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.