And the Winner in Syria Is—Iran
A flurry of diplomatic activity is currently taking
place in the Syrian and Iraqi arenas. While the moves are occurring on separate
and superficially unrelated fronts, taken together they produce an emergent
picture. That picture is of two camps, one of which works as a united force on
essential interests, the other of which at present does not.
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week travelled to Sochi to discuss the issue of
Syria with Russian officials. Specifically, Jerusalem is concerned with Iranian
advances in the country. Israel considers that the de-escalation agreement for
south west Syria reached by Washington and Moscow makes inadequate provision for
ensuring that Teheran and its militia allies do not establish themselves along
the borderline with the Israeli-controlled part of the Golan.
is noteworthy that this visit followed an apparent failure by a senior Israeli
security delegation to Washington DC to ensure a US commitment in this regard.
the officials were talking, the fighting fronts were on the move. Sunday saw the
opening of the offensive to take the town of Tal Afar, 60 kilometers west of
Mosul city, from the now crumbling Islamic State. Among the forces taking part
in the offensive are the Hashd al-Sha'abi/Popular Mobilization Units. The PMU is
the alliance of Shia militias mobilized to fight IS in the summer of 2014. Most
prominent among them are Iranian-supported groups such as the Badr Organization,
Ktaeb Hizballah and the Asaib Ahl al-Haq.
Iraqi Kurds are on track to overwhelmingly vote for independence in a
referendum next month.
additional notable process now under way is the attempt to induce the Iraqi
Kurds to abandon their proposed independence referendum, scheduled to take place
on September 25. Iran is fiercely opposed to any Kurdish move toward
independence. Teheran is in the process of moving forward to a clearly dominant
position in Iraqi politics, through its sponsorship of the Shia militias and the
ruling Dawa party. The last thing Teheran wants would be for a major part of the
country to split away.
as has become clear, the European and US allies of the Kurds are also hostile to
any Kurdish bid for independence. Both German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel
and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have made their respective countries'
opposition to the referendum and any hopes of Kurdish exit from Iraq plain.
week saw evidence of the growing closeness between Iran and Turkey. Iran's chief
of staff, General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, met with President Recep Tayepp
Erdogan. Following the meeting, Erdogan announced that the two countries have
agreed on joint military action against the Kurdish PKK and its Iranian sister
organization, PJAK. Bagheri's visit to Ankara was the first by an Iranian chief
of staff since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
PMU deputy commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (right) with Iranian Quds Force
commander Qassem Suleimani.
additional new development came to light in the course of last week – namely,
the new role of Egypt as a player in the Syrian arena. Egypt has in recent weeks
played a role as a mediator in de-escalation agreements in the eastern Ghouta
area and in Homs, with the permission and approval of both the Russians and the
the recent period saw the surprising visit of Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr
to Riyadh, where he met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Sadr, a
sectarian Shia figure who retains ties to Iran, has nevertheless sought to
position himself as an Iraqi patriotic leader in recent months.
what does all this diplomatic and military activity mean?
looking to locate the pattern of events, one becomes immediately aware that the
activities of only one player add up to a unified whole. That player is Iran. In
backing the Shia militias as political and military forces, opposing Kurdish
aspirations to independence, seeking by all possible means to establish forces
along the border with Israel, and seeking to draw Turkey away from the west and
toward itself, Teheran is pursuing a coherent, comprehensive policy and
strategy. This strategy ignores any distinction between Iraq, Syria and Lebanon,
treating all three as a single arena of conflict. Allies and assets are all
utilized to build the project of maximizing Iranian geographic reach and
political and military potency within this space.
The Russians have limited goals in Syria, and
little interest in Iraq.
should not be considered a strategic ally in this. The Russians have more modest
goals in Syria, and little interest in Iraq. Moscow favors the increased
Egyptian role in Syria which Teheran surely opposes. Russia is also not
indifferent to Israeli and Saudi concerns and interests, hence the Netanyahu
visit to Sochi.
US also does not currently seem to wish to be a primary player in this arena.
Washington does not appear to be developing a real strategy for containing the
Iranians in eastern Syria. The internal strains and turmoil in the US may indeed
be a core factor preventing any real possibility of a US focus on this contest.
doesn't appear to be developing a real strategy for containing Iran in
leaves the local players. The components of the Iran-led alliance in this space
are Iran itself, the Assad regime, Hizballah, the Iraqi Shia militias and
important elements within the Iraqi government. Turkey appears to be moving in
the direction of this bloc, though its size and Sunni nature mean it will never
fully be a part of it.
most notable of all in this emergent strategic picture, in which a clear shape
is discernible as the waters settle, is the absence of a really powerful Sunni
Islamist bloc. The once ascendant group of Muslim Brotherhood type states and
movements is effectively no more – with Qatar besieged, Turkey moving closer
to Iran, and Hamas also attempting to rebuild its relations with Teheran.
Salafi jihadis are also reduced back to the level of a terrorist irritant – a
sometimes lethal one, to be sure, but far from a contender for power. The
Islamic State is on the verge of destruction. The core al-Qaeda leadership is
dominant only in Idleb Province in Syria.
is an anomalous situation. Political Islam continues to dominate Sunni Arab
politics at street level. But the resilience and return of relatively stable
Sunni Arab autocracies in Cairo, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Amman, and the eclipse of
the Sunni Arab rebellion in Syria have removed it – for now at least – from
the real power game in the Middle East.
Sunni Arab bloc lacks the organization and broad ideological commonality
of the Iran axis.
is as a result facing the cohesive and coherent Iran-led bloc is a much more
nebulous gathering, but one which if combined possesses more power, more
population and more wealth than the Iranians. It lacks, however, the binding
organizational capacity provided by the Revolutionary Guards Corps. It also does
not possess the broad ideological commonality of the Teheran-led group.
Observe the forces mentioned in this article: Israel, Saudi
Arabia, the UAE, the Kurdish Regional Government, Egypt, the Kurdish
paramilitary forces in Turkey and Iran. (Add in Jordan and the remaining non-jihadi
Syrian rebels to complete the picture) These are the core elements, each on its
own relevant front, standing in the way of Iranian advancement in the Middle
East. There are differences, disputes, in some cases sharp rivalries between
them. Much will depend on the creation of lines of communication and cooperation
in this camp. The contest between these two groups in the Iraq-Syria space is
today the core strategic conflict in the Middle East.