Hassan Nasrallah Saturday, May 23, called his Lebanese Shiite Hizballah movement to the flag, because “we are faced with an existential crisis” from the rising belligerence of the Islamist State of Iraq and the Levant. His deputy, Sheik Naim Qssem, sounded even more desperate: “The Middle East is at the risk of partition” in a war with no end in sight, he said. “Solutions for Syria are suspended. We must now see what happens in Iraq.”
The price Iran’s Lebanese proxy has paid for fighting alongside Bashar Assad’s army for four years is cruel: some 1,000 dead and many times that number of wounded. Its leaders now understood that their sacrifice was in vain. ISIS has brought the Syrian civil war to a new dead end.
This week, a 15-year old boy was eulogized by Hizballah’s leaders for performing his “jihadist duty” in Syria.
Clearly,for their last throw in Syria, the group, having run out of adult combatants, is calling up young boys to reinforce the 7,000 fighting there.
The Syrian president Bashar Assad is in no better shape. He too has run dangerously short of fresh fighting manpower. Even his own Alawite community has let him down. Scarcely one-tenth of the 1.8 million Alawites have remained in Syria. Their birthrate is low, and those who stayed behind are hiding their young sons to keep them from being sent to the front lines.
Assad also failed to enlist the Syrian Druze minority to fight for his regime, just as Hizballah’s Nasrallah was rebuffed when he sought to mobilize the Lebanese army to their cause. This has left Hizballah and the Syrian ruler alone in the battlefield with dwindling strength against two rival foes: ISIS and the radical Syrian opposition coalition calling itself Jaish al-Fatah – the Army of Conquest – which is spearheaded by Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front and backed to topple Assad by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.
Nasrallah tried to paint a brave picture of full mobilization to expand the war to all parts of Syria. However, Sunday, May 24, a key adviser to Assad admitted that his regime and its allies were being forced to regroup.
Their forces were withdrawing from the effort to shift the Islamists from the land they have conquered – about three-quarters of Syrian territory – and concentrating on defending the cities, Damascus, Homs and Latakia, home to the bulk of the population, as well as the strategic Damascus highway to the coast and Beirut. Hizballah needed to build up the Lebanese border againest hostile access.
But Syrian cities, the Lebanese border and the highway are still under threat – from Syrian rebel forces.
The Iraqi army, for its part, has been virtually wiped out, along with the many billions of dollars the US spent on training and weapons. There is no longer any military force in Iraq, whether Sunni or Shiite, able to take on ISIS and loosen its grip on the central and western regions.
The Kurdish peshmerga army, to whom President Barack refused to provide armaments for combating the Islamists, has run out of steam. An new offensive would expose the two main towns of the semi-autonomous Kurdish Republic – the capital Irbil and the oil city of Kirkuk – to the depredations of the Islamist belligerents.
A quick scan of Shiite resources reveals that in the space between the Jordan River and the Euphrates and Tigris, Iran commands the only force still intact in Iraq – namely, the Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani Shiite militias, who are trained and armed by the Revolutionary Guards.
This last remaining fighting force faces its acid test in the battle ongoing to recover Baiji, Iraq’s main oil refinery town. For the first time, Iranian troops are fighting in Iraq, not just their surrogates, but in the Baiji campaign they have made little headway in three weeks of combat. All they have managed to do is break through to the 100 Iraqi troops stranded in the town, but ISIS fighting strength is still not dislodged from the refinery.
The Obama administration can no longer pretend that the pro-Iranian Shiite militias are the panacea for the ISIS peril. Like Assad, Tehran too is being forced to regroup. It is abandoning the effort to uproot the Islamists from central and western Iraq and mustering all its Shiite military assets, such as the Badr Brigade, to defend the Shiite south – the shrine towns of Najef and Karbala, Babil (ancient Babylon) and Qadisiya – as well as planting an obstacle in the path of the Islamists to Iraq’s biggest oil fields and only port of Basra.
The Shiite militias flown in by Tehran from Pakistan and Afghanistan have demonstrated in Syria and Iraq alike that they are neither capable nor willing to jump into any battlefields.
The upshot of this cursory scan is that not a single competent army capable of launching all-out war on ISIS is to be found in the Middle East heartland – in the space between the 1,000km long Jordan and the Euphrates and Tigris to the east, or between Ramadi and the Saudi capital of Riyadh to the south.
By Sunday, May 24, this perception had seeped through to the West. US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, remarked: “What apparently happened was that the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight.” The former British army chief Lord Dannatt was more down to earth. Since the coalition air force campaign had failed to stop ISIS’s advance, he said “it was time to think the previously unthinkable” and send 5,000 ground troops to fight the Islamists in Syria and Iraq.
The next day, Monday, Tehran pointed the finger of blame for the latest debacles in Iraq at Washington. Al Qods Brigades chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani was quoted by the English language Revolutionary Guards mouthpiece Javan as commenting: “The US didn’t do a damn thing to stop the extremists’ advance on Ramadi.”