In early August, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) arrested Abu Ahmad Jumaa, the leader of Liwa Fajr al-Islam (Islamic Dawn Brigade), which had been loyal to al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat an-Nusra but which had then-recently defected to the Islamic State (I.S.). In response, Nusra and I.S. fighters poured across the border into Arsal, Lebanon, where Jumaa was being held, and after five days of clashes the Salafi jihadists withdrew, taking with them thirty Lebanese security personnel. Five of the thirty are now dead: one from his injuries, the other four murdered—at least two of them beheaded.
It is worth noting that, despite media misrepresentations of reconciliation between I.S. and Nusra, no such thing has happened, and will not. The co-operation in Qalamoun is a strictly local phenomena, much as Nusra beginning to impose harsh shari’a in Idlib is unique to that branch of the organisation. Qalamoun is geographically isolated from the leaderships of these organisations and from their means of influence—mostly weapons and money—so the co-operation against the regime and the Hizballah is tactical not ideological or strategic.
Now enter the story from yesterday: the Islamic State is threatening to murder another Lebanese captive if Beirut does not release Ola Mithqal al-Oqaily, the wife of I.S. commander Abu Ali a-Shishani (real name: Anas Sharkas), who was arrested on Dec. 3, and Saja al-Dulaimi, the ex-wife of I.S.’s “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was revealed to the world in July and who was arrested by the LAF on Dec. 2. The women are being held on no charges, save possibly for Ms. Dulaimi travelling on a false passport, which hardly seems to warrant nearly a month’s detention at the Lebanese Defence Ministry. The reason for these detentions was stated flatly in the Daily Star (Lebanon): “The women’s arrest seemed to be an attempt by the government to obtain leverage in the ongoing negotiations over the release of servicemen held by” Nusra and I.S.
This seems a risky strategy from the LAF, and it is from the point-of-view of a Lebanese government trying to get back its citizens from takfiri lunatics. But what is actually happening is Iran trying to secure American support for another zone of its Imperium—and Bashar al-Assad trying to shoe-horn himself into the international Coalition against the Islamic State, securing legitimacy and help to put down the insurgency along the way.
These escalating threats from the I.S. are getting the attention, and they were meant to; this is a classic case of provocation from Iran. Iran wants to draw the LAF into a direct confrontation with the Islamic State and Jabhat an-Nusra (and the Syrian rebellion too if it can) because then the LAF becomes a part of the Coalition—and the LAF is under the functional control of the Hizballah, which is to say Iran. The I.S. is thus doing its enemy’s work for it: it is escalating to the point that the LAF might start to genuinely fight against the I.S., and the West will back the LAF down the line, at which point the U.S. has been drawn in to underwriting another Iranian appendage in the region against the I.S. and—since the I.S. is being deliberately presented as, and made into by Assad and Iran, the main element of the insurgency—the entire Syrian rebellion.
Since the LAF is not capable of waging a war against the I.S., it would have to work even more openly with the Hizballah: a replication of the state of affairs in Iraq, where Iran’s Shi’ite militias fight openly alongside the national army, and Syria where the Khomeini’ist jihadists have been flooded in to prop up the regime militias that Iran also controls under the banner of the National Defence Forces (NDF)—and which are in both cases supported by American air power. The Hizballah has already received intelligence from the United States regarding Salafi jihadists who wish it ill; this would move toward formalising the relationship.
The Assad tyranny’s attempt to capitalise on the LAF’s ambiguous status of being both in the Iranian and Western/Arab column was revealed by Jamil al-Sayyid about two weeks ago. Sayyid was from 1998 until 2005, when the Syrian occupation forces were expelled from Lebanon, the head of the General Security Directorate, Lebanon’s intelligence apparatus. Sayyid said that Assad had proposed to allow safe passage for the I.S. and Nusra from Arsal into Syria, at Qalamoun, in order to complete a deal to secure the release of the Lebanese captives. Assad had suggested that this movement be carried out with “safe corridors” under the supervision of the United Nations and military air cover from the United States and Saudi Arabia. In other words, as Tony Badran put it, Assad is trying to “get into the room with the Americans through … the LAF’s window.”
The evidence that the Obama administration is engaged in an attempted détente with Iran is now overwhelming. Apart from the disastrous nuclear negotiations, in which the U.S. has made concession after concession for exactly nothing, there is now open co-operation between the U.S. and Iran on the ground in the region under the cover of the war against the Islamic State. Obama has given Syria to Iran as a sphere of influence, and drawn an (actual) red line at anything that would constitute an “act of war” against a regime it is his formal policy to overthrow. In Iraq, while Obama “never considered it a requirement” to keep troops after 2011 since “[i]f … Iraq descends into civil war again, we’ll just blame George W. Bush,” there are now U.S. troops back in Iraq and the effort is to set up a U.S.-Iranian condominium. But the U.S. is being outpointed. Iran is consolidating control in Iraq: “Iranian backed militias now make up half or more of Baghdad’s forces”. Worse, the U.S. forces are effectively hostages: the U.S. fears doing anything to irk Iran, like attacking Assad or curbing the power of the Shi’a militias in Iraq, lest Iran resume—through terrorist groups like Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hizballah, which are now receiving U.S. air cover—attacks on U.S. troops.
The temptation to see Iran as a partner against I.S., despite Assad/Iran’s role in building I.S. up, is understandable, but Iran cannot defeat the takfiris, even if it wanted to—and it does not (instability makes the regimes in Syria and Iraq very pliable to Iran.) Stability in the Fertile Crescent requires moderate Sunnis to break with the Islamic State; that is not possible when the alternative is Iran. Iran’s proxies behave as savagely as the Islamic State, and are just as fanatical, believing that Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force which exports Iran’s Islamic revolution, has shown them that “death is the beginning of life, not the end“. No Sunni will place themselves under a regime of this kind—not least because it was the experience of these regimes in Syria and Iraq that triggered the mayhem in the first place. As Iran’s domination grows, so does the chaos and fanaticism. Given Lebanon’s history, she could really do without being added to the list of countries Iran is given stewardship of.