The Middle East is sinking into one of its most dreaded scenarios – a spiraling military confrontation between radical Shiite and Sunni Muslim armies. The clash between religious forces has burst out in three arenas of unresolved conflicts – Syria, Yemen and Iraq, with Tehran taking a more direct and open hand than ever before in stirring the fire. The clash threatens to spill over into more arenas, while increasingly assuming the traits of a religious war.
SYRIA: A Shiite belt to gird Damascus and point at Golan
In Tehran, “military sources” reported Sunday, March 1, that “the Syrian army has made more gains in the fight against the foreign-backed Takfiri group in the southern part of the Middle Easter country.”
In Iran’s view therefore, the Sunni militias fighting in southern Syria in defense of Quneitra and Deraa, including Nusra Front members, are no better than “Takfiri” (heretics).
Those Iranian sources went on to note: “The fight in the southern area is of utmost significance as the villages and little towns there connect the strategic provinces of Quneitra and Deraa as well as the Governorate of the Countryside of Damascus.”
In recent DEBKA Weekly issues, we reported that Tehran had given the campaign for the capture of southern Syria top priority over other arenas, to the point of running an air lift in the past three weeks of military equipment especially tailored for combat in this locale, such as short-range artillery and T-72 tanks. It has also pumped in thousands of Afghan and Pakistani Shiite militiamen, who were flown in to relieve the Iraqi militiamen that were shipped home to take part in the Iranian-Iraqi offensive to recover Tirkit.
An additional 2,000 Hizballah fighters are engaged on this front, which is fully under the command of Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers.
Defeating Syrian Sunni “heretics” and confronting Israeli “infidels”
For Tehran, this campaign, if it can be pulled off, will be greatest triumph of its involvement in the Syrian conflict and offer three big bonuses:
1. Cleansing the south of Sunni rebel forces would wrap Damascus round with a Shiite girdle stretching from the Qalamoun mountain range on the Syrian-Lebanese border in the west to Mt Hermon in the southeast. Iran would gain a land bridge from Syria to South Lebanon, on which Damascus and the Assad regime would be dependent.
2. Tehran’s South Syria campaign aims at more than defeating Sunni “Takfir groups.” Iranian Revolutionary Guards troops if positioned on the Syrian Golan would confront Israeli “infidel” soldiers at close quarters for the first time. They could hope to realize the vision traditionally represented on Iranian, Syrian and Hizballah maps, which mark the Golan and northern Israel as “southern Syria.”
3. This campaign in a tightly compressed border region would bring Shiite forces right up to the Syrian border with Sunni Jordan as well, and their closest point of eventual access from the north to Sunni Saud Arabia.
Tehran would meanwhile be in a position to bring pressure to bear on the United States to pull its 12,000 American troops out of its bases in Jordan. Most belong to the 101st Airborne “Screaming Eagles” Division and the 82nd Airborne Division
Iran has consistently aspired ever since its 1979 Shiite revolution to evict every last American soldier from soil of the Middle East, not just Afghanistan.
IRAQ: Tikrit – Iran muscle-flexing message to Sunni rulers
The Tikrit campaign launched Sunday, March 1 is the largest military operation ever conducted in Iraq against the Islamic State, ISIS. It is also the biggest battleground on which Iranian Revolutionary Guards have fought openly since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.
The Islamic State seized Tikrit, which lies 150 km north of Baghdad in the Sunni province of Salahuddin, last June, with the help of Sunni allies still loyal to the late Saddam Hussein’s banned Baath party, who had since dedicated themselves to fighting the pro-Shiite Iraqi government.
For the first time, Iranians have publicly admitted their active involvement in the Tikrit operation. Breaking with a decade of clandestine comings and goings and surreptitious subversion, Al Qods Brigades chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani has invited photographers to record and propagate his visits to the front lines.
The involvement of Guards and Al Qods forces in the Tikrit campaign is now freely reported in Western media.
DEBKA Weekly’s Iranian sources explain Tehran’s uncharacteristic openness about its combat role in this campaign by its urge to flaunt the Shiite leadership role in the region’s wars and parade the solid backing it enjoys from the Obama administration.
This spectacle is intended to warn the Saudis and Gulf emirates to take heed and take account of Iran’s fighting role when charting their regional policies.
YEMEN: Saudis line up for direct clash with Iran
Tehran made a big play of the first flight to land in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa Sunday March 1, the day after Iran and the Yemeni coup leaders signed a landmark aviation deal. Tehran reported that an Iranian Mahan Air flight had carried a cargo of humanitarian aid to Yemen for distribution by the Iranian Red Crescent.
In this instance, too, Iran was making a graphic point for the Saudis to the north, showing them that Tehran was now the boss of the Yemeni capital after sponsoring the successful Zaydi-Shiite Houthi coup last month. If Saudi Arabia continued to arm the Houthis’ enemies, Iran would have no qualms about airlifting arms and Shiite fighters to Yemen, as it did to Iraq and Syria.
Shiite Iran was laying down a military challenge for Sunni Saudi Arabia at the southern tip of Arabia.
The following day, ousted Yemeni president Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, whom Saudi intelligence last month smuggled out of Sanaa to the southern port town of Aden, proposed resuming UN-sponsored peace talks with the Shiite rulers at Gulf Cooperation Headquarters in Riyadh. He suggested this venue as an alternative to the southern Yemeni towns of Aden or Taiz, in a message he sent out from a meeting he attended with tribal leaders from the southern Abyan province.
Hadi also advised foreign embassies to relocate from Sanaa to Aden, as some GCC members and European governments have already done.
Saudis and Iranians get set for major religious war in Arabia
Monday, March 2, the US Ambassador to Yemen Matthew Tueller met the deposed President Hadi in Aden to demonstrate continuing US support. Tueller was the first Western diplomat to visit Hadi since his flight from Sanaa last week
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources, which cover events in Yemen, report that Saudi Arabia, reluctant to rely on Hadi, is investing substantial intelligence and financial assets in the anti-Houthi insurgent groups of the Southern Yemen Movement – aka the Southern Mobility Movement – to mobilize them for an operation to stabilize northern Yemen on the Saudi kingdom’s doorstep, and keep it safe from takeover by pro-Iranian stooges.
This insurgent movement has had a long association with Saudi intelligence. If Riyadh’s plan takes off, Saudi Arabia and Iran will have set the goalposts for a major Sunni-Shiite religious war in Arabia.