In a complex war, a new twist

Iran is implanting Shia fighters and their families in the “useful” parts of Syria.
Sunday 15/07/2018
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu attend a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, last May. (Reuters)
Byzantine shifts. Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu attend a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, last May. (Reuters)

BEIRUT - Politically, the 7-year-old conflict in Syria is becoming increasingly complex, even for a war that has been so convoluted with competing global and regional powers, constant factional fighting between supposed allies and the Western US-led war against jihadist organisations that left vast urban destruction in its wake.

To illustrate the constant and frequently byzantine shifts in this murky conflagration, Israel, under a recent agreement with Russia, can launch air strikes against Iranian bases in Syria so long as the Syrian Army is not targeted.

Omar Alradad, a former brigadier-general in Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate and now a lecturer on regional security issues, observed: “Since Russia has few allies in the region and as Iranian forces have helped Russia’s military establish its presence in Syria, many analysts believe that a rift with Iran would be deleterious for Russian interests.

“Nonetheless, in the context of Russia’s goals in Syria” — to preserve the minority regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and secure a Middle East foothold to challenge the United States — “the agreement between Russia and Israel is hardly surprising.

“In the long run, Iran poses a threat to Russia’s military and political intentions in Syria: whereas Moscow would prefer Syria to be a secular and federal state able to maintain its coastal military bases, Tehran is interested in expanding its regional influence through a sectarian state controlled by Iran’s ideological counterparts.”

In that regard, the Islamic Republic has been stepping up its drive to systematically reorder the demographic make-up of Sunni-majority Syria by planting or expanding Shia communities to replace Sunnis who fled their homes.

The main targets of this effort to fundamentally alter Syria’s social landscape in Iran’s favour centres particularly on Damascus, the capital, and in the west to maintain the land link with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

With its long-sought land corridor between Iran and Syria still not fully established across Iraq, despite its Shia majority, Iran is implanting Shia fighters and their families in the “useful” parts of Syria. Assad and his inner circle — largely Alawites, a Muslim offshoot akin to Shiism — deem this essential for the state that will emerge when the fighting eventually ends.

More and more, it is looking like Syria will be partitioned to one extent or another, in a demographic reordering that echoes some of the deadly anomalies created by the British and the French, the European colonial powers that carved up the Middle East after their victory in the first world war.

Overall, this is part and parcel of Tehran’s grand strategy of creating a multistate, Shia-controlled bloc from the Caspian Sea and the Arabian Gulf to the Mediterranean along with a military juggernaut largely made up of Shia militias from Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Although Moscow is not likely to forcibly remove the Iranians and their proxies, Alradad observed “it is likely to try to curtail the latter’s influence in Syria.

“Thus, Russian forces have stopped responding to Israeli raids, thereby sending the message to Tehran that, without Russian backing, it is at risk of being targeted — an escalation of the current conflict that would thrust it into a whole new and extremely dangerous dimension,” he said.

“Assad’s ability to take action against Tehran’s interests is largely constrained by the latter’s military and economic leverage in Syria: Since the beginning of the crisis, Iranian militias fighting in Syria have become an integral part of the Syrian Army through mergers carried out under Iranian direction.”

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