The Shiite Crescent and Regional Disaster
For decades, the concept of a “Shiite Crescent” anchored by the radical Shiite supremacists in Iran and passing through Iraq, Syria, and Hezb'allah to the Mediterranean Sea has been understood. It would provide Iran not only with closer access to Israel, but also spread across the northern borders of two key Sunni adversaries -- pro-American Jordan, and its most important enemy, Saudi Arabia, guardian of Mecca and Medina. It would further split off Sunni Turkey (a historic foe) from the other Sunni Middle East states.
The Crescent is, for Iran, a single battlefront and the Islamic Republic has spent decades successfully undermining and wrecking each subsidiary member.
Iraq is hardly a functional country. But as a staging ground for Iranian militias and weapons depots headed west, Iraq is a prize. Syria is largely a dead zone. But as a launching pad for Iranian military bases and attacks on Israel, Syria is a bonanza. Lebanon is a corrupt satrap of Syria and Iran, governed by a terror organization with a foreign legion and an international money/drug/weapons racket. But its very weakness and its border with Israel make Lebanon invaluable.
Each member of this “gang of four” maintains a state of war with Israel and threatens it on a regular basis. Israel’s attacks on weapons centers Lebanon, Syria and Iraq are not an escalation of a fragile situation -- they are a defensive response to a high-tech military buildup orchestrated by Iran across the region.
Israel has the support of the United States for its defensive actions. But until now, U.S. foreign and defense policy have actually made things worse for Israel and others in the region by empowering Iran – and even now, when the administration is aware of its malign nature, and has reimposed economic sanctions on Tehran, it needs a strategy against Iranian gains on the ground.
Concern for Iranian expansion was the reason the United States supported the tyrant Saddam Hussein in the war he instigated against Iran in the 1980s. The 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, however, was a step too far for America. The tide began to turn on Saddam and on the concept of a bulwark against Iranian expansion.
The year 2011 was key. The “Arab Spring” undermined and overthrew -- with American support -- the anti-jihadist, anti-Muslim-Brotherhood Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, ushering in a year of Brotherhood rule that saw jihadists released from prison and weapons imported across Sinai from Iran. The Egyptian military has spent years -- with some assistance from Israel -- trying to restore calm to the area.
The anti-jihadist Moammar Qadaffi in Libya was next on the Obama list. Today, the country remains in turmoil with “militias” of every stripe fighting for territory and oil.
Whatever the merits of the U.S. entering Iraq in 2003, leaving in 2011 was an unmitigated disaster for Iraqis and everyone else. ISIS, followed by Iranian-commanded Shiite militias, ravaged the country, killing and enslaving Yazidis and Kurds, and erasing the border with Syria. With the (temporary?) territorial demise of ISIS, the Iranian militias stayed behind to wreak their own form of havoc in the western, Sunni area of Iraq and bulldoze a path for Iranian weapons into Syria for better access to Israel.
American policy on Syria during the Obama administration, included pinkish lines against the use of chemical weapons instead of clear red ones, and on-again-off-again threats of military action. As Syria crumbled and Iran built and commanded militias in support of Assad, the administration poured arms and political support into what it called “secular, anti-Assad militias,” in the hopes of avoiding the deployment of American troops. “Our” militias, however, had their own ideas about their enemies and their friends -- and it isn’t altogether wrong to say that the U.S. ended up supporting ISIS and ISIS-related terror groups in Syria one or two steps removed.
It was the Trump administration that forced the definition of friends and enemies and actually wrested ISIS from its primary territorial base. But in a region bereft of stable government, it will appear again in some form.
Israel has regional red lines, which have been discussed with both the United States and Russia. These include ensuring that neither Iran nor Hezb’allah has military bases in southern Syria near the Israeli border; ensuring no use of chemical weapons; not permitting Iran to build weapons factories -- particularly nuclear-related or precision missile factories in other countries; and not permitting the movement of certain types of munitions across the Crescent.
Israeli action has certainly set back Iran's aspirations. But it will need the continued support of the United States -- and others, including the EU and the Sunni Arab States -- to come to terms with the “gang of four” and the havoc that is not limited to Israel, but has implications far beyond. And it will have to focus on Iran as the lynchpin of regional disaster.