SYRIA: the muscle flexing continues . . .

There is one big difference between the Iranian and Russian interventions in the Syrian war to save the hide of their mutual ally, Syrian President Bashar As­sad, Ed Blanche writes from Beirut.  Iran and its Shia allies, most notably Lebanon’s Hezbollah, have suffered thousands of men killed or wounded. Russian combat deaths are probably no more than two or three dozen, if that.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov (R)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L), and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov (R), head up the “odd-couple coalition”.

On the face of it, there has been no indication that the huge dispar­ity in casualties is causing major friction that might threaten this unusual alliance, a marriage of con­venience between two states strug­gling to become regional superpow­ers, eagerly exploiting the retreat by the United States, which not so long ago was the ultimate power in the Middle East.

This odd-couple coalition, how­ever, is coming under strain, largely because the two countries’ strate­gic imperatives in Syria are widely divergent and could become even more so. The Assad regime’s recent con­quest of eastern Aleppo, held by re­bel forces since mid-2012, may be a pivotal point in the Russian-Iranian partnership as it could mark where they part ways in terms of what comes next in Syria.

The fragility of their common ef­forts in Syria was illustrated in Au­gust when Iran agreed to allow Rus­sian strategic bombers to operate from the Islamic Republic’s Hama­dan airbase against rebel targets in Syria, then cancelled the decision a week later amid a firestorm of domestic criticism for abandoning revolutionary principles by permit­ting a foreign power to base military forces on Iranian soil.

In regional terms, Assad’s second-hand victory in Aleppo, largely paid for with Iranian and Shia blood on the ground, was a triumph for Teh­ran because it cements the land bridge  it is building between the Islamic Republic across Iraq to Syria and Lebanon to make it the paramount regional power from the Arabian Gulf to the Mediterranean.

Russia supplied the air power, backed with broadsides of cruise missiles from its warships in the eastern Mediterranean, that bludg­eoned eastern Aleppo into rubble and opened the way for the battle-hardened fighters of Hezbollah and Shia mercenaries from Iraq, Paki­stan and Afghanistan to fight their way into the rebels’ last major ur­ban stronghold.

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, victory in Aleppo gave im­mense impetus to his drive to re­store Moscow’s international power to what it was before the Soviet Un­ion crumbled in 1991. It also assured him naval, air and intelligence bases in Syria, the only ones Moscow has outside the Rus­sian federation, with which to chal­lenge the Americans and a weak­ened post-Cold War NATO.

“Russia’s action in Syria is not re­ally about Syria or even about the Middle East. It’s about its global role — and eventually (about) a coa­lition of equals with the US,” Dmi­tri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Centre said during a conference on regional security in Beirut in De­cember.

Iran’s imperatives are much more regional, reflecting the regime’s es­calating proxy operations in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and the Gulf to extend Shia control throughout the largely Sunni-dominated east­ern end of the Arab world and right what it perceives to be a 1,300-year-old wrong.

Now reports from Syria stress that the Iranians felt betrayed by a cease­fire agreement reached in Ankara by the Russian military and Turkey’s intelligence service on December 12th to end the Aleppo fighting and evacuate tens of thousands of civil­ians and rebel combatants. Within hours, the Iranians sabotaged the deal. The ceasefire finally took ef­fect December 15th.

Russia accuses Iranian-backed Shia militias, which suffered severe casualties in the fierce street fight­ing in and around Aleppo, of break­ing the Ankara agreement because it did not embrace Tehran’s military and ideological imperatives.

Putin’s extensive military support for Assad, including carpet bomb­ing unprotected cities such as Alep­po, underlines his determination to achieve his global objectives by ex­ploiting every opportunity he gets and securing bases that will drive his strategic game plan.

The Iranians want to dominate Syria for their own strategic purpos­es. The war that erupted in March 2011 gave them the opportunity.

Unlike the Russians, they are buy­ing real estate and businesses across Syria and encouraging Assad’s eth­nic cleansing process under which his minority Alawite regime forcibly displaces the majority Sunnis and minorities such as the Kurds to the outer fringes of modern Syria, leav­ing Assad and his Shia-leaning cro­nies ruling a rump state in the west­ern and central regions. This accommodates Iran, which wants to maintain its supply line through Syria to Hezbollah in Leba­non for a possible confrontation with Israel.

Assad and his cronies have a lot to thank Russia and Iran for but pre­venting the collapse of the Damas­cus regime has come at a hefty price — one that is likely to increase. Diplomatic and Arab sources say Assad and his inner circle no longer call the shots and formulate policy, particularly regarding defence and security, which are largely in Rus­sian and Iranian hands.

After Aleppo, Iran is emerging as the real winner.

Moscow mostly dictates political policy because, unlike Iran, it is a permanent member of the UN Secu­rity Council, which means it regu­larly vetoes any council effort to secure a diplomatic solution to the Syrian carnage that does not meet with Putin’s game plan.

The Iranians dominate mili­tary policy by dint of their army of Shia militiamen as well as sizeable numbers of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and so-called military advisers. It was Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC’s elite Al-Quds Force, who forged the military alliance with Moscow in Syria in July 2015, two months before Russia sent in its air force to save Assad’s crumbling regime dominated by the minority Alawites.

Lebanese analyst Hanin Ghaddar noted at the time that this alliance was “a temporary one. It’s an alli­ance over Assad. Not Syria…

“In Iran’s view, Syria is not a state. It’s just part of the Iranian plan. Fundamentally, what Iran wants in Syria is what it has in Lebanon — weak, ineffective state institutions incapable of making decisions with­out the approval of their patrons,” she observed.

“Unlike Tehran, Moscow is not interested in changing democracy or in maintaining the Shia-Alawite corridor. Moscow does not want to see Assad go and then be replaced by Soleimani.”

Iran is working with Assad’s re­gime to forcibly move Syria’s major­ity Sunnis and other groups at odds with Assad’s rule out of Damascus and Syria’s strategic heartland, the Mediterranean coast and the border with Lebanon, to establish what has become known as “Useful Syria”.

Iran has even brought in Shia settlers, including the families of foreign fighters deployed in Syria by Tehran from outside Syria, to populate areas the regime considers vital to its long-term interests and expansionist strategy in the region.

The IRGC and Iranian entrepre­neurs in Syria have been allowed by the Damascus regime to buy businesses and large tracts of prop­erty in and around the capital and in other parts of “Useful Syria” to bol­ster the plans to secure Shia control.

This indulgence by a grateful As­sad and his inner circle likely means that Iranian companies, particularly the IRGC’s powerful business em­pire, will be handed lucrative con­tracts when the massive post-war reconstruction gets under way.

The Iranians “are building a force on the ground that, long after the war, will stay there and wield a strong military and ideological in­fluence over Syria for Iran,” said analyst Philip Smyth, a specialist on Shia militias with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“And there’s not much Assad can do to curb the rising influence of these groups, even though Syrian of­ficials are clearly concerned about this because the militiamen are lit­erally preventing the overthrow of his government.”

From that perspective, Russia’s expanding role in Syria could serve as a counterweight to Iran’s bur­geoning presence in a state once seen as a bastion of the Arab world, a legitimacy that Assad is desperate to regain.

Indeed, the Assad dynasty’s le­gitimacy rested on its portrayal of itself as an Arab nationalist regime. It is this Sunni-dominated political order that Shia Iran seems bent on eradicating.

“Some observers are reading the Russian intervention as an attempt to pre-empt the total ‘Iranisation’ of the Syrian state, as much as it’s an attempt to rescue the regime,” observed Faysal Itani of the Atlan­tic Council’s Middle East centre in Beirut.

This article by Beirut-based Ed Blanche was first published in The Arab Weekly

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