“All foreign fighters need to leave Syria. Hezbollah needs to return to Lebanon.” So proclaimed the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, on 29 December.
This is quite some cheek given that Turkey sent troops into Syria many times and for over five years, employed a semi-open border policy to foreign fighters, even those heading into the arms of ISIS and al-Qaeda.The Hezbollah response was predictably icy. “We are not present in Syria at the request of Turkey, Saudi Arabia or the United States, we are there as part of our cooperation with the Syrian state.”
Contained within this more than fanciful Turkish ambition might lie the core of the behind-the-scenes struggle over Syria for 2017 and beyond. Having seen the US and Europe sidelined, many powers would love the same for Iran. Iran has embedded itself inside Syria with its support for the regime but more tellingly for a hodgepodge of militias.
For most actors inside Syria now, Iran cannot be allowed to dominate the scene as it may desire. This includes Russia, Turkey, and other Gulf actors, and arguably elements of the Syrian regime as well as other actors such as the US, Israel and the EU. Iran is exposed by its lack of genuine allies.
Russia portrays itself as the powerbroker in Syria now but such hubris is short-sighted. It has managed to rub along with the Iranians so far but it is not an easy relationship afflicted by mutual distrust and united largely by an antipathy to the United States.
Iran and its proxies have already acted as a spoiler on numerous occasions including the evacuation of Aleppo and the current ceasefire. The major assault in the Wadi Barada to the west of Damascus that has seen major water shortages in the Syrian capital serves both to secure strategic locations for Hezbollah’s access to Lebanon as well as demonstrate that Iran cannot be ignored.
Iran bristles at the burgeoning Russia-Turkish alliance suspicious of being squeezed out of its winnings in Syria. For Russia, diminishing Iranian influence in Syria could appease major Arab powers and perhaps calm some of the outrage over Russia’s orgy of destruction in Aleppo and Idlib. The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, may see an opportunity to pocket support from an incoming Trump administration that will be probably far more hostile towards Iran than the outgoing Obama one.
What is clear is that most Syrians resent the Iranian presence even more than the Russian. Regime loyalists often raise the Russian flag but hardly ever the IranianChris Doyle
Fragmentation of Syria
Crucially Russia prefers unity and Iran veers toward fragmentation of Syria. Russia craves a strong central authoritarian state. This does not accord with Iranian ambitions of creating non-state actors that are influenced by Iran and less desirous of a powerful Syrian state that might be able to stand up to it.
Turkey has done an incredible U-turn on its Syria policy. For sure President Erdogan is not about to have a love-in with the Syrian regime, but gone is the entrenched support for the Syrian armed opposition who feel betrayed as their former patron falls into the Moscow camp. Turkey’s demands have shifted from regime change to thwarting Kurdish ambitions and ousting ISIS as well as a security belt in northern Syria.
What does the Syrian regime want? Ultimately Bashar al-Assad has made it clear that the regime will want full restoration of control overall of Syria. For the time being, however, the Syrian regime has a manpower crisis not least in the army so can hardly afford the loss of foreign militias.
But can Assad continue to play his patrons off against each other or does he have to choose one? Which would be his choice? Russia may be less of an intrusive partner but is too big to ignore its demands. Iran is less powerful but far more invasive in terms of its ambitions to control ley elements of the Syrian state and territory.
What is clear is that most Syrians resent the Iranian presence even more than the Russian. Regime loyalists often raise the Russian flag but hardly ever the Iranian. Iran and Hezbollah are not just going to give up and walk out. Blood and treasure have been expended in considerable quantities since Iran first acknowledged a fatality in Syria in January 2012.
Iran has ensured that the Syrian regime depends on its support as much as Russia’s. Hence, Iran increased its military deployment at the same time as the Russians. Iran hedges its bets, both by supporting the regime but other militias at the same time. If the regime flounders, Iranian influence is designed to continue by other means.
For the last few years Syrians have waited in vain for Russia and the US to work together and to impose a political solution to end the crisis. Now their patience will be tested further as Russia, Turkey and Iran jostle to gain the upper hand as the dominant external regional player.
A Russia-Iran-Turkey axis is still a possibility and may be sought after by many within their respective governments. Yet the underlying deep-seated tensions may well see the “victors” in the regional Syrian power play unable to divide up the spoils.
As the United States, Europe and the Gulf are side-lined for the foreseeable future (though their funding for reconstruction and development will be required), do not be surprised by anything in Syria not least an ever worsening spat between the sponsors of the new Syrian political arrangement.
Yet Iran, Hezbollah and other Shiite militias will be near impossible to dislodge from Syria in the near future. Russia will still have its hands full to mastermind any form of successful exit from the country it now co-owns.
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio and gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. He tweets @Doylech.