Russia Pulls Syrian Rug From Under Iran’s Feet

Analysis | With Russians replacing Iranians and Hezbollah on the Syrian battle field, and a Saudi-backed opposition summit, Iran fears its influence could be waning.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Smoke rising in the distance, in the aftermath of a Russian airstrike that targeted Islamic State-controlled areas in Raqqa, Syria, December 6. 2015.
Smoke rising in the aftermath of a Russian airstrike that targeted Islamic State-controlled areas in Raqqa, Syria, December 6. 2015.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

It begins on Tuesday. In fact, it begins again on Tuesday: another international attempt to create a diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war. After two summit conferences in Geneva (in 2012 and 2014) and two more in Vienna in recent months, about 100 representatives of militias and opposition movements in Syria have convened in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. They have gathered to examine their level of willingness to unify ranks, conduct negotiations with representatives of President Bashar Assad’s regime, and agree on an interim Syrian government to prepare a new constitution and elections.

The participants in the Vienna meetings, including Iran, agreed on this approach. But an examination of those invited to the Riyadh conference does not inspire much confidence. Missing from the list, for example, is the Syrian Kurdish militia, which in recent months has become the most important force in the battle against the Islamic State group.

Turkey, which views the Kurds as terrorists, objected to their participation, and so the United States relented. Both Russia and the Assad regime view some of the militias invited – such as Jaysh al-Islam and the Islamic Union of Ajnad al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham – as terror groups. And many of the political representatives invited are not deemed acceptable to the militias because they have not actually been involved in the fighting.

The verbal sparring has already started between Iran and Saudi Arabia over the hosting of the conference. Iran fears, justifiably, that Saudi Arabia intends to steal the show from Tehran, as well as its influence on the conference’s political results. Senior Iranian spokesmen made clear last week that holding the conference in Saudi Arabia would harm the diplomatic process that was previously agreed in Vienna. However, Iran has yet to explain how holding the conference in Riyadh could ruin those agreements, and even Tehran agreed that it is necessary to establish a united opposition leadership in order to advance discussions with Assad. But Iran expected that the conference would be held in what it termed neutral territory, not the capital of its bitter rival.

It seems it’s not only the Saudis who have managed to pull the rug out from under the Iranians’ feet. Opposition websites in Syria report that the nature of Russian operations in Syria has caused anger and disappointment in Iran. For example, the Russians have taken control of the Al-Shayrat airfield east of the city of Homs, which was previously held by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah. The Russians have displaced the Iranians and intend to establish an air base for their warplanes there.

In the shadows

The takeover of the airport follows a Russian intervention in the structure of the Syrian military. The Russian command ordered Assad to reduce the independent actions of the National Defense Forces and integrate them into the Syrian army. “National Defense Forces” (NDF) is the name Assad has given to the gangs known as Shabiha (“Shadows” or “Spirits”), the armed militias who were originally used to kill demonstrators and opponents of the regime. They later received their own “areas of responsibility” as they replaced depleted regular forces.

At the beginning of the fighting, these paramilitary units established independent command centers in various cities around Syria. They operate on the edges of the areas where the Syrian army has control, but there have already been a number of confrontations between Syrian soldiers and the NDF. It seems these militias are now out of control, but continue to receive funding from the government.

King Salman of Saudi Arabia at last month's South American-Arab Countries summit. Iran is concerned by Saudi Arabia's pivotal role in the upcoming Syria talks.Credit: Reuters

As part of the Russian effort to reorganize the Syrian military and turn it into the country’s main fighting force, Assad was asked to stop paying the salaries of NDF units and draft their men into the army instead.

Syrian opposition sources report that Russia is also trying to have Hezbollah forces leave Syria. This will most likely be opposed by both Assad and Iran. Unlike Iran, which has an estimated 5,000 officers and 25,000 soldiers under Iranian command on the ground, Russia still has no ground troops in Syria. But Russia is also making good use of aerial attacks in order to impose control. These attacks are far more effective than the contributions of the Revolutionary Guards soldiers and other forces they command, and have made Russia the most important military force in Syria.

And this is exactly what the Iranian commanders feared. Rebel sources report that the Iranians are writing to their superiors in Tehran, warning them of being pushed aside on the Syrian front, and of the possibility that Syria will become a full Russian dependency.

Given recent events – the Syrian front turning into a Russian arena; the Turkish Air Force completely disappearing from the Syrian skies following its downing of a Russian jet last month; and the Syrian opposition conference taking place in Riyadh – Iran could very well find itself at a crossroad and forced to make a strategic decision. It will have to decide whether to send ground troops into Syria to build up its presence, or make do with the secondary role of a support force. The first possibility could entangle it in a ground war whose victory is not guaranteed. But the second option could see it excluded entirely from Syria.

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