The pace at which the Westphalian order is falling apart in Mesopotamia is accelerating.
It’s important to stipulate up front that this is not because the order was uniquely weak, or because it was bound to fall due to having been miscast in the first place. Those factors are present to some degree. But the Western-style, Westphalian order is falling because the basis for all political order among humans is force, and no force is being exerted (by the leading nation, the United States) to bolster the one we are watching slip away.
The forces that are on the march right now instead are the forces of the Islamic State insurgency and revolutionary Iran. Those forces are dedicated to re-ordering Mesopotamia. They are clashing in the lair of ancient Persia, in a pitched confrontation that, in terms of geography and geopolitical stakes, is rolling back not decades but centuries before our eyes.
The confrontation is being called in the West the battle for Tikrit. To be sure, Tikrit is key terrain in the overall campaign. But its capture by Iranian-led Shia militias, which looks likely in the next couple of weeks (if not sooner), will be the culmination of an Iranian-led push that has been moving across Diyala Province from the Iranian border for several months now, gradually retaking important towns from Islamic State.
The battle for Tikrit in context
This Iranian-led push has some essential features. One, it has been mounted without U.S. or other coalition involvement. It has been a quiet but successful campaign, flying under the radar. And it is poised to make the most strategically significant gains of the Iraqi conflict so far, cutting off Islamic State from Baghdad on the northern approach along the Tigris.
Another essential feature is that the sub-region comprising Tikrit, Samarra, and Diyala Province to the east constitutes the pivotal central pathway to the urban heart of Iraq from the plain of Zahab, the great pass through the Zagros Mountains from west-central Iran. The pass is the route not only of trade and travel but of armies, one of the three major access points across the Zagros and the modern Iran-Iraq border.
The third essential feature is dictated by this geography. The provinces of Diyala and Salahuddin, where Tikrit is located, carry tremendous historical portent. This passageway in eastern Iraq is where Persians, Ottomans, and Arabs, Shias and Sunnis, have fought for supremacy for nearly 1,400 years. (The terrain was in fact the scene of similar battles long before the Islamic conquests began.)
The last iteration of the long-running dispute occurred in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88 – but that iteration, besides being an oddity, was bounded firmly by the global order of the then-bipolar Cold War world. The same can be said of the fight for Diyala Province during the Bush 43 years and the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
In the fight in 2015, the bounding factor of an unbreachable global order is removed. Iran is seeing opportunities she has not had for nearly 400 years to restore the control Persian rulers once exerted over Baghdad. Her clerical think-tank in Qom views this, and the doors it opens to the terrain west of Baghdad, as preparation for the return of the Mahdi.
For its part, Islamic State, as discussed before in these pages (here and here), sees the opportunity to basically rewrite the history of “Abrahamic” faith from the very beginning – from Abraham’s “hijra” out of southern Iraq – as part of preparing the region for the apocalypse and a global caliphate.
Please remember the following. The most radical Iranian clerics, and IS’s leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, see the weakness and geopolitical collapse of America as a condition provided to them by Allah so that they can prosecute their apocalyptic visions. As far as they are concerned, there are no boundaries of conventional behavior that they are obliged to observe. None of them is acting from motives that resonate with our modern minds, whether our idea of power and state relations is based mechanically on a Westphalian view, or takes a somewhat more mystically philosophic Kantian perspective.
We have a basically pragmatic and skeptical attitude. They believe they’re on a mission from God.
The battle for Tikrit
The battle for Tikrit started last summer, when Islamic State seized the town in its guerrilla lightning-war advance toward Baghdad, down the Tigris as well as across the Euphrates Corridor. The Institute for the Study of War noted at the time a factor they had been following since ISIS first emerged on the scene: the strength of ISIS in Diyala Province.
Given Diyala’s location between Iran and Iraq, it’s always going to be at the center of intrigue for influence and infiltration. Starting in the 1980s, Saddam tried to stack the province with Sunni loyalists, a process that turned the Kurds and Shias there, who had lived in relative harmony for many years, firmly against the regime. Diyala has been a primary infiltration point for Iranian-backed groups over the last 25 years (along with the southern border, near the Shatt-al-Arab, and the northern crossing point at As-Sulaymaniyah). It has thus attracted the dedicated attention of Sunnis, who want to keep it in play rather than ceding such vital territory to Iran-backed Shias.
In this context, it should be clear that the Iran-backed Shia militias are not just moving at random toward Tikrit.
To begin with, Islamic State’s going-in proposition was building strength in the key territory of Diyala Province, and linking up with it from Tikrit – which it tried to do with a series of assaults on Baquba and Balad throughout the latter half of 2014. (Alert readers will remember that Balad air base is where hundreds of American contractors were under fire in June 2014 when Islamic State was moving in.)
The Shia militias’ going-in proposition – under the leadership of Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s paramilitary Qods Force – has been retaking Diyala from Islamic State, until IS ceases to menace the border and the plain of Zahab, and can be evicted from Tikrit and cut off from the Tigris approach to Baghdad.
The march across the map stalled for some months at Khanaqin, which was regained by Soleimani and Shia troops last summer. (See map 4, below, for a visual guide to the campaign.) But once the U.S.-led coalition forces were bombing ISIS in other locations (which we started doing on 8 August 2014), more IS-held towns in Diyala began to fall.
Baquba and Balad were successfully defended by the Shia militias during the autumn. Jalawla was retaken after fighting in late November and early December. Muqdadiyah was seized in January, with Iraqi authorities proclaiming that Diyala Province had been fully liberated at that point. (I am sorry to report that IS’s ejection from Muqdadiyah was accompanied by a wholly gratuitous IS raid on the local sheep.)
Now, about five weeks later, the battle for Tikrit is on – approached from Samarra and involving the preparatory seizure of territory to the south, east, and north of the city. Samarra has been under assault from IS forces since last spring, but has remained in the hands of the national government. Qassem Soleimani was a frequent visitor to Samarra last summer, however: an indicator of how long he has been planning this campaign.
Iranian embeddedness in the battle for Tikrit
As with Soleimani’s earlier involvement in the battle of Al Qusayr in Syria, his involvement in the battle for Tikrit is clearly that of the strategist and commander. This is his fight, and hence Iran’s.
This has been made pretty plain in much of the Western reporting in the last couple of days. But there are other particularly striking clues, such as the unabashed presence, in huge numbers, of Kataib Hezbollah, one of the Iran-backed, armed Shia groups in Iraq, and an organization that Qassem Soleimani himself founded. (Kataib Hezbollah holds itself to have ideological links with Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well as having the Qods Force as a common patron. See this excellent treatment by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point of the origins of the various Iran-backed “special groups” in Iraq, including Kataib Hezbollah. It’s from 2010 but still very useful.)
Just before the Shia assault on Tikrit began, a video was posted online showing Kataib Hezbollah fighters heading for the battle.
Long War Journal has a good summary of the Iran-backed Shia groups involved in the fight for Tikrit, including the Badr Organization, led by Hadi Al-Amiri, with its roots in the Iran-Iraq War and the oldest of the Iran-backed Shia opposition movements. Al-Amiri himself, although Iraqi born, spent many years in Iran as a chief operative in the “Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq” (SCIRI – now renamed the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq).
The battle for Tikrit would not even be happening without Soleimani – a good friend of Hadi Al-Amiri – and the Iranian Qods Force. There has been additional, collateral information to indicate just how involved the Iranians are now, with the emergence of photos of what appear to be at least one Iranian military jet, reportedly over Tikrit, posted to social media. Two of the photos look more clearly like F-14s (in particular the second photo with the distinctively wide-spaced twin jet engines). The third is harder to discern with the low-quality image; I wouldn’t immediately tag it as an F-14 (could conceivably be an Su-24), although it could be that lighting is obscuring the dual-fin tail assembly. In any case, it doesn’t look like an Su-25 (the only such aircraft the Iraqi Air Force could be operating). In the absence of exact information on when each photo was taken and how many jets were seen by the observer(s), it’s hard to say more.
The geography and the history
The guiding vision of ISIS may drive us to peel history back in great chunks all the way to Abraham and his travels through Canaan, in order to understand what ISIS is about. But the Persian perspective on the plain of Zahab requires making more recent stops in history.
The mindset that’s essential is understanding that in the last few centuries, the interests and warfare modes of outside powers have effectively imposed a geopolitical framework on the border of Iran and Iraq. Most battles there have been fought over the interests of Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and the Western powers: Britain, France, Germany, the United States. Because of trade, rail transport, the maritime borders, the oil industry, and the wars of the great powers over other things, this factor has made the northern and southern border crossings relatively more important, in a military sense, than the crossing at the plain of Zahab.
But the current recession of Western power has lifted the clamp of that imposed framework off of the region. Very old patterns – patterns that predate Western hegemony – are now free to reassert themselves. Baghdad, situated at the confluence of the two great rivers, is regaining importance, although that isn’t visible to many observers yet. (The leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, certainly had that in mind when he assumed his nom de guerre. Abu Bakr, meanwhile, is the popular name for the first successor of Mohammed.)
The connection of Persian-ness with Baghdad is eligible for attempted proclamation again, as it hasn’t been for 300, perhaps 400 years. Long-deferred territorial disputes between Sunni and Shia, not only around Baghdad but throughout Mesopotamia, are at liberty to reemerge. If we look closely, we see that the disputes are not only Islamic in nature, but cultural and ethnic, stretching back beyond Persian versus Arab to Arab versus indigenous “Sumerian,” Assyrian, and other ancient ethnic identities.
Old treaties, old victories, old defeats – all are up for revisiting, and perhaps, if one is daring enough, for redress.
And that means that, especially for Iran and Islamic State, the critical geography of this moment on the eastern border is not as much the northern or southern passages between Iran and Iraq, as it is the central passage through the plain of Zahab, Diyala Province, and into Baghdad.
The last time the military landscape looked like this for Persian Iran was in 1733. In that year, Iran’s Nader Shah, a military genius and soldier of fortune who had become regent for the juvenile Shah Abbas III, met the great Ottoman general Topal Osman Pasha in battle at Samarra, to decide the last of Persia’s sieges of Baghdad in the Islamic era. (See Maps 4 and 5 below.)
Nader Shah lost that battle – the only major battle he ever lost – although the next year he defeated a much larger Ottoman army decisively in the north, near Kirkuk. The Persians were unable to follow up that victory, however, when unrest in the eastern empire called Nader’s army back.
Ghosts that walk Diyala and Tikrit
That loss at Samarra capped several hundred years of attempts by Persian shahs to recapture Baghdad. But the historical freight borne by the geographic area goes back to the very beginning of the Islamic era. It began when Mohammed’s second successor, Caliph Umar, sent the armies of the Rashidun Caliphate to conquer Persia in the A.D. 630s.
The Persians under the Sassanids were having a very bad decade at the time: not only had their client states in the Byzantine Empire to the west been revolting against them, but they went through ten rulers between 628 and 632, and at the time Umar’s armies showed up, their ruler was the 8-year-old Yazdegerd III.
Umar’s first attempt was repelled. But he succeeded the second time, winning the battle of Qadisiyah and taking historic Ctesiphon, just south of Baghdad, in 637. In order to finish off Persian resistance, Umar’s commander, Saad ibn Abi Waqqas, pursued the Persians into Tikrit, and what is now Diyala Province. At the watershed battle of Jalawla that spring, he defeated the Persian army in a rout, by some reports killing so many that the “ground was filled with the dead.” The fortified city of Jalawla was besieged and fell by the end of the year, and the defenses of the plain of Zahab eliminated.
Tikrit fell to the Rashidun Caliphate as well, and several centuries (and two caliphates) later became the birth place in 1138 of the Kurdish warrior caliph Saladin (Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub), who wrested Jerusalem from the Crusaders. This connection is of significance to Sunnis (like Saddam Hussein, who fancied himself a modern Saladin, as well as ISIS); less so to Shias and Persians.
But Saladin’s achievements signaled the waning of the power of Western armies in the Middle East for nearly 600 years. By 1453, Constantinople had fallen, and the Sunni Ottoman Empire was on the march. The Persians, whose very bad Sassanid decade had been followed by a number of turgid and undistinguished centuries, busted out again in the early 1500s with the establishment of the Safavid dynasty – a dynasty founded on Sufi Islam and claiming for itself kinship with Mohammed. (Islamic State, with its Abraham 2.0 perspective on Islam and on its own eschatological purpose, refers to today’s Iranians with great disgust as “Safavids.”)
The first Safavid, Ismail I, took power in 1501, and by 1502 had already had his first battle with the Ottomans. The two empires spent most of the next 140 years fighting each other, clashing several times over the control of Baghdad. The Mongols actually held Baghdad from 1258 to 1508 (minus a brief period of sacking by the Central Asian marauder Tamerlane, for whom some of today’s famous Chechen terrorists are named). But the Persian Safavids gained control of it in 1508, and held it until the Ottomans seized it in 1534.
The Safavids and Ottomans continued to struggle back and forth across central Iraq for another century. In 1632, under Abbas I Shah – a reformer who transformed his army into a modern fighting force – the Persians once again gained control of Baghdad. But they held it for only six years, losing it again to the Ottomans after Abbas I’s death.
It was at this juncture that the Persians formally wrote off Baghdad. Their empire was beset with trouble in the Caucasus and in what is today western Afghanistan; with the loss of Abbas I, the Safavids were unable to organize themselves to outface the Ottomans in Mesopotamia. In 1639, they signed the Treaty of Zahab on the plain of Zahab – the gateway to the heart of Persia, with the army of the Sultan lurking only a few miles away – and agreed to imperial boundaries that excluded them from Mesopotamia.
Except for the brief flyer taken by Nader Shah a hundred years later, the Persians had effectively subsided from their interest in Baghdad and points west.
In the ensuing centuries, the power of the West outran that of the East, and from the Treaty of Zahab in 1639 to the Islamic Revolution in 1979, and the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980, the military geography of Iran and Mesopotamia was drawn by the fading Ottomans, the restive Russians, and the Western traders and colonialists. The ghosts of Diyala seemed to be laid to rest.
The eschatology of revolution and Western decline
All of this history is recent, in Persian terms. The ancient Persian Empire was old by the time Herodotus the Greek, father of Western history, walked the earth, 2,400 years ago. There are much older ghosts in the plain of Zahab – but the Islamic conquest of the 630s is the “break” that counts: the one that set Persia and modern Iran on course for their rendezvous with 2015.
Three and a half centuries after the Treaty of Zahab, a revolutionary Iran, sensitized to eschatological signs, found herself facing serious danger from an independent and radical Iraq. The pathway to Baghdad suddenly had geo-military significance again.
A year after the war with Iraq ended, the great brooding empire of the north, the Eurasian Warsaw Pact, began to crack up. Two years later, the empire’s core – the Soviet Union – had imploded from within.
Yet even before that, America had led a coalition invading Iraq. That would have been unthinkable in 1979 or 1980; to a Mahdist’s eyes, in 1991, it would have looked like a sign.
Throughout the period that started in 1980, Iran’s revolutionists cultivated a military geography that focused on leveraging strategic pathways: toward Israel’s borders, toward the region’s maritime chokepoints – and toward Baghdad, alongside the other main approaches to Mesopotamia. Iran’s preparations in the 1980s and ‘90s, supporting Iraqi Shia movements and armed militias, were never about Shia fraternity; they have been all along about the ghosts of Diyala and the potential for opportunity from the hand of Allah.
Just over two decades after Saddam’s invasion of 1980 suddenly brought Diyala front and center again, an American-led coalition invaded Iraq for a second time. Iran was ready for the turmoil that ensued in Mesopotamia. Iran’s senior commanders – including the now iconic General Soleimani – had mostly fought in the 1980-88 war. Soleimani’s band of “special groups” was ready to answer the call.
In Persian-historical terms, things have moved very fast since 1979. All in one generation, the men who run Iran’s military strategy and operations today have watched their opportunities open before them for 35 years, easily interpretable as portents by the clerics in Qom.
Not only has the West softened Iraq up for a subtle, under-the-radar takeover by Iran – it has obligingly lost its will and purpose just at the crucial moment. Everything laboriously achieved in Iraq by a sharpened and wiser American strategy from 2006 to 2009 was ultimately undone by the withdrawal and lack of interest after 2011. Whether that could have been predicted or not, it serves as another portent of opportunity, seemingly created for the Iranian Mahdists by Allah.
The near future
Even if the Iran-backed assault force takes Tikrit, cutting Islamic State off from the northern approach to Baghdad, IS still has its center of gravity in the Euphrates Corridor – the western approach to Baghdad – and its operational rear in eastern Syria. It also has Mosul in the north. It will take a terribly destructive effort to dislodge IS from Mosul.
IS has Sunni cells in Karbala Province south of Baghdad as well, with which to harass Iraqi national forces and the capital city. Moving Iran and the Iraqi national forces into Tikrit, and holding Diyala, improves the odds for Baghdad against Islamic State, but it certainly doesn’t win the war.
It does, however, plant Iranian forces and decision-makers firmly in Mesopotamia, on the ancient invasion route with its two-way swinging door, for the first time since 1639.
The midwifing of outcomes from this development will not be done the Westphalian way. Iran and Islamic State already know that, because they’re driving the train. Within a very short space of time, the other nations like Turkey, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia will be sure of it themselves, and will be doing whatever they have to, to maneuver in this gangland without a sheriff.
The utility of America’s residual power in this situation is almost extinguished. The hope that we will use it has been holding most of the nations in check. But that hope is fading rapidly now; I would say literally by the hour. Assuming Qassem Soleimani takes Tikrit without us, he can high-five the ghosts of 14 centuries after an advance of a mere 170 miles. He could get in a jeep and drive from Zahab to Tikrit as a conquering commander, from one scene of centuries-old defeat to the next, demonstrating the putative ascendancy of Shia Islam along the way.
The Westphalian West, with our UN, our EU, our negotiations and debt fights and demography-obsessed navel-gazing, will be off dropping bombs on a strategically meaningless mountaintop somewhere – and arguing over that.
This is where we are, as Iran nears a nuclear breakout. Not where most of the world would have expected to be, if we’d had to prognosticate 30, or 20, or even 10 years ago. Order, peace, and Westphalian principles don’t maintain themselves, if you neglect them and leave force and will to atrophy.
The sense is inescapable, moreover, that something very big is going on. We’ve had to learn this lesson about force and will before, in recent memory. But in the 2010s, we’re rolling back not decades but centuries to do it – in some ways, as if they never even happened.