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Iran’s Presence in Syria: Is It There for the Long Haul?

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Iran’s presence in Syria remains a highly irritating factor for Israel, the United States and European countries, which are not ready to finance Syria’s post-war rebuilding as long as Iranian forces maintain their positions. Iran explains its presence in Syria exclusively by the fact that it was invited there by the Syrian government, classifying its forces as “advisors” or “(Shi’ite) shrine defenders.”

Despite the critical situation surrounding the JCPOA, which further deepens Iran’s domestic political crisis, Tehran is still determined to consolidate its positions in Syria. It can do so by creating a network of loyal Shi’ite units and groups are a cause for concern for its neighbours from the point of view of possibly repeating the Lebanese scenario.

Insufficient resources make the task far more difficult, and Tehran is forced to act with regard to Russia and China’s support, given the unwillingness of European investors to invest in post-war rebuilding of Syria.

Iran could have the following response to the shortage of funds to rebuild Syria: even if resources for full-fledged rebuilding are lacking, Iran could still play a negative role in the development of the situation in the region. This is why other actors should join the process in order to prevent the situation from exacerbating at the very least. In the meantime, Iran is planning to implement the contracts it undertook, but the question remains as to what funds Iran will channel into it.

Iran’s presence in Syria remains a highly irritating factor for Israel, the United States and European countries, which are not ready to finance Syria’s post-war rebuilding as long as Iranian forces maintain their positions. Iran explains its presence in Syria exclusively by the fact that it was invited there by the Syrian government, classifying its forces as “advisors” or “(Shi’ite) shrine defenders.” The two sides once again referred to Iran’s status as “invited advisors” during Minister of Defence of Iran Amir Hatami’s visit to Syria on Saturday August 25, 2018.

The declared goals of Brigadier General Hatami’s visit were to develop cooperation in the new circumstances and discuss Syria’s progressing to a post-war stage. The agenda included both military and economic aspects, since discussions focused on Iranian contractors rebuilding Syria. Iran’s military attaché in Damascus, Brigadier General Abolqassem Alinejad, said that once the Syrian government takes control of the entire country, Syria–Iran relations will only become stronger.

The military and economic aspects of these relations are largely interconnected, since both are intended to solidify Iran’s positions in Syria, preserving Iran’s outpost in its confrontation with Israel and boosting its regional influence.

The Military and Political Agenda

Israel has repeatedly expressed its concerns about Iran’s military presence in Syria, at times rather forcefully, by striking targets that presumably belonged to Iran. The United States has also spoken about the need to liberate Syria – not so much from terrorists as from Iranian forces. For instance, National Security Advisor of the United States John Bolton noted recently that this issue is a priority for the United States, and he has repeatedly discussed it with his Russian counterparts. However, Russia has made it clear that it would be impossible to pressure Iran on that account. The greatest compromise was achieved in early August, when Iran agreed to withdraw its forces 85 kilometres from Israel’s border. Still, Iranian analysts hastened to remark that those actions only played into the hand of Iran’s strategy in Syria.

Noting the fact that Syria had been liberated from terrorists and that the government would soon take control of the north-western governorate of Idlib, Hatami called the bilateral relations strategically invulnerable to third parties. In turn, Minister of Defence of Syria Ali Ayyoub said that without the help of its “Iranian friends,” Damascus would not have held out against the terrorists. He also noted that Iran’s place of honour on the map of Syria’s foreign political relations cannot be compared to the role of “occupants,” “marauders” or “warmongers,” thus confirming Hatami’s words that enemies would fail in their attempts to drive a wedge between Iran and Syria. The negotiations resulted in the signing of a military cooperation agreement that consolidates previous arrangements. Alinejad said that Iran’s military would help Syria clear the mine fields remaining from the war and restore the production of military equipment. Negotiations were also held on supplying certain weapons, for instance, Iran’s Kosar fighter aircraft that is, in essence, a copy of the U.S. Northrop F-5 fighter.

Accompanied by the Syrian military command, Hatami visited the border zones, Aleppo and places where “shrine defenders” are deployed (this term is used to denote Iranian military units deployed in Syria since, officially, they only help protect Shi’ite Muslim shrines). Hatami specifically noted the important role of “shrine defenders” in maintaining peace and security in the region, which in essence is another confirmation of their broader functions. Since the start of the war, Iran has, according to various sources, sent thousands of soldiers and pieces of military equipment to Syria, as well as and tens of thousands of mobilized groups from Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Pakistan. During the seven years of civil war, about 1000 Iranians have been killed, including senior Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) officials. As a result, Tehran has become more open about its casualties and the justification of Iran’s presence in the combat zones.

The reinstatement of sanctions by the United States, as well as the introduction of new restrictions, following President Trump’s decision to renege on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Iranian nuclear programme is also partially linked to Iran’s participation in local conflicts, since charges against Tehran include participation in the Syrian and Yemeni conflicts. Iran will hardly succeed in bringing Trump back to the JCPOA in the foreseeable future, and it is certainly not ready to sacrifice its few military and strategic allies for that purpose, which makes preserving its influence in Syria virtually a matter of principle.

The military cooperation agreement that Amir Hatami signed with his Syrian counterpart Ali Ayyoub and President Bashar al-Assad essentially enshrines Iran’s long-term presence in Syria. Bolstering the “resistance axis” was also mentioned at negotiations, which apparently refers to far-reaching plans to spread joint influence in the region. Iranian officials also noted that the parties had agreed on the presence of pro-Iran forces in Syria to aid the government, although official statements still called them “advisors.”

Iran’s far-reaching plans to consolidate its presence in Syria by creating a network of loyal Shi’ite units and groups are a cause for concern for its neighbours from the point of view of possibly repeating the Lebanese scenario. For instance, Lebanon’s Hezbollah conducted operations during the war in south-western Syria, despite Russia’s objections. In 2017, The Economist wrote that Hezbollah’s potential had grown by 17 times over the last decade, and Iran has had a huge hand in this. If Tehran does succeed in preserving its presence in Syria, which subsequently strengthen the presence of Hezbollah and other loyal groups there, the end of the civil war will not eliminate another permanent hot bed of tensions on Israel’s border. Therefore, there will be no short-term settlement of the situation even after the government forces take control of Idlib.

Iran’s Economic Interests

During his visit, Hatami also discussed the post-war reconstruction of Syria with his Syrian colleagues. This is part of the economic aspect of Iran’s motivations, even though it is closely linked with the country’s military and political plans. The issue of rebuilding Syria keeps cropping up on the international agenda, but, due to clashing political interests, a clear picture has not emerged. For instance, European investors are not prepared to invest in Syria as long as pro-Iranian forces or Iran’s “advisors” are present there. Given Iran’s current economic situation and the political crisis brewing in the country, it does not have enough resources to rebuild an entire war-torn country. However, the situation around the JCPOA and the need to ensure Iran’s own interests in the region prompt Tehran to move along the path of agreements even without sufficient means to do it.

Thus, Tehran’s principal economic interest in Syria at present is to remove the need to finance the war, which is taking resources away from settling Iran’s domestic economic situation.

Reuters and other media outlets have written that, Iran opened Syria a line of credit in 2013 worth a total of $5.6 billion, most of which went on Iran’s oil deliveries. The parties also began setting up banking relations, which was the subject of negotiations between representatives of the central banks of Iran and Syria in June 2017.

During Hatami’s latest visit, he said that Iran’s private businesses were ready to participate in rebuilding Syria. At the same time, at the end of last year, Major General Ali Jafari, the Chief Commander of the IRGC, said that, since the situation in Syria is not yet entirely safe, the IRGC forces, and not private companies, had charged with rebuilding the country. Most likely, against the background of sporadic protests arising in various regions of Iran since 2017 demanding, among other things that financing expensive foreign military campaigns be stopped, the decision was made to depict Iran’s participation as an opportunity for private companies to make money on large contracts. Similarly, private businesses could create a more positive international image. In essence, Syrian contracts will go to companies with ties to the government or specifically to the IRGC.

In fact, more serious discussions of economic agreements took place about a week before Hatami’s visit. During a visit to Syria in August 2018, an Iranian delegation signed agreements assigning Iranian companies a major role in rebuilding Syria’s infrastructure. Thus, the delegation led by Deputy Minister of Roads and Urban Development Amir Amini, accompanied by Abbas Akhoundi, Head of the Iran–Syria Commission on Economic Matters, held a series of meetings with various agencies, including the ministers of economy and housing. The discussions focused, in particular, on customs and banking cooperation that could help expand trade relations between the two countries. The agenda featured, among other items, industrial and technological cooperation, collaboration in telecommunications, establishing joint small and medium-sized enterprises, rebuilding the water supply system and power supply utilities and restoring the infrastructure in general. Teymour Bashirgonbadi, International Affairs Director at the Ministry of Roads and Urban Development, said that priority is given to the work of the bilateral commission at the level of the Prime Minister of Syria and the First Vice President of Iran.

During the negotiations, Minister of Economy and Foreign Trade of Syria Samer al-Khalil spoke about the need to use national currencies in mutual payments due to the United States reinstating sanctions against Iran. The Minister mentioned cooperation in several areas, such as tax regulation in bilateral trade, housing construction and, curiously, investment in rebuilding Syria, for which Iran has no money.

Like Minister Hatami, Teimur Bashirgonbadi spoke about the indispensable role that Iran’s private business plays in developing bilateral cooperation to rebuild infrastructure facilities and restore historical monuments. The new memorandum on cooperation should cover all preceding agreements and draw a line under the principal arrangements on rebuilding the country.

It should be noted that these are not the first negotiations on economic issues. Iran and Syria have already signed an agreement on rebuilding the power infrastructure. Previously, relevant negotiations were held between Minister of Energy of Iran Sattar Mahmoudi and his Syrian counterpart in Tehran. Mahmoudi noted then that the agreements achieved were worth hundreds of millions of euros. It was assumed that Iran would rebuild the 90MW power plant in Deir ez-Zor and build a 540MW power plant in the Latakia Governorate. At that point, MAPNA Group, a company with distant ties to the IRGC, was expected to undertake initial projects.

Arrangements in telecommunications had also been previously achieved. In 2017, Syria announced that an Iranian consortium with the participation of Mobin Group would take part in establishing the country’s third mobile network operator. The same IRGC-affiliated company took part in a 2010 tender, but lost to France’s Orange and the United Arab Emirate’s Etisalat. In 2017, the company was deemed to have enough potential to carry out the work. In addition, the Syrian authorities can use the accumulated potential of Iran’s telecom companies in communications control.

***

Despite the critical situation surrounding the JCPOA, which further deepens Iran’s domestic political crisis, Tehran is still determined to consolidate its positions in Syria in the long term and, should the situation allow, partially follow the Lebanese scenario. Insufficient resources make the task far more difficult, and Tehran is forced to act with regard to Russia and China’s support, given the unwillingness of European investors to invest in post-war rebuilding of Syria. Iran also reaffirms its active political role by participating in the Astana talks; another summit od heads of state took place in Iran on September 7, 2018.

Iran could have the following response to the shortage of funds to rebuild Syria: even if resources for full-fledged rebuilding are lacking, Iran could still play a negative role in the development of the situation in the region. This is why other actors should join the process in order to prevent the situation from exacerbating at the very least. In the meantime, Iran is planning to implement the contracts it undertook, but the question remains as to what funds Iran will channel into it.

First published in our partner RIAC

Ph. D., Junior research associate at Higher School of Economics, Advisor of the PIR Center, RIAC expert

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Middle East

Turkey and the time bomb in Syria

Mohammad Ghaderi

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The Turkish attack on northern Syria has provided conditions for ISIS militants held in camps in the region to escape and revitalize themselves.

Turkey launched “Operation Peace Spring” on Wednesday October 9, claiming to end the presence of terrorists near its borders in northern Syria. Some countries condemned this illegal action of violation of the Syrian sovereignty.

The military attack has exacerbated the Syrian people’s living condition who live in these areas. On the other hand, it has also allowed ISIS forces to escape and prepare themselves to resume their actions in Syria. Before Turkish incursion into northern Syria, There were many warnings that the incursion would prepare the ground for ISIS resurgence. But ignoring the warning, Turkey launched its military attacks.

Currently, about 11,000 ISIS prisoners are held in Syria. ISIS has claimed the responsibility for two attacks on Qamishli and Hasakah since the beginning of Turkish attacks.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump said that Turkey and the Kurds must stop ISIS prisoners from fleeing. He urged European countries to take back their citizens who have joined ISIS.

It should be noted that the U.S. is trying to prove that ISIS has become stronger since the U.S. troops pulled out before the Turkish invasion, and to show that Syria is not able to manage the situation. But this fact cannot be ignored that ISIS militants’ escape and revival were an important consequence of the Turkish attack.

Turkish troops has approached an important city in the northeast and clashed with Syrian forces. These events provided the chance for hundreds of ISIS members to escape from a camp in Ayn Issa near a U.S.-led coalition base.

 The camp is located 35 kilometers on the south of Syria-Turkey border, and about 12,000 ISIS members, including children and women, are settled there. The Kurdish forces are said to be in charge of controlling these prisoners.

Media reports about the ISIS resurgence in Raqqa, the former ISIS stronghold, cannot be ignored, as dozens of terrorists have shot Kurdish police forces in this city. The terrorists aimed to occupy the headquarters of the Kurdish-Syrian security forces in the center of Raqqa.  One of the eyewitnesses said the attack was coordinated, organized and carried out by several suicide bombers, but failed.

In response to Turkey’s invasion of Syria, the Kurds have repeatedly warned that the attack will lead to release of ISIS elements in the region. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyib Erdogan denied the reports about the escape of ISIS prisoners and called them “lies”.

European officials fear that ISIS prisoners with European nationality, who have fled camps, will come back to their countries.

Kurdish forces are making any effort to confront Turkish troops in border areas, so their presence and patrol in Raqqa have been reduced.

Interestingly, the Turkish military bombarded one of temporary prisons and caused ISIS prisoners escaping. It seems that ISIS-affiliated covert groups have started their activities to seize the control of Raqqa. These groups are seeking to rebuild their so-called caliphate, as Kurdish and Syrian forces are fighting to counter the invading Turkish troops. Families affiliated with ISIS are held in Al-Hol camp, under the control of Kurdish forces. At the current situation, the camp has turned into a time bomb that could explode at any moment. Under normal circumstances, there have been several conflicts between ISIS families in the camp, but the current situation is far worse than before.

There are more than 3,000 ISIS families in the camp and their women are calling for establishment of the ISIS caliphate. Some of SDF forces have abandoned their positions, and decreased their watch on the camp.

The danger of the return of ISIS elements is so serious, since they are so pleased with the Turkish attack and consider it as an opportunity to regain their power. There are pictures of ISIS wives in a camp in northern Syria, under watch of Kurdish militias, showing how happy they are about the Turkish invasion.

In any case, the Turkish attack, in addition to all the military, political and human consequences, holds Ankara responsible for the escape of ISIS militants and preparing the ground for their resurgence.

Currently, the camps holding ISIS and their families are like time bombs that will explode if they all escape. Covert groups affiliated with the terrorist organization are seeking to revive the ISIS caliphate and take further actions if the Turkish attacks continue. These attacks have created new conflicts in Syria and undermined Kurdish and Syrian power to fight ISIS.

From our partner Tehran Times

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Middle East

The Turkish Gambit

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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The only certainty in war is its intrinsic uncertainty, something Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could soon chance upon.  One only has to look back on America’s topsy-turvy fortunes in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Syria for confirmation.

The Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria has as its defined objective a buffer zone between the Kurds in Turkey and in Syria.  Mr. Erdogan hopes, to populate it with some of the 3 million plus Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of these in limbo in border camps.  The refugees are Arab; the Kurds are not.

Kurds speak a language different from Arabic but akin to Persian.  After the First World War, when the victors parceled up the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire, Syria came to be controlled by the French, Iraq by the British, and the Kurdish area was divided into parts in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, not forgetting the borderlands in Iran — a brutal division by a colonial scalpel severing communities, friends and families.  About the latter, I have some experience, having lived through the bloody partition of India into two, and now three countries that cost a million lives.   

How Mr. Erdogan will persuade the Arab Syrian refugees to live in an enclave, surrounded by hostile Kurds, some ethnically cleansed from the very same place, remains an open question.  Will the Turkish army occupy this zone permanently?  For, we can imagine what the Kurds will do if the Turkish forces leave.

There is another aspect of modern conflict that has made conquest no longer such a desirable proposition — the guerrilla fighter.  Lightly armed and a master of asymmetric warfare, he destabilizes. 

Modern weapons provide small bands of men the capacity and capability to down helicopters, cripple tanks, lay IEDs, place car bombs in cities and generally disrupt any orderly functioning of a state, tying down large forces at huge expense with little chance of long term stability.  If the US has failed repeatedly in its efforts to bend countries to its will, one has to wonder if Erdogan has thought this one through.

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 is another case in point.  Forever synonymous with the infamous butchery at Sabra and Shatila by the Phalange militia facilitated by Israeli forces, it is easy to forget a major and important Israeli goal:  access to the waters of the Litani River which implied a zone of occupation for the area south of it up to the Israeli border.

Southern Lebanon is predominantly Shia and at the time of the Israeli invasion they were a placid group who were dominated by Christians and Sunni, even Palestinians ejected from Israel but now armed and finding refuge in Lebanon.  It was when the Israelis looked like they were going to stay that the Shia awoke.  It took a while but soon their guerrillas were harassing Israeli troops and drawing blood.  The game was no longer worth the candle and Israel, licking its wounds, began to withdraw ending up eventually behind their own border.

A colossal footnote is the resurgent Shia confidence, the buildup into Hezbollah and new political power.  The Hezbollah prepared well for another Israeli invasion to settle old scores and teach them a lesson.  So they were ready, and shocked the Israelis in 2006.  Now they are feared by Israeli troops.   

To return to the present, it is not entirely clear as to what transpired in the telephone call between Erdogan and Trump.  Various sources confirm Trump has bluffed Erdogan in the past.  It is not unlikely then for Trump to have said this time, “We’re leaving.  If you go in, you will have to police the area.  Don’t ask us to help you.”  Is that subject to misinterpretation?  It certainly is a reminder of the inadvertent green light to Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait when Bush Senior was in office. 

For the time being Erdogan is holding fast and Trump has signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Turkish officials and institutions.  Three Turkish ministers and the Defense and Energy ministries are included.  Trump has also demanded an immediate ceasefire.  On the economic front, he has raised tariffs on steel back to 50 percent as it used to be before last May.  Trade negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey have also been halted forthwith.  The order also includes the holding of property of those sanctioned, as well as barring entry to the U.S.

Meanwhile, the misery begins all over again as thousands flee the invasion area carrying what they can.  Where are they headed?  Anywhere where artillery shells do not rain down and the sound of airplanes does not mean bombs.

Such are the exigencies of war and often its surprising consequences. 

Author’s Note:  This piece appeared originally on Counterpunch.org

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Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?

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On October 7, 2019, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northeast Syria, where the contingent alongside Kurdish militias controlled the vast territories. Trump clarified that the decision is connected with the intention of Turkey to attack the Kurdish units, posing a threat to Ankara.

It’s incredible that the Turkish military operation against Kurds – indeed the territorial integrity of Syria has resulted in the escape of the U.S., Great Britain, and France. These states essentially are key destabilizing components of the Syrian crisis.

Could this factor favourably influence the situation in the country? For instance, after the end of the Iraqi war in 2011 when the bulk of the American troops left the country, the positive developments took place in the lives of all Iraqis. According to World Economics organization, after the end of the conflict, Iraq’s GDP grew by 14% in 2012, while during the U.S. hostilities the average GDP growth was about 5,8%.

Syria’s GDP growth should also be predicted. Not right away the withdrawal of U.S., French, British, and other forces, but a little bit later after the end of the Turkish operation that is not a phenomenon. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has been going on since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Kurds started to promote the ideas of self-identity and independence. Apart from numerous human losses, the Turks accomplished nothing. It is unlikely that Ankara would achieve much in Peace Spring operation. The Kurds realize the gravity of the situation and choose to form an alliance with the Syrian government that has undermined the ongoing Turkish offensive.

Under these circumstances, Erdogan could only hope for the creation of a narrow buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. The withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the region is just a matter of time. However, we can safely say that the Turkish expansion unwittingly accelerated the peace settlement of the Syrian crisis, as the vital destabilizing forces left the country. Besides, the transfer of the oil-rich north-eastern regions under the control of Bashar Assad will also contribute to the early resolution of the conflict.

It remains a matter of conjecture what the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia agreed on during the high-level talks. Let’s hope that not only the Syrians, but also key Gulf states are tired of instability and tension in the region, and it’s a high time to strive for a political solution to the Syrian problem.

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