The New Foreign Legion
A Historic Transition
The French Foreign Legion is an iconic military organization, which often has been romanticized in films. A new “foreign legion” phenomenon is now taking place in the Middle East; this “foreign legion” phenomenon is not romantic and presents profound strategic security ramifications. The new “foreign legions” actually reflect two opposing religious ideologies and comprise problems which require different counterterrorism skills from the US and the West. The Middle East strategic paradigm changed with the advent of the Arab Spring; the Arab Spring evolved into a chaotic and radicalized Middle East as Sunni factions oppose the Shiites and Salafits oppose other Sunnis who do not support the Salafist Islamic ideology. Many of the new “foreign legions” are motivated by fundamental religious beliefs.
Religious Foreign Legions: Who Are the Players?
The Islamic Republic of Iran was visionary regarding the potential for foreign Shiite military forces as spearheads in the drive toward Shiite dominance of the Middle East. In the midst of the 1979 Revolution, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG) Quds Force began to organize Hezbollah in Lebanon as a terrorist organization. Hezbollah would evolve into a significant political element in Lebanon as well as fielding a powerful military force.1 The IRG Quds investment in Hezbollah paid handsome dividends as Hezbollah fighters, at Quds orders, intervened in the Syrian civil war to rescue the Assad regime from almost-certain defeat. The IRG has a history of supporting Shiite militias in Iraq, dating back to shortly after the US invasion.2 Now the Shiite militias, numbering in the dozens, are the most effective fighters, along with the Kurds, in opposing the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq. While the Shiite militias are resisting IS, reports abound of Shiite militia atrocities against Iraqi Sunni villages. The militias vary in size and effectiveness with the Badr Organization being one of the largest and most effective. The IRG supports the Iraqi Shiite militias with training, weapons, funding, and battlefield advisors. The third IRG “foreign legion” is the Houthi tribe in Yemen.3 The Shiite Houthi tribe has effectively displaced the Sunni government in Sanaa and holds control of most of northern Yemen. The current situation remains chaotic with al Qaeda forces (AQAP) holding much of south Yemen and many tribes continuously shifting alliances.
The strategic security picture for the Middle East has shifted dramatically in the last 18 months. While media attention has focused primarily on the IS beheadings, the execution-by-fire of the Jordanian pilot, and the significant territorial conquests by IS within Syria and Iraq, the Iranian strategic gains have received comparatively little attention. Iran now holds the dominant political influence in five Middle Eastern capitals: Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and Sanaa. Iran has used the IRG “foreign legions” to effectively surround Saudi Arabia. Moreover, Iran is now positioned to threaten ship traffic through the critical sea transit points: the Strait of Hormuz, the Strait of Bab el-Mandab, and sea routes through the Red Sea to the Suez Canal. All these recent gains are due to the IRG direction and support of the Iranian “foreign legions”: Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite militias, and the Houthi tribe in Yemen. With or without nuclear weapons, Iran stands now as a regional super power in the Middle East based on the current strategic footprint and missile capabilities.
Dealing with a New Strategic Environment and New Tactical Problems
The rapidly changing strategic balance requires continuing education to develop new strategic security analytic techniques and models. The altered threat axis requires an enhanced set of counterterrorism skills to deal with a more complex threat environment. Online schools that specialize in strategic security and counterterrorism are a ready resource to fulfill the education needs for these nuanced security disciplines. These “focus universities” provide faculties that have actual experience in the field that uniquely complements the principles and theoretical knowledge. The students have an educational experience in these “focus universities” which develops their counterterrorism skills and otherwise prepares them for work in the national security environment.
1. Schiesz, S. (2014). Hezbollah: Before and After the Syrian War. (Master’s thesis). Retrieved: www.ssrn.com
2. Spyer, J. (2014). Iran and the Shia Militias Advance in Iraq. Retrieved: www.middleeastforum.org
3. Bloomberg, L. (2014). Gulf Arabs see specter of Iran in gains by Yemen’s Houthis. Retrieved: www.bloomberg.com