Talk of changing US priorities in the Middle East after the election of Donald Trump often seems to have only a tangential relationship with the reality of the region, large chunks of which have dissolved into a Hobbesian morass of paramilitarism. If, say, Mr Trump switches to backing the Assad regime in Syria — in the mistaken belief it has been fighting Isis — he would really be transferring support from one coalition of paramilitary partners and private armies to another. Much the same applies to other external actors: Russia, Turkey and, especially, Iran.
Paramilitaries are hardly new to the Middle East. During the Lebanese civil war of 1975-90, for example, Israel backed two Maronite Christian forces, while various Arab regimes instrumentalised Palestinian factions. And Iran, of course, created Hizbollah, the most formidable militia in the world. But the present scale of paramilitarism looks like a lethal new paradigm — as well as a powerful magnet for meddling and a recipe for chaos. Not least because Iran is by far the best paramilitarist practitioner, and it is in alliance with Russia.
At present, the US backs Syrian Kurdish militias fighting Isis; and it episodically supports Syrian Arab fighters, now relatively weak, against President Bashar al-Assad. By the time Mr Trump takes office, the government side in Syria may well have taken Aleppo, making support for Mr Assad seem more compelling. But that means aligning with the Russian air force and a Shia militia on the ground co-ordinated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the enforcer and expeditionary force of revolutionary Iran, which the US president-elect has declared an enemy.
The al-Quds force of the IRGC, Iran’s foreign legion commanded by Maj Gen Qasem Soleimani, has put together Shia militia coalitions in Iraq and Syria. Yet to state matters baldly like this is to suggest order where in fact there is chaos — to which other actors amply contribute.
Russia, Assad’s main patron alongside Iran, is trying to rebuild Syria’s army. But losses sustained during years of war, and a lack of manpower available to a minority regime, mean Moscow too has to rely on the IRGC, Hizbollah, and Iraqi and Afghan Shia militias.
President Barack Obama, despite his reluctance to put “boots on the ground”, has sent thousands of special forces to help rebuild Iraq’s hollowed-out army. Yet he still relies on the formidable Kurdish fighters of the Democratic Union party (PYD) in Syria, and Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga in north Iraq. In the fight to retake Mosul from Isis, the US is aligned with Iran. That is because the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad it helped create after the 2003 invasion of Iraq is allied to Tehran and too weak to control Iranian-built militias who are in the field west of Mosul.
Turkey, a Nato member ostensibly allied with the US-led coalition against Isis, is in fact devoted to rolling back Syrian Kurd territorial advances because the US-aligned PYD is affiliated with Turkish insurgents of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ party. To this end, it has relied on a motley of Syrian rebel forces, including the Sunni Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham. As they try to muscle in on the Mosul offensive, Turkish forces are even training a Sunni private army for the former governor of Nineveh province.
After Mosul falls, maybe early next year, the scramble for territory by a kaleidoscope of paramilitaries and their patrons will make the existing fractures of Iraq look almost coherent. Similar chaos will almost certainly succeed the fall of rebel eastern Aleppo and the eventual recapture of Raqqa, Isis’s Syrian stronghold. Warlordism is rampant. Tobias Schneider, an expert on Middle Eastern militaries, who doubts whether Syria’s army and state any longer exist, says: “As the once totalitarian Syrian central state atrophies, its constituent parts — be they sectarian, rentierist or simple brutes — have gained a stunning degree of political and economic independence from Damascus.”
All this, naturally, provides a fillip to Isis in its efforts to persuade alienated Sunni to wage jihad against a nefarious alliance of western “crusaders” and Shia “idolaters”. If Isis propagandists wanted an image to crystallise this narrative, Hizbollah gave them one 10 days ago.
At al-Qusayr, a town just over Lebanon’s border that Hizbollah captured in 2013 after a bloody battle to reconnect Damascus to the Assad regime-held coast, Lebanese paramilitaries held a “victory” parade. They exhibited Russian weaponry — and US armoured personnel carriers, presumably captured either from Syrian rebels or Israeli surrogates in Lebanon in the 1980s. In the Middle Eastern warlord game, a lot of what goes around comes around.