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Experts: Iranian Influence in Syria Shows No Signs of Stopping

Iranian influence in Syria is in no danger of dissipating as its civil war rages on and millions more of its citizens may soon be fleeing their homes in a new round of fighting, a panel of Middle East experts said this week.

“The Iranians are playing the long-game here” through its power base of Hezbollah in Lebanon and strong influence in Shia-controlled Iraq, Charles Lister, director of the Extremism and Counterterrorism Program at the Middle East Institute, said at the Hudson Institute on Wednesday. Tehran has 70,000 to 100,000 fighters in Syria through its own forces and proxies backing the Bashar al Assad regime.

Russia is acknowledging internationally “we cannot do what you want us to do in Syria” when it comes to controlling Iran.

“The U.S. is coming to realize no one will be pushing [Iran] out,” said Randa Slim, the director of conflict resolution at the Middle East Institute.

“[Bashar al Assad] is a hostage of Iran,” Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian civil servant, said.

Add Russian air and naval power to keeping Assad in power, R.J. Brodsky, a senior fellow at the Security Studies Group said, “Assad will be a puppet of Iran and Russia” for years to come.

Emphasizing that point in recent days is the build-up of Russian naval forces off the Syria coast, regime soldiers and Iranian-backed militias now in place on the ground poised to attack the city of Idlib, close to the Turkish border. It is one of the last strongholds of opposition groups backed by the United States and those supporting what had been the Islamic State.

Idlib could push another 3 million Syrians out of their residences toward Turkey, putting more pressure on Ankara and also on countries like Greece on the periphery of Europe with a new refugee crisis.

Turkey, with millions of displaced Syrians already inside its borders, has made clear that it does not want more refugees and is taking steps to close off entry points. Lister said that Turkish forces inside Syria have transformed their initially small presence into larger fortified forward operating bases with anti-air missile emplacements and armor support. It also provides staging points, if needed, to contain anti-Assad Kurdish forces that Ankara considers terrorists.

Iran, Russia and Turkey “look at the regime not as an equal partner” and discuss among themselves ways to de-conflict military operations and the next steps forward for Syria without consulting Assad, Barabandi said.

For Russia, this demonstration of military force far from its borders shows “the U.S. we are the super power in the area,” he added. But Moscow’s attempted reach to achieve super power status goes further. It includes visits by President Vladimir Putin to Berlin and regular diplomatic talk from Moscow in the U.N. and elsewhere of the need to rebuild Syria so that refugees are willing to return. In short, Moscow is trying to project an image of Syria as a secure nation with political stability because it has allied itself with Russia and is now open to investors.

But neither Moscow or Tehran have the cash to rebuild Syria, the panelists agreed. “We need money” that neither has because of U.S. and European Union economic sanctions on both countries to rebuild, the panelists said.

So Russia, especially, is turning to the West and to the Gulf States for reconstruction money, Lister said. But Assad “will make the decision where the money will go,” likely into large infrastructure projects ripe for cronyism in regions of the country that backed the regime. Areas like Homs where the revolt was strongest and then destroyed are not targeted for new projects.

Although Russia is saying publicly and calling for conferences at Geneva into how to take care of millions of returning Syria, “I don’t think Assad can absorb all the refugees coming back” nor does he want to, Barabandi said.

“Syria is playing a different game” on refugees, Lister said, noting that Assad’s intelligence chief has said half of them are suspected terrorists and would be arrested if they returned. Many of the refugees and opposition fighters still in Syria are Sunni. Assad and many in his regime are Alawite or Shiia, on the other side of an Islamic sectarian divide.

Assad says, “he wants businessmen,” Brodsky added but he wants them under conditions of acceptability. The reason he says he wants this return of persons with capital comes down to: “his oligarchs and businessmen are already under sanctions” and cannot attract international investments or World Bank loans. By bringing in new players they can attract investment and also become “part of his game” to stay in power.

“There are not many points of convergence” between Russia and the United States when it comes to Syria beyond military deconfliction, Lister said. While Israel has made clear to Moscow what it considers to be “red lines” in Syria, especially when it comes to Iranian-backed ground operations, Washington has not, the panelists said.

“The United States and other actors [the European Union primarily] don’t have a comprehensive approach” to dealing with the Syrian civil war on the diplomatic, political and economic fronts. Slim cited chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford’s comments Tuesday that the American objective is ending the Assad regime’s hold on power. That was the goal of the Obama administration when it began funneling military aid to groups fighting the Islamic State that then controlled large sections of Syria and Iraq.

“Is this the old-slash-new objective?” she asked rhetorically.

  • publius_maximus_III

    Let’s solve this thing. It’s only been going on now, what, 2 or 3,000 years?

  • Kypros

    As Russia’s and Iran’s…and for that matter, Turkey’s interests in Syria start to diverge, I can see more friction.

  • Ed L

    The Sykes–Picot Agreement strikes again. Kurds, Armenians, Circassians, Zazas, Ossetians, Alawites, Druze people, Yazidi people, as well as Shia Muslims in Iraq and Saudi Arabia have been among the most important victims of the Sykes-Picot Agreement in the past 100 years. Iran has hegemonic ambitions in the region. Iran has acquired a dominant position in Lebanon through its proxy Hezbollah, keeps Bashar Assad in power in Syria (in cooperation with Russia), and directly influences the central government and Shiite community in Iraq. The ayatollahs certainly think and act as heirs to the tradition of the Great Persian empires of earlier centuries. These ambitions can and should be checked. Iran’s ambitions in the Levant have many opponents: Israel, Turkey, Jordan, and the Sunni Gulf states. And if President Trump and his administration want to put action behind their rhetoric to confront Iran over its regional provocations, he has several regional partners

  • Duane

    Iran does not border Syria and so depends upon a friendly Iraqi government to protect their supply lines and their rear. But that is a tenuous relationship, given that Iraqi Kurds control northern Iraq, and the Shia Iraqis, though friendly to Shia Iran, are still a minority of Iraqis and are Arabs and not Persians

    Iran is definitely in the ascendency in Syria now, but that could change quickly. When they eventually threaten Israel sufficiently to generate an attack (that is when, not if) it is likely to turn into an Iranian massacre. Iraq won’t come to their defense, since that would trigger another Iraqi civil war, with Kurds and Sunni Arabs going after both the Iranians and the Iraqi Shia stronghold in Baghdad. The entire Levant would become a massive battleground.

    The Israelis will never allow the Iranians to establish control over southern Syria. The IDF has already been bombing Iranian military and supply facilities in southern Syria for the last 18 months with near impunity, but for the loss of a single F16 to Iranian S300 SAMs.

    • waveshaper1

      FYI; The Shia sect of Islam dominates the population of Iraq and the Sunni sect of Islam dominates the population of Syria. And yes, most of these folks are considered Arabs.

      – Iraq; Shias make up 65% of the population and Sunnis make up 30% of the population (most of the members of the 50 Kurdish tribes in Iraq are Sunni).

      – Syria (2011 data); Sunnis made up 74% of the population (this includes the Sunni Kurds) and the normal Shia + the Alawite heritic Shia sect A.K.A Assads tribe made up 11% – 16% of the population.

      Maybe Assad’s got a plan to convert all these misguided Sunnis over to his Alawites school of Shia Islam by using the following “highly successful” model (not sure who will get stuck with playing the part of the Mongol Hoard/hopefully it’s not the USA); The Islamic conquest of Persia/Iran happened starting in 633. For the next 9 centuries Sunnis Arabs dominated Persia, making up 90% of the population. The domination of the Sunni creed during the first nine Islamic centuries characterized the religious history of Persia/Iran during this period. Eventually the Mongols sweep thru this AO and thoroughly stomped on Sunni run Persia. The Mongol hoards epic beat-down of Sunni dominated Persia set the stage for the eventual rise of the Shia in Persia/Iran.

      • Duane

        Nope … Shias account for just 15 million of Iraq’s population of 37 million. They are a plurality, not a majority, with most Shias concentrated in central Iraq around Baghdad. The Kurds and the Sunni Arabs plus other minorities outnumber the Shia, and control the majority of the land area of Iraq.

        The Shia have “control” of the central government because in their parliamentary system, a minority can rule, but they have little to no control of either the Sunni areas outside of Baghdad or of the Kurdish area of northern Iraq.

        That is why ISIS was able to easily conquer Mosul and the areas between Kurdish Iraq and Baghdad, and nearly invaded Baghdad itself. It was only with massive outside help that the central government forces were able to retake Mosul back from ISIS, and even now that part of Iraq is still very unstable, given the mistrust between the Sunni majority in that area, and the Shia militias and regular forces of Iraq.

        Iraq could quite easily explode like a powderkeg. Any attempt by Iran to invade Israel thru Iraq would be the match that lit the powderkeg.

        • waveshaper1

          There are a bunch of sources for this stuff; I would sure like to know where your getting this info from because I haven’t seen anything or ever met anyone that believed there are more Sunnis then Shia in Iraq? IMHO, you somehow have gotten everything completely backwards, this must be intentional (same goes for your facts/figures on the Sunni/Shia population in Syria).
          – Source (Iraq Gov/2017/data); Population – 39,192,111; Religion demographics; Shia 64-69%, Sunni 29-34%, Christian 1% (includes Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Assyrian Church of the East), other 1-4%.
          – Source (Wiki/2016/data): Population – 37,202,572 ; Religion demographics; Shias make up 65% of population, while Sunnis 30% of the population.
          – etc, etc, etc.

          Here’s some simple stuff to help you figure out why Mosul fell to ISIS and Baghdad didn’t fall to ISIS.

          The main reason ISIS took Mosul with ease in 2014 is because the Mosul population was primarily Sunni; 2014 Mosul demographics; the city population was comprised of 1,377,000 inhabitants. In 2014- Mosul was comprised of a majority Arab Sunni population (around 80 per cent of the population/that’s 1,100,600 Sunnis in Mosul), followed by Kurds, Christians, Turkomans, Shabak, and Yazidis.

          – The main reason ISIS didn’t take Baghdad is because the Baghdad population is primarily Shia. Baghdad’s population was 7.22 million in 2015 and 82% of the city’s population were Iraqi Shia (that’s 5,920,400 Shia in Baghdad).

    • Ed L

      I been to Lebanon, Israel, Turkey and seen the results of Iranian terror. I lost friends in 1983 to terrorist. Iran and the Ayatollahs has been interfering in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Lebanon since the fall of the Shah. That’s why Iraq went to war with Iran. It has been estimated that over a Million human beings have die due to Iranian Desire for an islamic Republic That stretches from the Pacific ocean to the Atlantic Ocean and beyond.

  • Ed L

    I believe that America should tell Israel that we wouldn’t mind them cleaning house on Iran. Of course if the Kurds were able to get a generous supply of Arms wouldn’t hurt