Foreign Policy Blogs

Two Brigadier Generals in Death


The deaths of two high-ranking officers of the Saudi and Iranian militaries two weeks apart at the hands of Iraqi militants illustrates just how internationalized the regional conflict against ISIS has become. But the circumstances of their deaths illustrate the different priorities of their respective governments in containing ISIS, a creature that the leaderships of both countries have helped rise since the mid-2000s through their mutual mistrust and maneuvering for influence.

On the Iranian side, an Iraqi sniper shot and killed IRGC Brigadier General Hamid Taqavi near Samara on Dec. 27, 2014. Taqavi was dispatched to Iraq as an adviser to the local Shia militia companies, and had extensive service experience in Iraq – some of it dating back to the 1980s when he was part of an infiltration unit whose job it was to carry out reconnaissance and sabotage missions behind Saddam army frontlines. Men like Taqavi, whose funeral was attended by large crowds and broadcast on national television, have been serving inside Syria in increasing numbers since 2011. In Iraq, they never really left.

The Islamic Republic sent Taqavi to Samara as part of a larger military mission. The United States is, in fact, inadvertently aiding this mission. Iran’s agents are probably getting complete access to the shared coalition intelligence passed onto Baghdad thanks to Tehran’s clandestine presence in all Iraqi agencies and ministries. And an undisclosed portion of new American equipment deliveries to the much-weakened national army are ending up in the hands of pro-Tehran militias, diverted by ideologically sympathetic soldiers and officials, or perhaps even sold off outright by corrupt ones.

Yet despite this effort and the show of solidarity and anti-ISIS sentiments emanating from state-run Iranian media, the Iranian response is not so cut and dry. Even as its commandos and fighter-bombers work to lift sieges in northern Iraq and link up with the Kurds, Iranian-backed forces insist on redrawing the map with population transfers and revenge killings throughout northern Iraq that destabilize rival Sunni Arab and Kurdish power structures.

The Islamic Republic has, for all the blood and treasure shed to date in Iraq and Syria, invested heavily in the managed instability of both countries. Even the meteoric rise of ISIS cannot not significantly alter Tehran’s policy of forging both unity and disunity simultaneously, depending on the local context.

One the one hand, Tehran does not want ISIS to successfully carve out a new state from large portions of Syria and Iraq in the long-run, since there is no guarantee that such a state, for now focused on destroying anti-regime alternatives, will not eventually turn on Iran and her allies. ISIS is far more threatening than the al Qaeda members that Iran has held under a loose sort of house arrest as collateral against both the United States and al Qaeda.

On the other hand, the unspoken truce between ISIS and the Syrian regime are useful to Iran in the context of the Syrian Civil War because it ensures that people seeking an alternative to Assad will either have to return to his fold or throw their lot in with a group they regard as even worse than the Baathist regime. Efforts aimed at reintegrating Sunni Arab and other ethnic minorities (including Syria’s Alawite community) are afforded a lower priority by Iran because ISIS has been so successful against other rebel forces. ISIS has first resolved to destroy or co-opt them prior to a “final offensive” against Assad. This will actually produce a weaker and less popular anti-Assad resistance – but one far more vicious and unified at the military level. The callousness of this strategy will one day be measured in the number of dead Iranian, Afghan, Lebanese, and Yemeni volunteers serving with the Baathists: victims of a battle-hardened ISIS that cut its teeth killing rival Syrian and Iraqi rebels while the regime and its allies looked on.

These losses, coupled with the inherent risk of prolonging the civil war, have been judged by Tehran to be acceptable in pursuit of victory in Syria.

Yet the stronger ISIS becomes militarily in the region, the harder it will be to dislodge in Iraq, threatening Shia holy sites and Iran’s massive economic investments there. The continued existence of the “Islamic” shadow state in Syria will help the Assad family regain legitimacy in the long run – Iran is already benefitting from this in terms of diplomatic rapprochement. But in Iraq, the chaos caused by ISIS’s advance only offers short-term possibilities for furthering Iranian interests. A showdown must then take place before Iraq is too weak and divided to be counted as an asset in Iran’s grand strategy. Syria is already enough of a money pit, and with its outdated weapons and weak economy, Iran and its allies do not have the capacity to support both Syria and Iraq.

Meanwhile, on Jan. 6, 2015, Saudi brigadier general Oud Awad al-Balawi and two of his subordinates were killed in a firefight with a team of heavily armed militants on the Iraqi-Saudi border. No organization has claimed responsibility for the attack, and it is unclear if the fighters were simply transiting the border and turned to fight off a vigilant patrol on their tail, or whether the border post itself was the target. Garrisons on the Saudi-Iraqi border are being heavily reinforced, in order to discourage infiltrators from Iraq’s Anbar Province. While the great western desert region of Iraq is nominally under the control of ISIS, not all of the area’s smuggling networks, terrorist groups or tribes are, which complicates Saudi and Jordanian containment policies. The decision by those governments to relocate civilian settlements and arm local levies shows the seriousness of the situation on their borders with Anbar.

The Saudis, of course, would like nothing more than the destruction of ISIS before the radical Sunni group becomes as much a true threat to them as al Qaeda did after 2005. Some lessons have been learned since those days. Profligate official sponsorship of jihadists has been reduced at the insistence of the United States – though “unofficial” backing, channeled through Kuwait and Qatar, still causes headaches because the Saudis are reluctant to crack down on their own people. The Saudis would prefer more moderate anti-Assad and anti-ISIS groups to take the lead in Iraq and Syria, but battlefield losses have precluded this from happening. And though the Saudi government did not directly create ISIS, its policies in Iraq and Syria helped pave the way for it by empowering groups antagonistic to Shia actors. And, there is the embarrassment (and security challenge) of Saudi citizens joining ISIS and now trying to return home – either for becoming sick of the “jihad”, or with the intention of continuing it domestically.

But domestically the Saudi leadership is in a weak position to deal with these threats. The strife in Syria and Iraq is treated as an extension of domestic issues, and these are dealt with inflexibility for fear of offending important elite constituents or rushing towards reforms. The Saudis have had more success coordinating a diplomatic campaign to censure Doha than in developing alternatives to that country’s policies. So far, the only real solution advanced has been the formation of a so-called “new model army” that is trained as an anti-ISIS force loyal to Saudi strategic interests.

Ideally, Iran and Saudi Arabia would do well to note these two officers’ deaths and how they relate to one another. ISIS and its fellow travelers are a major threat to both countries. A victory in the field that does not discredit ISIS – which unlike Iran and Saudi Arabia, is making a real effort to win hearts and minds – will be a hollow one. Yet as several years of civil war have shown, it is unlikely this pair of incidents will alter the calculus in the Cold War being waged between Riyadh and Tehran. Instead of working towards diplomatic and humanitarian outcomes, these two competing regional powers will simply try to control – or deliberately ignore – the enemies of their enemies.