of Tower magazine:

A single sectarian war is currently under way across the Middle East.  This war has a number of fronts, some more intense and active than others.  Is most intensive arena is the single land area taking in the current states of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.  But this conflict is also manifest further afield – in Bahrain, in north Yemen, to some degree also in Kuwait and eastern Saudi Arabia. 


The core powers on each of the sides are the Islamic Republic of Iran for the Shia, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the Sunnis. 


Allied with Iran are the Assad regime in Syria, Hizballah in Lebanon, the Maliki government and assorted Shia militias in Iraq, the Houthi rebels in north Yemen, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. In the Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Iranian regime possesses a cadre with both experience and expertise in building proxy organizations and engaging in political and paramilitary warfare. 


Allied with Saudi Arabia are various iterations of the Syrian rebels, the March 14 movement in Lebanon, the military regime in Egypt, the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain, Jordan, and, sometimes Turkey. 


The Saudis possess no parallel instrument to the IRGC.  They also have complex and problematic relations with the extreme Sunni jihadis of al-Qaeda who are taking a prominent role in the fighting in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. 


So how did this situation come about?  What is the evidence to support the claim of clear linkage between the various components of the two sides?  Why has this conflict manifested itself in such an extreme form in certain countries, such as Syria and Iraq where arguably it is leading to the break up of these states, while it exists only in much more controlled or latent form elsewhere, such as in Bahrain or Kuwait? 


In what follows, I will seek to address these questions, focusing mainly on the area of most intense engagement – namely, the  land area covering Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.


This war emerged as a result of the confluence of a number of circumstances.


Firstly, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are home to a host of differing sectarian and ethnic communities.  The issue of stark fissures in these societies was never resolved.  Rather, for most of the last half-century, in Syria and Iraq, the reality of ethnic and sectarian diversity was held in place by the existence of brutal dictatorships.


Both the regime of the Assads in Syria and that of Saddam Hussein in Iraq were family dictatorships, which rested on the co-optation or support of minority ethno-sectarian communities for their survival (the Alawis in Syria’s case, the Sunni Arabs in Iraq’s), while claiming to rule in the name of  a Pan-Arab nationalism.


In the name of this ideology, the dictatorships in Syria and Iraq ruthlessly suppressed all signs of ethnic or sectarian separatism.  Kurdish nationalism in both countries, Shia Islamism in Iraq, the Sunni variant in Syria were the main manifestations. All were treated without mercy.    


Lebanon, by contrast, a far weaker state, was ruled by a system of consociationalism which collapsed into sectarian civil war in 1975.  The issues underlying this war were never resolved.  Rather,  the entry of the Syrian army to Lebanon in 1990 placed a similarly firm lid on the basic issues of state and national identity and loyalty, without resolving them. 


In the course of the last decade, the ironclad structures of dictatorship that  kept the ethnic and sectarian faultlines and tensions in these states from erupting have been weakened or have disappeared.  The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 destroyed the regime of Saddam Hussein.  A sectarian Shia government, resting on the support of the Shia Arab majority in Iraq and the conditional acceptance of the Kurds, emerged to take its place.  The civil war in Syria has severely curtailed the power of the Assad regime, which now rules over only about 40% of the territory of Syria.  Enclaves representing the Sunni Arab majority and the Kurdish minority have emerged in what remains. 


Western hopes that a non-sectarian identity would take hold in the areas formerly ruled by Saddam and Assad have proved persistent but illusory.  Remarks by then National Security Advisor Condolleeza Rice about Iraq in 2004 perfectly sum up these hopes and the tendency to self-delusion that tends to accompany them.  Rice said:


‘What has been impressive to me so far is that Iraqis – whether Kurds or Shia or Sunni or the many other ethnic groups in Iraq – have demonstrated that they really want to live as one in a unified Iraq.’  She went on; ‘I think particularly the Kurds have shown a propensity to want to bridge differences that were historic differences in many ways that were fuelled by Saddam Hussein and his regime.’  And later ‘what I have found interesting and I think important is the degree to which the leaders of the Shia and Kurdish and Sunni communities have continually expressed their desires to live in a unified Iraq.’    


This faith has persisted with the Obama Administration, despite the complete absence of any basis for it. 


The Administration’s support for the Maliki government in Iraq is a result of this belief.  The US relates to Maliki’s opposition to Sunni insurgents in western Anbar as to the opposition of an elected government to extremist rebels.  This view fails, of course, to take into account the sectarian nature of Maliki’s own rule, and the discriminatory policies he has pursued against the Sunnis of western Iraq. 


There are no automatic ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys in this story.  But the reality of the collapse of brutally imposed central authority in Iraq and Syria has been the entirely predictable re-emergence of a politics following ethnic and sectarian faultlines.  In turn, the re-emergence of sectarian conflict in Syria is having a spillover effect into Lebanon. 


The initial spillover, of course, was in the opposite direction.  The decision of the Hizballah organization to intervene on behalf of the Assad regime was the first move in drawing Lebanon into the conflict.  This led inexorably to a response by elements among the Sunni rebels against Hizballah targets within Lebanon and a current escalation which has brought Lebanon to the brink of civil war between Sunnis and Shias. 


Supporters of the Sunni rebels in Syria have three times succeeded in penetrating Hizballah’s Dahiyeh compound in south Beirut and attacking it  – on July 9th, August 15th, 2013 and January 2nd, 2014.  The January bombing was carried out by a young Lebanese member of ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), named Qutaiba Muhammad al-Satem.  ISIS is an Iraqi/Syrian franchise of al-Qaeda. 


Understanding the Hizballah decision to intervene on behalf of the Assad regime in Syria and the subsequent Sunni reaction requires a broadening of the lens.  The sectarian war reaches its most intense point in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon because of the riven nature of those societies and the unresolved questions of national identity in them.  However, broader regional power rivalries, also of a partially sectarian nature, are a driving force behind the conflict.


Hizballah’s decision to intervene in Syria came not as a result of automatic sentiments of solidarity.  Hizballah forms part of a regional alliance headed by Iran.  The Assad regime in Syria is also a member of this alliance.  Hence, when Assad found himself in trouble, Hizbalah was mobilized to assist him.  On the opposing side, the Syrian rebels have benefitted from the support and patronage of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 


The sectarian conflicts in the fertile crescent, though they have discernible local origin, are hence fueled and exacerbated by the influence of this broader, region wide sectarian competition between two states – Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. 


The rivalry between the Saudis and the Mullahs in Iran is of long standing.  It is related not only or mainly to theological differences.  Rather, it is about power.  Iran is controlled by a revolutionary regime whose strategic intention is to emerge as the hegemonic force in the region. 


The Iranians certainly regard the Saudi monarchy as an enemy, and as an unfit custodian of the most holy sites of Islam.  But the Iranians’ main intention is to supplant the US as the guarantor of Gulf energy security.  Teheran well understands that it is in the Gulf that true strategic power in the region is located.  Hence, the Iranians seek to tempt or coerce the Gulf monarchies away from the protection of the US and toward alliance with Teheran. 


Riyadh has emerged as the principle obstacle or opponent to the success of Iranian regional ambitions principally because the former guarantor of the current regional order, the United States, has chosen to leave the field of engagement. 


Up until 2011, the Middle East appeared to be locked into a kind of cold war system, in which the Iranians and their allies and proxies sought to supplant a US dominated regional order in which Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel formed the lynchpins. But the events of the last half decade combine to create the impression that the US no longer wishes to play this role. 


The US signally failed to back its ally, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, when he faced domestic unrest in early 2011. It failed to support the rebels against the Iran-backed Assad regime in Syria, when it too faced insurgency.  It failed to support pro-US Bahrain against an Iran-supported uprising in the same year.  And the US now appears to be seeking a general rapprochement with the Iranians.   As a result of all this, Saudi Arabia has begun to take a far more pro-active role in the region. 


Riyadh helped to finance the military coup in Egypt that ended Muslim Brotherhood rule. 


The Saudis also began to take a leading role in supporting the Syrian rebels. Riyadh has well-documented relations with the March 14 movement in Lebanon.  In December 2013 the Saudis pledged a donation of $3 billion to the Lebanese Armed Forces.  Riyadh supports anti-Maliki elements in Iraq.  Riyadh is also seeking to draw other Gulf countries closer into an alliance against Iran (with partial success.) 


The result of all this is that a full-fledged cold war in the region is now under way, pitting Saudi Arabia against Iran. The most intense fronts of this war are in the area of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.  As described above, the heterogenous nature of these states in terms of sect and ethnicity, and the weakening or collapse of former authoritarian regimes combined with the active support of Iran and Saudi Arabia for the opposing sides produce the current reality of cross-border sectarian war. 


So what is the evidence for the links between the combatant sides in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon?


On the Iranian/Shia side:   The Iranians no longer make any serious attempt to deny the immense assistance they have afforded the Assad regime in Syria. Indeed, what has taken place is a mobilization by the Iranians of all available regional assets in order to keep the Syrian dictator in place. 


Commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Qods Force Qassem Suleimani has himself spent time in Syria coordinating the efforts.  The Iranians in mid-2012 began the training of an alternative light infantry force for Assad, called the National Defense Force (NDF).  This force, now numbering around 50,000 men, was necessary because Assd was unable to use much of his own army, which consisted of Sunni conscripts of unclear loyalty. 


In April, 2013, Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah was called to Iran and instructed to deploy his own fighters as necessary in Syria in order to preserve the regime.  Up to 10000 Hizballah fighters are engaged in Syria at any given time. They played a crucial role in the regime’s re-taking of the town of Qusayr in western Syria in August, 2013.


This victory was presented by regime propagandists as a turning point in the war, though subsequent regime gains have been very limited.  Hizballah fighters are also taking a prominent role in the battle for the Qalamun area near the Lebanese border and in fighting around Damascus. 


Iranian financial donations have been vital in keeping the regime alive.  Iran announced in January 2013 a ‘credit facility’ agreement with Syria which gave Assad a $1 billion line of credit.  Later in the year, an additional credit line of $3.6 billion was announced.  One estimate by an Arab official quoted in a recent article on this subject had Iran spending $600-700,000 per month on supporting Assad. 


IRGC fighters have themselves taken part in fighting in Syria, as has emerged from footage taken by an Iranian cameraman who was later killed by the rebels, by the testimony of defected Syrian officers, and by the capture of a number of IRGC men in August 2012, who were later freed in a prisoner exchange.   


Iraq has played a vital role in allowing its territory and its airspace to be used for transporting weaponry from Iran to Assad’s forces.  This at first glance appears strange.  Relations prior to the Syrian war were not good, with Maliki openly accusing Assad of support for Sunni insurgents in Iraq.  But this situation has now changed.  Maliki openly supported Assad from the outset.  This reflects the Iraqi leader’s increasing closeness to Iran, which played a vital role in ensuring his emerging as prime minister after the elections of 2010.  Iran at that time exerted pressure on Assad to support Maliki’s push for a second term as prime minister. This marked the beginning of improved relations. 


In addition to Iraqi government support, Iraqi Shia militias are engaged on the ground in Syria.  The Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigades, Ktaeb Hizballah and the Ahl al-Haq group all have fighters in Syria, and are playing an important role, given that Assad’s key weakness throughout has been the lack of sufficient loyal fighters. 


The eruption of violence in western Anbar province in Iraq further cements the common interest of Assad and Maliki.  The violence is a direct result of the advances made by Sunni jihadis in Syria.  Similarly, the violence in Lebanon – in Tripoli, Sidon, the Syrian border area and now also in Beirut itself – serves to tighten the alliance between Assad and Hizballah. 


Thus, in the violence now taking place from western Iraq all the way to the Mediterranean, the mainly Shia side is a tightly organized alliance, heavily financed by Iran, and able to act in a coordinated way, pooling resources for the common goal. 


The opposing, Sunni side is a somewhat more chaotic, disjointed affair.  There is no single, dominant network.  Saudi Arabia is the main financier, but the Saudis have no equivalent cadre to the Qods force and the IRGC, who are world leaders in the practice of subversion and irregular warfare. 


Among the most extreme jihadi elements, there is clear coordination across borders.  Thus, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as the name suggests, is active in both countries and controls a contiguous area stretching from western Anbar province in Iraq to eastern Raqqa province in Syria, as well as being active in other parts of Syria.


ISIS regards itself as a franchise of al-Qaeda though it does not take orders directly from the al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan.  In Syria, an additional al-Qaeda group is active – Jabhat al-Nusra.  In Lebanon the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, a third franchise of al-Qaeda, has taken a role in attacks on Hizballah.  Both ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra are active in Lebanon.   


But beyond the most extreme groups, Saudi Arabia backs March 14, the main Sunni opposition party in Lebanon. The Saudis have begun to finance the Lebanese Armed Forces, as noted above. In Syria, the Saudis have managed the establishment of a large alliance of 8 non al-Qaeda Islamist brigades – the Islamic Front. This is emerging as the key rebel grouping, bringing together some of the strongest rebel brigades, such as Ahrar al Sham, Liwa al Islam and Liwa al Tawhid.  The Saudis also dominate the external opposition, with Ahmed Jarba, who has close links to Riyadh, recently re-elected as chairman of the Syrian National Coalition. 


In Iraq, there are no indications that Riyadh is backing the Sunni insurgents in the west. But certainly the broader Sunni community is looking to Saudi Arabia for help. Relations between Riyadh and the Iraqi government are very bad, with the border closed except during the Haj.  There is no Saudi embassy in Baghdad and commercial relations are at a minimum.  Some of the tribes in western Anbar have close links to the Saudis. While the tribes are hostile to al-Qaeda, they are also opposed to the Maliki government, which they regard as a sectarian, Shia regime.  In October, Prince Turki al-Faisal, former head of Saudi intelligence, said that  Iranian meddling was the “cause of the daily killings and suffering that the Iraqi people are enduring.”


The third element to be considered in all this is that of the Kurds.  A flourishing Kurdish autonomous zone exists in Northern Iraq, enjoying most of the elements of de facto sovereignty.  Since July, 2012, an additional autonomous zone has been established in north-east Syria.  The two areas occupy a contiguous land mass.  However, they are not politically united. Rather, each is under the control of a rival pan-Kurdish political movement.  The Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq is controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Party of Massoud Barzani.  The autonomous zone in north east Syria is controlled by the PYD (Democratic Union Party) which is the Syrian franchise of the PKK. 


Each of these movements sees itself as the appropriate leader of the Kurds.  But while there is tension between them, each appears to be securely in control of its respective area.  The Kurds are not the beneficiaries of state support.  Both the Iranians and the Saudis look on Kurdish aspirations with suspicion. But the Kurds have managed to gather sufficient organizational and military strength to ensure the survival of their self-governing areas. 


So two discernible regional sectarian alliances are clashing in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. There are myriad practical links between the various combatant elements. There are many examples of forces from one of the countries operating in another (Hizballah in Syria, Syrian rebels in Lebanon, Iranians in Syria, ISIS in Syria etc). Iran is the leader of one of the alliances.  Saudi Arabia is the main backer of the other.   


A third, Kurdish element, meanwhile, is maintaining its areas of control and trying to stay out of the conflict. 


The result of all this has been to cast into very serious question the continued existence of Syria and Iraq as unified states.  Syria is already split into three areas, each controlled by one of the three elements listed above.  Iraq, too, has split into Kurdish and Arab parts, with Sunnis and Shias in conflict over the Arab part.  Lebanon, arguably, ceased to function as a unified state some time ago.  Hizballah pursues its own interests without reference to the will of other elements. 


The Sunni population of Lebanon lacks a military tradition and has proved helpless in the face of Iran-supported Hizballah.  But the emergence of the Syrian rebels and the growing popularity of Islamist sentiment among the Sunni underclass may be altering this balance.  The recent surge in Sunni violence against Hizballah targets is the result of the attempt by the Syrian jihadis and rebels to bring the war to Lebanon, in concert with their local allies, and in response to Hizballah’s activities in Syria. 


The eclipse of the Arab nationalist dictatorships in Iraq and Syria, the failure to develop a civic national identity in these states, their mixed ethnic and sectarian make up, and the withdrawal of the US from its dominant position in the region, with the resulting dynamic of Saudi-Iranian rivalry as a central element in the region have combined to produce an extraordinary result: namely, a single sectarian war taking place in the areas still officially referred to as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. 

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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