- - Thursday, November 2, 2017

ISTANBUL — A still-murky deal last month that allowed a convoy of besieged Islamic State fighters and their families to travel across Syria to safety along the eastern border with Iraq continues to reverberate across the region, provoking outrage as well as a strategic rethink by the pro-U.S. government in Baghdad.

The delicate diplomacy and volley of recriminations sparked by the unusual pact — which included a gruesome exchange as Islamic State fighters handed over bodies of Shiite soldiers from Iran, Lebanon and Syria — exposed escalating tensions between the capitals along the Shiite Crescent extending from Tehran to Beirut and opened a window to the complexities to come as Islamic State’s once-powerful “caliphate” faces imminent defeat on the battlefield.

Iraqi officials have accused Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Syrian President Bashar Assad of reinfusing Islamic State forces into Iraq, where hopes had been high that the most virulent of Sunni jihadis were on the verge of defeat. The Islamic State had been fighting a fierce battle along Syria’s southwestern border with Lebanon before the deal allowing them to leave was struck.

“Terrorism is gasping for its last breaths; we do not have to negotiate with it,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said after word reached him that Islamic State received minefield maps to safely evacuate members from its mountain strongholds on 17 air-conditioned buses.

Pan-Arab media outlets from Dubai to Cairo used the “bodies for freedom” pact to accuse Damascus and Hezbollah of leveraging the Islamic State terrorist threat for their own ends.

During the 17-day trip across Syria, U.S. and allied fighter jets bombed Islamic State members who strayed too far from the buses, but it did not target the convoy itself because of the reported presence of women and children. Only a direct request from Russian forces fighting for Mr. Assad led the U.S. to end its aerial surveillance of the convoy, effectively allowing it to reach safety in Islamic State-controlled territory in eastern Syria.

The Al Arabiya TV channel, owned by Saudi businessman Waleed Al-Ibrahim, reported that 113 Islamic State members had re-enlisted in the Syrian army. Egypt’s Al-Ahram, meanwhile, reported that the Islamic State fighters joined Mr. Assad’s troops in Palmyra after Syrian officers guaranteed safety for their families.

The upshot: Iraq’s nightmare of an Islamic State resurgence is forcing Mr. al-Abadi to reconsider his tacit alliance with the Assad government in Damascus as well as security arrangements with Iranians.

The concerns mounted in mid-September when Islamic State launched a suicide bombing operation at a roadside restaurant near Nasiriyah, in southeastern Iraq, a way station to a major Shiite pilgrimage center. Health Ministry officials said the attack killed 84 and injured 93.

Analysts say the renewed threat is bringing Baghdad closer to Saudi Arabia, an avowed foe of Hezbollah and Islamic State. Riyadh has had cool relations with Iraq, which, like Iran, has a Shiite majority and has cultivated strong ties with Tehran.

A wide fissure has opened among various competing Shiite parties in Iraq, said Jasim Bdaiwi, a political scientist at Baghdad University.

Mr. Bdaiwi said Iranian clerics want to prolong the battles in Iraq to prevent an American military buildup in the Persian Gulf, even as President Trump tries to rally states in the region against Tehran and moves to decertify the landmark 2015 nuclear deal negotiated under President Obama.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Najaf, the top Shiite cleric in Iraq, “opposes Iranian domination and supports the Baghdad government’s independence, but another group associated with the Iranian clergy considers Iraq the backyard for Iran’s battles and conflicts,” Mr. Bdaiwi said.

Jaafar Al-Hussein, commander of Kata’ib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia operating mostly in Shiite areas in the south of Iraq, has warned Americans to leave Iraq or face another war.

Iran used many factions, including those of [Iraqi Shiite cleric] Muqtada al-Sadr, to prolong the war against U.S. troops before, and this might be a way to extend the war again,” Mr. Bdaiwi said.

But Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson told a Senate hearing this week that U.S. forces were in Iraq to fight Islamic State and would stay to complete the mission — whether the government in Baghdad wanted them in the country or not. He said he did not expect the al-Abadi government to ask U.S. forces to leave.

Even Mr. al-Sadr seems to be taking a step back from Tehran to balance his country’s religious orientation with cultural and economic ties with the Sunni Arabs.

In late July, Mr. al-Sadr, considered a crucial force in Iraq’s dominant religious sect, made surprise visits to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Strategic realignment

Mr. Bdaiwi said Baghdad’s strategic realignment is well underway.

“Iraq’s coordination with [Persian Gulf] countries will strengthen national will against others. It’s visible in the new openness to Saudi Arabia. The government is now able to balance against Iranian influence,” he said.

But an Iraqi-Saudi reset is likely to come at a price, with Riyadh expected to foot much of the bill to reconstruct predominantly Sunni cities such as Mosul, Ramadi and Tikrit recently taken from Islamic State.

In Lebanon, many say they are embarrassed by the deal and particularly fearful of a Saudi backlash.

“This deal is a humiliation to the Lebanese people and a security risk and betrayal of the Iraqis,” said 25-year-old Baghdad resident Dean Mousavi, who is a dual Lebanese and Iraqi national. “Hezbollah has some nerve to call this a victory.”

Meanwhile, Lebanon is feeling Saudi wrath over the Hezbollah-Islamic State deal and the ever-closer ties between Beirut officials and the Assad government.

Shiites make up more than a quarter of the Lebanese population, and Iranian military aid to Hezbollah accelerated during the Syrian war, which began in 2011.

“The brutal crimes committed by [Hezbollah] against our nation will inevitably reflect on Lebanon,” said Thamer al-Sabhan, a senior Saudi Foreign Ministry official in Riyadh. Lebanese must either choose to stand by Hezbollah or against it.”

Saudi displeasure with Hezbollah’s role in the Lebanese government was on display last year when the kingdom pulled its annual $4 billion in security aid.

The Saudis, along with Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, issued an advisory cautioning against travel to Lebanon, which had a huge impact on the struggling economy.

“We had 335,000 Gulf tourists in 2010,” said Pierre Al-Ashkar, chairman of Lebanon’s hotel owners association. “Just over 68,000 came in 2016.”

But Lebanese Shiites justify the deal with Islamic State and say joining a Damascus-Tehran axis would be the natural result of geography and demography.

“The bodies of our martyrs were returned, including a relative of mine,” said Khaled Mcheik, a 37-year-old civil engineer from the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon. “Anyone who knows the map of Lebanon knows our relationship with Syria is like between the fetus and its mother.”

A recent visit of members of the Lebanese Cabinet to Mr. Assad’s “victory” trade fair in Damascus nearly upended Beirut’s weak coalition government, which is pledged to a “dissociation policy” of official distance from Syria.

Missions from Iran, Russia and China installed booths at the August trade fair, which Mr. Assad used to declare defeat of his enemies in the war. Lebanon’s prime minister said his trade and agriculture ministers attended the fair only in a personal capacity.

But critics fear the whole country will suffer the cost of de facto membership in a league of Shiite nations.

“The visits shake our political stability and put Lebanon in the Iranian camp,” said Samir Geagea, chairman of the Lebanese Forces Party and a leading Christian politician.

Ali Ahmad Rabah, a Beirut political analyst with the online Lebanese news portal Al Modon, said he thinks the negative repercussions of the deal with Islamic State will undermine Hezbollah’s credibility.

“For the past six years, Hezbollah killed [anti-Assad] Syrians on the pretext that they were all supporting Islamic State,” said Mr. Rabah. “Before the agreement, they said IS represented a greater danger than the Israelis. Now they are defending a deal that guarantees the group’s future.”

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