What the U.S. Can Learn From the Iranian Qods Force
U.S. intervention, on the other hand, tends to be for discrete military or counterterrorism goals, be it in Syria, Libya, Yemen, or Somalia. While U.S. forces do train local partners on how to secure and govern their areas, the mission is a distant second to the immediate combat operation. That much was clear with the SDF, as there was no political vision or broader U.S. Syria policy guiding the partnership. The investment is primarily military and short-term, with no grander strategy or regional diplomatic and security plan to which the campaign is meant to tie in. Once the mission is achieved, American forces scale down or withdraw, leaving their proxy no clear political path forward in its host nation. The SDF’s Kurdish leaders now find themselves in the precarious situation of having no powerful patron, internal or external to Syria, who supports their goal of a semiautonomous Kurdish state or even a future role in the Damascus government.
Second is who the U.S. chooses to enable. Iran enjoys a natural choice for its partnerships: an array of Shia partners and proxies cultivated over decades across the Middle East. These groups share not only the Iranian regime’s unique Shia ideology, but a shared identity as members of an “axis of resistance” to Israel, the United States, and Saudi Arabia. This ideological affinity has deepened through the cauldron of multiple wars, while the unifying narrative instills motivation and loyalty to Iranian goals.
Lacking such geographic proximity and historical bonds, the U.S. selects partners based on their capability and will to fight right now. The problem is that both those things can shift or atrophy over time. Although militias may clear terrorist-held territory very ably, they may be ill-suited to hold, defend, police, and govern it, particularly when they are not from that area. While sharing an immediate motivation to fight a common foe, the proxy may have other enemies to whom it will ultimately direct its arms and attention that may not necessarily be in line with U.S. aims. Such is the case with the SDF. They were committed to the fight against ISIS, but the SDF’s Kurdish leaders also used the campaign to expand the emerging Kurdish statelet, Rojava, much to the fury of Turkey, a NATO ally. From the beginning of the U.S.-SDF partnership, this fundamental misalignment in ultimate aims was understood but discarded, in the name of operational expediency. As the SDF and Turkey go to war, this fissure is laid bare.
AXIS AND ALLIES
Slowly but surely, Iran has transformed its “axis of resistance” with Hezbollah and the Syrian regime into a regional alliance spanning from Iraq to Yemen. No longer simply Iranian proxies, groups like Hezbollah, the Houthis, and Iraqi PMF now form a group of ideologically aligned, militarily interdependent, political-military actors committed to one another’s mutual defense—a resistance NATO, so to speak, with military footholds across the region, political influence in key Arab capitals, and a network of dedicated partners. Indeed, Iran’s return on investment has been high. Tehran can now better deter its adversaries, fight them when it suits its goals, and more generally steer policies and events in the region in its favor.