A flurry of diplomatic activity is taking place in the Syrian and Iraqi arenas.
While the moves are occurring on separate and superficially unrelated fronts, taken together they produce an emergent picture of two camps, one of which works as a united force on essential interests, but the other does not.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week traveled to Sochi to discuss the issue of Syria with Russian President Vladimir Putin over. Jerusalem is concerned with Iranian advances in the country, feeling that the deescalation agreement for southwest Syria reached by Washington and Moscow is inadequate. This is simply because Tehran and its proxy militia allies are trying to establish themselves along the border with the Israeli-controlled part of the Golan Heights.
It is noteworthy that this visit followed an apparent failure by a senior Israeli security delegation to Washington DC to ensure a US commitment in this regard. As the officials were talking, the fighting fronts were on the move.
Sunday saw the opening of an offensive to take the town of Tal Afar, 60 kilometers west of Mosul, from the now crumbling Islamic State. Among the forces taking part in the offensive are the Hashd al-Sha’abi/Popular Mobilization Units.
The PMU is the alliance of Shia militias mobilized to fight ISIS in the summer of 2014. Most prominent among them are Iranian-supported groups such as the Badr Organization, Ktaeb Hezbollah and the Asaib Ahl al-Haq.
An additional notable process now under way is the attempt to induce the Iraqi Kurds to abandon their proposed independence referendum, scheduled to take place on September 25. Iran is fiercely opposed to any Kurdish move toward independence.
Tehran is in the process of moving forward to a clearly dominant position in Iraqi politics, through its sponsorship of the Shia militias and the ruling Dawa Party. The last thing Tehran wants would be for a major part of the country to split away.
However, it has become clear that the European and US allies of the Kurds are also hostile to any Kurdish bid for independence.
Both German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have made plain their respective countries’ opposition to the referendum and any hopes of Kurdish exit from Iraq.
Last week saw evidence of the growing closeness between Iran and Turkey. Iranian Chief of Staff Gen. Muhammad Hossein Bagheri met with Turkish President Recep Tayepp Erdogan, following which Erdogan announced that the two countries have agreed on joint military action against the Kurdish PKK and its Iranian sister organization, PJAK. Bagheri’s visit to Ankara was the first by an Iranian chief of staff since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
An additional new development came to light in the course of last week; namely the new role of Egypt as a player in the Syrian arena. Egypt has in recent weeks played a role as a mediator of deescalation agreements in the eastern Ghouta area and in Homs, with the permission and approval of both the Russians and the Saudis.
Finally, the recent period saw the surprising visit of Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr to Riyadh, where he met with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman.
Sadr, a sectarian Shia figure who retains ties to Iran, has nevertheless sought to position himself as an Iraqi patriot in recent months.
So what does all this diplomatic and military activity mean? In looking to locate the pattern of events, one becomes immediately aware that the activities of only one player add up to a unified whole. That player is Iran.
In backing the Shia militias as political and military forces, opposing Kurdish aspirations to independence, seeking by all possible means to establish forces along the border with Israel, and seeking to draw Turkey away from the West and toward itself, Tehran is pursuing a coherent, comprehensive policy and strategy.
This strategy ignores any distinction among Iraq, Syria and Lebanon; treating all three as a single arena of conflict. Allies and assets are all utilized to build the project of maximizing Iranian geographic reach and political and military potency within this space.
Russia should not be considered a strategic ally in this. The Russians have more modest goals in Syria and little interest in Iraq. Moscow favors the increased Egyptian role in Syria, which Tehran surely opposes. Russia is also not indifferent to Israeli and Saudi concerns and interests, hence the Netanyahu visit to Sochi.
The US also does not seem to wish to be a primary player in this arena. Washington does not appear to be developing a real strategy for containing the Iranians in eastern Syria, due to the internal strains and turmoil in the US that may indeed be a core factor preventing any real possibility of a US focus on this contest.
This leaves the local players. The components of the Iran-led alliance in this space are Iran itself, the Assad regime, Hezbollah, the Iraqi Shia militias and important elements within the Iraqi government.
Turkey appears to be moving in the direction of this bloc, though its size and Sunni nature mean it will never fully be a part of it.
Perhaps most notable of all in this emergent strategic picture, in which a clear shape is discernible as the waters settle, is the absence of a really powerful Sunni Islamist bloc. The once ascendant group of Muslim Brotherhood-type states and movements is no more – with Qatar besieged, Turkey moving closer to Iran, and Hamas also attempting to rebuild its relations with Tehran.
The Salafi jihadis are also reduced to the level of a terrorist irritant – a sometimes lethal one, to be sure, but far from a contender for power.
Islamic State is on the verge of destruction, with its core al-Qaida leadership dominant only in Syria’s Idleb province.
This is an anomalous situation, for political Islam continues to dominate Sunni Arab politics at street level. The resilience and return of relatively stable Sunni Arab autocracies in Cairo, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Amman, and the eclipse of the Sunni Arab rebellion in Syria have removed it, for now at least, from the real power game in the Middle East.
The result that faces the cohesive and coherent Iran-led bloc is a much more nebulous gathering, but one which if combined possesses more power, more population and more wealth than the Iranians.
It lacks, however, the binding organizational capacity provided by the Revolutionary Guard Corps. It also does not possess the broad ideological commonality of the Tehran-led group.
Observe the forces mentioned in this article: Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the Kurdish Regional Government, Egypt, the Kurdish paramilitary forces in Turkey and Iran, and add Jordan and the remaining non-jihadi Syrian rebels to complete the picture. These are the core elements, each on its own relevant front, standing in the way of Iranian advancement in the Middle East.
There are differences, disputes, and in some cases sharp rivalries among them. Much will depend on the creation of lines of communication and cooperation in this camp. The contest between these two groups in the Iraq-Syria space is today the core strategic conflict in the Middle East.