IRGC Quds Force Commander Qassem Suleimani’s response to the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant’s (ISIS) rapid assault on Mosul may have helped the Iraqis mitigate the immediate threat to Baghdad and prevented the potential destruction of Shia holy sites in Samarra, Karbala, Najaf and Khadimiya. In planning and executing this campaign, Suleimani has the benefit of drawing on his extensive and sophisticated infrastructure of unconventional military power, both active and latent, built over years of conflicts and covert operations throughout the Middle East. The strong response to Tehran’s top Shiite cleric’s call to arms against the Sunni extremists also has benefited the Iranian commander.
Despite these advantages, Suleimani is faced with some very difficult choices as he attempts to drive back ISIS:
- Suleimani cannot afford any weakness in the protection of Iran’s border, as he coordinates with the IRGC Ground Forces and regular Iranian Army. There are capable units available, such as the ‘Saberin’ IRGC special operations units, but inevitably this will tie down high-end resources that could be used to defend key locations or aid counter-offensives elsewhere in Iraq.
- The importance and difficulty of protecting Shia shrines cannot be overstated. Defending the al Askari Mosque in Samarra is a top priority for Suleimani. However, the mosque is located in a mostly Sunni region north of Baghdad, making it very difficult for the commander to construct a strong, contiguous defensive front, especially one that can extend from the Iranian border through the mixed province of Diyala, up to Samarra then around the mixed areas west and south of the capital to protect Karbala, the site of another important Shia shrine.
- Defending their homeland has become the top priority for Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia militias currently in Syria, and they are already beginning to redeploy. Even Lebanese Hezbollah could shift its focus from Syria to Iraq, begging the question: how much can Suleimani leave his defense of Bashar al Assad exposed?
- Suleimani appears to be pulling together an integrated, multinational command of the most seasoned Iraqi Shia militia leaders and other Iranian proxies. He and these groups will coordinate with or even lead the Iraqi security forces’ effort against ISIS. Such a prominent role for the Iranian commander will feed into the ISIS narrative that the current Iraqi government is merely a puppet of Iran thus further undermining the Iraqi government’s credibility.
- Lastly, Suleimani must remain cognizant of how any perceived coordination with the US could paint him as an American collaborator in the Muslim world. Tehran is not interested in seeing the US reengage or increase its influence in Iraq.
A potential ISIS takeover of Baghdad is an existential crisis for Iran, and a dire national security threat to the US and our allies. Without US aid or other significant international action, the burden to prevent such an outcome rests on Suleimani’s shoulders. If he succeeds, the US would then have to deal with the consequences of an Iranian-dependent Iraqi government and a much more integrated and powerful regional network of Iranian proxies. The choice between ISIS and Tehran as the main power player in Iraq is a lose-lose situation for Washington. The US needs to help find an Iraqi victory instead.
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