The United States has 50 special operatives in Syria in order to expand, train and assist the Syrian resistance. The program is aimed at supporting moderate, vetted Syrian rebels in their battle against ISIS and the Assad regime. In addition, the U.S. has recently increased its material support for Kurdish fighters battling terrorist organizations ISIS and al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate. All of this is believed to have come in partial response to amplified Russian involvement in Syria, which sent significant military assets into Syria. The BBC estimates that Russia has over 20 fighter jets currently operating in Syria as well as hundreds of troops, tanks. While Russia claims to be battling ISIS, its targets have largely been Syrian opposition forces, suggesting it entered Syria to support Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Yet another regional player makes the battle against terrorism in the Middle East far more complicated: Iran. It is well-known by the United States and other world governments that the Iranian government is actively sponsoring the Lebanese Shia terrorist organization Hezbollah, which is currently battling Syrian rebels in support of Bashar al-Assad. Yet evidence suggests that the government isn’t just supporting the Shia group but others as well, with some suggesting it is supporting both al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Past Iranian State Support of Terrorism
The Iranian government has long been a state sponsor of terrorism. Former U.S. Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell told CFR.org in June 2007 there is “overwhelming evidence” that Iran supports terrorists in Iraq and “compelling” evidence that it does the same in Afghanistan. This happens in two ways: either Iranian military equipment is sent to terrorist groups abroad, or the groups receive direct military support from the elite Iranian al Quds covert military force.
Indeed there is ample evidence from the U.S. State Department’s Reports on Terrorism, from declassified intelligence reports by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, and military officials that Iran has corroborated or been directly involved in several terrorist attacks targeting U.S. service men and Jewish cultural centers around the world. Additionally, WikiLeaks showed Iran collaborating with the Taliban, Afghan warlords and al-Qaeda (though not all claims have been confirmed, according to the Guardian).
There has long been speculation that Iran helped facilitate the 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks against the United States in 2001. Indeed, the 9/11 Commission found that senior al-Qaeda officials frequently traveled across the Iranian border, including just months before the attack. While al-Qaeda is an extremist Sunni organization – theologically different from the Iranian Shia regime – it shares the Iranian motive of overthrowing the Saudi regime and attacking the United States.
Is Iran Supporting ISIS?
Since the Syrian uprising in 2011, the Iranian regime has been sending weaponry and military personnel to support the Assad regime, a long-time ally of the Shia powerhouse. Before the nuclear deal was reaching this past summer, Iran was spending around $6 billion annually to support the regime, about 1/3 of its previously available $20 billion. Iran has also increased its funding to Hezbollah, which has sent operatives to join the battle in Syria. For Iran, the survival of Assad means the continuation of its influence in the region and its ability to continue funding Hezbollah. This support is only likely to increase with the nuclear deal.
The survival of Assad is inextricably linked to the continuation of ISIS. Indeed the stronger ISIS becomes, the stronger Russia and Iranian arguments grow that the regime is the “lesser of two evils.” This is why Russia is not targeting ISIS but instead moderate Syrian rebels, who pose the real threat to the regime. ISIS helps paint the picture that everyone opposed to the regime is a terrorist, and the regime is the protector of Syrians against terrorist forces. Iran certainly supports this narrative.
Further, Iranian operatives in Iraq have committed atrocities against Sunni communities, potentially pushing more Sunni support for ISIS. Business Insider reports that Iranian operatives, after battling ISIS, burned Sunni villages and even refused to let Sunnis return to their homes after ISIS had been pushed out.
And the support for terrorist groups goes beyond tacit support through the Assad regime, but potentially through outright supporting at least al-Qaeda’s battle in Syria. The U.S. Treasury released a report in 2014 stating it had ample evidence Iran allows al-Qaeda operatives to use the country as a base for their war in Syria. This could include military support as well.
If the U.S. really wants to defeat ISIS, it needs to look not just at the group’s military forces but on the support of the Assad regime, on the atrocities committed against Sunni communities, and on the Iranian government’s support of al-Qaeda. Many argue that the nuclear deal with Iran, while historic, is only opening channels for Iran to continue its illicit activities. Yet by opening channels of dialogue with Iran, the U.S. is perhaps more equipped to influence the state’s policy of supporting terrorism. Either way, Iranian support of terrorism needs to be addressed if we want to halt the spread of terrorism and the Syrian civil war.