Since the overthrow of Iraq's Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iran has positioned itself as an important political actor in the Middle East. Iranian-backed forces have played a determining role in Syria and Iraq.
What role has Iran played in the fall of Aleppo?
Aleppo was Syria's most populous city before the civil war devastated this ancient metropolis. Controlling this strategic city has been regarded as a sign of great prestige and a significant political gain by powerful Muslim dynasties and states throughout the centuries.
The overthrow of Iraq's Saddam Hussein by the US-led coalition in 2003 destabilised much of the Middle East. Ever since, Iran, where 93 percent of the population is Shia, has positioned itself as an increasingly influential political force in the region. Hussein had been a powerful authoritarian Sunni leader who ruled Iraq for 24 years with the Baath Party apparatus, which sidelined non-Arabs and viewed Shia with suspicion. Hussein had been a dangerous enemy for Tehran, launching a war in 1980 that had been originally intended at curbing Iranian power (the Iran-Iraq War lasted until 1988). With Hussein out of the picture, Iran tacitly backed the Shia militias to gain influence across the Shia-majority country. His downfall also created the circumstances that allowed Iran to expand its influence in the Middle East.
With the outbreak of civil war in Syria, more and more Shia militias surfaced in the region. They engaged in pitched battles with the Sunni armed groups. Since 2012, about 5,000 Shia militants are reportedly fighting in Aleppo alone, both the Financial Times and The Guardian have reported.
The fall of Aleppo to forces loyal to Bashar al Assad, an ally of Iran, has brought Tehran closer to establishing what its Sunni opponents describe with alarm as the "Shia Crescent," an arc that Iran considers key to exert influence from the Mediterranean region to the steppes of Central Asia in Afghanistan.
As Iran is already gaining a foothold in Syria, which has an overwhelming majority of Sunni Arabs, it is also looming large in nearby northern Iraq, where Shia-dominated Iraqi government forces, reinforced by Iranian-trained militias and the US air force, are fighting Daesh to take control of Mosul, another Sunni Arab majority city that is a crucial point for Iran's Shia Crescent.
How extensive is Iran's involvement in Syria?
What began as a protest movement against Bashar al Assad by Syrian civilians in early 2011 quickly escalated into an international proxy war. Iran viewed the opposition movement and opposition groups as a plot to destabilise Assad, its key ally in the Arab world, and also to undermine Hezbollah in Lebanon. It therefore established a presence in Syria, deploying its military forces and recruiting Shia militias from the countries with sizable Shia populations, playing a critical role in helping to maintain Assad's grip on power since the beginning of the civil war.
Tehran sent its own armed units into Syria as so-called "defenders of the shrine," to protect the Sayeda Zeinab Mosque near Syria's capital Damascus, where Prophet Muhammad's granddaughter is believed to be buried according to Shia tradition.
"Now the number of Iran's martyrs as defenders of shrine has exceeded 1,000," Mohammadali Shahidi Mahallati, head of Iran's Foundation of Martyrs, told Tasnim, a privately owned Iranian news agency, in late November.
Qasem Suleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' elite Quds Force, has masterminded the creation of Assad's National Defence Force. It is a coalition of numerous militias recruited by Iran from countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Lebanon to fight with anti-Assad opposition forces.
Several Iranian generals, including Major General Hossein Hamadani, Suleimani's deputy, have been killed in action in Syria. An October 2015 report asserted that at least eight Iranian generals were killed in Syria since the beginning of the civil war.
How powerful are the Iranian-backed Shia militias in Syria?
Phillip Smyth, an expert on Shia militias in the Middle East, estimated in November 2016 that the number of fighters belonging to the Iranian proxy groups and "foreign legions" in Syria was between 15,000 and 25,000.
"Iran cannot only put its foreign fighters into Syria, but build a lasting influence in the country — one that even Assad would have trouble dislodging," Smyth told The Financial Times.
Many of the foreign fighters are coming from Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to Avi Dichter, the head of Israel's foreign affairs and defense committee. Iranian military commanders, too, were quoted in an Al Jazeera article in January confirming that "thousands" of Afghan Shia fighters had been recruited by Iran to fight in Syria. Many were Afghan refugees promised residency or naturalisation in return, and attracted by the regular salary, according to the report.
Lebanon's Hezbollah has also played a crucial military role in the Syrian conflict, deploying thousands of its fighters. More than a thousand Lebanese Hezbollah fighters had been killed in action since October 2012 according to Ali Alfoneh, the author of Iran Unveiled. In addition, they now have a powerful Syrian branch which controls checkpoints in several districts of Damascus.
After the fall of Idlib, it became clearer that there was little left of Assad's national fighting force. In both that battle and in the battle for Aleppo, the foreign Shia militias played a dominant role. At least 5,000 Iranian-backed militants from Iraq, Lebanon, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan were fighting for the Assad regime in the Sunni-dominated city of Aleppo, according to some estimates.
How has Iran increased its influences across Middle East?
In the wake of the US invasion of Iraq, Baghdad has been led by Shia-dominated governments backed by Iran.
Tehran has also had good terms with Syria's Assad regime, going back to the 1980s. In the Iraq-Iran War, Damascus was the only Arab capital to support the non-Arab Iran over Iraq, despite shared Baathist ideologies.
Contrary to the Iraqi Baath Party, Alawites had a strong presence in the Syrian Baath Party and it was not staunchly pro-Sunni. The Assad family are from Syria's Alawite minority sect, which is sometimes considered as being an offshoot of Shia Islam. During the Syrian civil war, Syrian Alawites have become more closely allied with Iran.
One of the Shia militias backing Assad in the Syrian conflict is Lebanon's Hezbollah, which is an Iranian-backed group that emerged in the 1980s. With the outbreak of war in Syria, the group has become involved in Syria as well as in Lebanon.
What does the fall of Aleppo signify for Iran and for its opponents in the region?
Many analysts have argued that whoever takes the city will have the upperhand in the Syrian war. From a broader regional perspective, if the whole city falls into the hands of the Assad regime, it will count as a huge strategic victory for Iran and its proxy forces, at the expense of both Sunni powers in the Middle East, and Israel.
"This is what really matters to Iran and Russia, that the political, geo-strategic project of the anti-Assad and anti-Iranian position has failed, and it has been buried in the Aleppo rubble," Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics, told the Christian Science Monitor last week.
But Iran's strategic win has come with horrific human casualties and destruction of cities across the region. The Syrian war has caused the death of more than 470,000 people. The battle for Aleppo is already being compared with other atrocities such as Srebrenica.
During a UN Security Council meeting last week, France's UN ambassador, Francois Delattre, described the Aleppo killings as "one of the biggest massacres of a civilian population since World War II."
What historic precedents are there for Shia political power in the Middle East?
In the late 10th century and early 11th century, most of the region, along with Egypt and much of North Africa, was under the control of Shia dynasties: the Fatimids, the Buyids, the Hamdanids, and the Uqaylids.
During this period, the crucial Middle Eastern cities of Aleppo, Damascus, Mosul, Baghdad, and Cairo were all under Shia rule. The Buyids were the only Persian Shia dynasty, and their lands included modern-day Iran and southern Iraq. They also had a strong influence over neighbouring Shia emirates that controlled northern Iraq and northern Syria.
This period was brief, however. By the late 11th and early 12th centuries, the Sunni influence became dominant. The Sunni Ayyubids, led by the famous Saladin, and the Sunni Seljuk Turks ended the rule of Shia dynasties from Egypt to Iran in the Middle East.
Since then, more or less, most of the Middle East has been under the rule of Sunni states — even in countries such as Iraq and Lebanon, where Shias make up a large percentage of the population. This trend has started to change following the US intervention in Iraq.
Iran has once again reasserted itself as an influential power in the region: through direct military intervention, through its proxy groups and its political alliances.
AUTHOR: Murat Sofuoglu