The Islamic State group (IS) could be the major beneficiary of the conflict between the United States and Iran as tensions reach a new level between the two countries over the U.S. killing of Iran’s most powerful commander, Qassem Soleimani, experts charge.
The U.S.-led counter-IS coalition in Iraq and Syria said in a statement Sunday that it had temporarily stopped all of its attacks on IS and training of local forces because of “repeated rocket attacks” over the last two months by Iran-backed Shiite militants in Iraq. The move, which the coalition said was made to protect its personnel, followed reports that dozens of U.S. and allied forces left Iraq because of Iran’s threats of revenge.
Experts said the withdrawal of the forces could imperil the international fight against IS, allowing the group to reorganize in Iraq and Syria.
“Obviously, the U.S. operation and the recent escalation and the relationship between Iran and the United States is adversely affecting and has already adversely affected the campaign against ISIS or the remnants of ISIS because it has taken resources away from that fight,” said Sarhang Hamasaeed, the director of Middle East Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, using another acronym for IS.
Hamasaeed said that IS, which was defeated in Iraq in December 2017 and in Syria in March 2019, has resurged in recent months despite the help from the U.S.-led coalition to the Iraqi government and Kurdish-led forces in northeast Syria. A U.S. exit because of the recent escalations with Iran will be exploited by IS and other extremist groups in the region, he warned.
“The Iraqi forces may not have stated it publicly in order not to get caught in the military and political sensitivities, but it is clear that Iraq still needs the resources of the United States and the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS to continue the fight against the remnants of ISIS,” he told VOA.
The Iraqi parliament Sunday passed a resolution that asked for the removal of American troops and other foreign forces. The decision was in protest of the U.S. airstrike in Baghdad last Friday that also killed, along with Soleimani and several others, the Iraqi Shiite leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
Act of war
Iran’s regime labeled the U.S. strike on Soleimani an act of war, vowing a “harsh revenge.” The regime Tuesday fired more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two bases housing U.S. forces in Iraq.
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Ahmet Yayla, a counterterrorism researcher and professor at DeSales University in Pennsylvania, told VOA that the recent escalation had forced the anti-IS coalition to shift its attention away from IS to counter possible Iranian attacks.
“ISIS is observing these developments and very much aware that two of its arch enemies are at [each other’s] throats. This is a morale boost for [IS] first. Also, they will carefully calculate their actions and the movements of the Iranian proxies and American forces in the region and will carry out operations while they are busy with each other,” Yayla said.
The diverged attention makes IS prisons guarded by Kurds in northeast Syria particularly vulnerable by giving the militant group an opportunity to carry out operations to free its members, according to Yayla.
“The Kurds are on high alert, too, as their ally and protector’s shift has changed, and they can very easily find themselves [in the crossfire] of the Iranians and ISIS,” he added.
The largest Shiite Muslim country in the world, Iran is an opponent of the Islamic State, which is a Sunni extremist group. The country, after the 2014 rise of IS in Iraq, supported Shiite militias and organized them into one group known as the Popular Mobilization Forces.
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U.S. President Donald Trump in a statement Wednesday following Iran’s missile attacks called on Tehran to work with Washington against their common foe, IS.
“The destruction of ISIS is good for Iran, and we should work together on this and other shared priorities,” Trump said, while at the same time calling Soleimani “a ruthless terrorist” and defending the decision to kill him.
Iran role against IS
Iranian officials say Soleimani, through his Quds Force leadership, played a key role in the ultimate demise of IS particularly in Iraq. Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif last week called Soleimani “The most effective force fighting Daesh (ISIS), al-Nusra, al-Qaida,” and other extremist groups.
However, according to retired CIA officer and top Iran analyst, Norman Roule, Tehran has played a minor role in the fight against IS despite claims by Iranian officials.
“Despite its rhetoric, Iran’s work against ISIS has been relatively modest. Its greatest contribution was in Iraq when Shia militias, not Iran, joined the Iraqi military against ISIS,” Roule said. “In Syria, Iran’s activities have focused on sustaining the Bashar al Assad regime with a focus on Syrian opposition, all of which Iran classifies as terrorists.”
The former CIA official said Iran in the past has turned its eye from al-Qaida operations conducted from its territory despite U.S. condemnation.
“As numerous public reports show, Iran tolerated al-Qaida operations from its territory. Indeed, al-Qaida’s leadership council was based in Iran, a decision they certainly only took because they felt the environment was sufficiently safe for them and their families,” Roule said.
Mohammad Jawad Rahimi, a U.S.-based Afghanistan analyst, said the recent rise of tensions with the U.S. makes it more likely for Iran to continue to permit al-Qaida operations and, possibly, ease its pressure on IS.
“After Soleimani’s death, the Iranian regime publicly threatened to target the United States. In order to target the U.S. and its regional allies, the Iranian regime will increase its anti-American foreign operations not only through its Quds Force, but it will also reorganize or support other fighter groups including IS in the region especially in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and other countries. If the Iranian regime doesn’t support the IS openly, it will do it secretly because its number one goal is to target the US and damage its interests in the region,” Rahimi told VOA.