By Anthony Tucker-Jones 

West Asia’s a perfect storm

October 10, 2020 - 22:26

Who could have predicted that Saddam Hussein’s attack on Iran back in 1980 would create a perfect storm that was to last for almost four decades? 

The militarisation of West Asia as a consequence of the Cold War could ultimately only have one outcome. After eight years of bitter conflict, Saddam thwarted in his ambition to conquer southern Iran occupied neighboring oil-rich Kuwait instead. Fatefully Washington’s decision to defend Saudi Arabia from attack put America on a fatal collision course with al-Qaeda, which culminated in 9/11.

Ironically America’s quest to kill or capture Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan was derailed by unfinished business with Iraq. Deposing Saddam Hussein in 2003 will undoubtedly come to be seen as one of the greatest political and military blunders of this century. Al-Qaeda flooded into Iraq to fight American and other Coalition forces igniting a brutal insurgency war that fractured Iraq on sectarian lines. Although Iraq was eventually stabilized, the price of democracy was that the Iraqi Shia majority took power from the Sunni minority. The backlash to this was the rise of Sunni Daesh or Islamic State from the ashes of al-Qaeda. Daesh swiftly filled a power vacuum left in Iraq and Syria that led to the emergence of the Islamic State caliphate in 2014.

Crucially with the Syria civil war, there was never the appetite for full-scale international intervention as there had been in Iraq. Behind the scenes, though America, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and to a lesser extent Britain armed and trained the anti-government factions. Russia in contrast very publicly backed President Assad from the start. Iran with its longstanding interests in Lebanon also chose to back the Syrian government. The insurgency was soon dominated by Daesh affiliates.

Moscow from the outbreak of the Syrian conflict honored its existing weapons contracts in order to help prop up Assad’s military. Four years later that support turned into direct intervention. This included the deployment of a Russian aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean. Thanks to its muscle-flexing, Moscow re-established itself as a military power in West Asia for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Likewise, Iran moved to support the Syrian government against what it saw as a largely Saudi backed insurgency. As well as supporting allied militias, Iran deployed units from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to aid Syrian government operations. It also provided training and intelligence support to the Syrian armed forces. In the meantime, Daesh discovered that it is was easier to conquer territory than to administer it.  Under attack from all directions, the so-called Islamic State caliphate slowly collapsed thanks to its own ineptitude. Tragically the legacy of the caliphate was one of barbarism. It oversaw the breakdown of the rule of law, human rights abuses, and the destruction of priceless works of art.

The turning point in the war against Daesh came in 2016. By that stage, the Iraqi armed forces had recovered from their collapse two years earlier. They successfully wrestled control of the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah from Daesh. A ceasefire between the Syrian government and the moderate Free Syrian Army notably did not include the pro-Daesh groups. Thanks to intensive Russian airstrikes against Syrian opposition forces and support on the ground by Hezbollah, the Syrian Army was able to push toward both the Turkish and Jordanian borders. Crucially help from Russia and Hezbollah helped Assad retake Aleppo. To complicate matters on Syria’s northern border Turkey also pursued its own security agenda and continues to do so. 

The following year over 100,000 Iraqi and Kurdish troops freed Mosul from Daesh control. At the same time, the Syrian army drove it from Raqqa, the caliphate capital since 2014. This was the last major Syrian city under Daesh’s control. Shortly Iranian President Hassan Rouhani declared victory over Daesh in Iraq and Syria. Despite its defeat on the battlefield, Daesh avoided total destruction just as al-Qaeda did before it. Furthermore, key players all continued to pursue different regional agendas that do little to alleviate regional tensions.

Where does that leave the war-torn region? Both Afghanistan and Iraq’s unity as always remains brittle. While Saudi Arabia struggles with its international image, it continues to be vilified for its role in the Yemeni Civil War. West Asia is unlikely to find peace until such time as the sectarian rivalry ends. Meanwhile, although Daesh has been scattered, historic mistrust coupled to hatred in some quarters for Western foreign policy makes the region a fertile recruiting ground for the disenfranchised and the disenchanted. 

Anthony Tucker-Jones, a former intelligence officer, is an author, commentator, and writer who specializes in military history, with well over 50 books to his name. His work has also been published in an array of magazines and online. He regularly appears on television and radio commenting on current and historical military matters.


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