Iran manoeuvres for share of Syria’s territorial spoils
When the Syrian war started in 2011, none of the regional stakeholders, except Turkey, were eyeing Idlib, a sleepy agricultural town in north-western Syria, famed for its olive and soap production. Larger more politically important cities were on everybody’s radar at the time, like Damascus, Aleppo or Latakia on the Syrian coast.
The Iranians paid little attention to Idlib, seeing it as geographically separate from their ambitious programme in Syria, which focused on Damascus, the Qalamoun Mountains adjacent to Lebanon, the Syrian coastal cities and the Damascus-Beirut Highway.
Two Shia towns north of Idlib were far more important for Tehran than Idlib itself. As a result, not a finger was lifted to save the city from the armed Syrian opposition, which came marching in — with Turkish backing — in mid-2015. This was six months before the Russian military involvement, when a series of important cities, including Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib governorate, Idlib itself, most of Deir ez-Zor and Palmyra in the Syrian desert, fell out of government control.
Two years later, much of that has changed. Iran realised that it was being squeezed out from northern Syrian and aggressively demanded a bigger role in Idlib. Everything west of the Euphrates was falling into the US-backed Kurdish sector of Syria, where Iran had absolutely no say, while territory west of the river was firmly in the hands of Russia, including, of course, the Syrian coast, home of the Hmeimim Air Base.
Turkey carved out a clearly defined Kurdish-free border zone for itself, which included Jarabulus, Azaz and al-Bab. While the Islamic State (ISIS) remained in control of Deir ez-Zor, its Mayadin countryside and Abu Kamal, Iran had to settle for neighbourhoods in Damascus and dispersed chunks of influence scattered around Syria but not a single city fell under its jurisdiction, although it had provided the lion’s share of government support before the Russians came in back in 2015.
Idlib was squarely in the hands of the Turkey-backed Islamic rebels and was quickly turning into a Taliban-like failed state, run by an assortment of jihadist groups that included Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra.
The Russians were obviously transforming it into a dumping lot for jihadist rebels captured from battlefields across the country, allowing them to leave safely with their light arms, then looping them into one radicalised, defeated and lawless city, hoping to march in one day and eradicate them with one blow. Whenever they tried to advance on Idlib, government troops were asked by Moscow to wait.
That idea fizzled in May, when Idlib was included in the “de-conflict” zones of the Astana process, next to north of Homs and south of Damascus. Iran immediately asked to send troops to monitor the proposed ceasefire in Idlib, like those deployed by the Russians to southern Syria and to al-Ghouta, the agricultural belt surrounding Damascus. That suggestion was rejected by top opposition negotiator Mohammed Alloush who, instead, requested peacemakers from Turkey for both Idlib and al-Ghouta.
That was vetoed by Damascus until Tehran came up with its own Plan B in September. The idea put forth was to allow the Turks to handle Idlib single-handedly and, in exchange, Ankara would back an expanded Iranian role in the Damascus countryside.
Tehran, of course, was making the Syrian opposition and Turkey an offer they couldn’t but refuse. Iran was already actively involved in planning the resettlement of 20,000 Shias from Kefraya and Foua in the Idlib countryside to Madaya and Zabadani in the north-western suburbs of Damascus.
In exchange for abandoning Idlib, Iran could, in principal, settle more Shias in Yelda, Babila and Beit Sahem, villages west of Damascus. As the lesser of two evils, the opposition and Turkey settled for co-sharing Idlib with Tehran.
The agreement calls for sending a combined Russian-Iranian force of 1,000 peacekeepers to Idlib and an additional 500 from Turkey. Additionally, however, the Turks would send 4,000-5,000 Syrian proxies into the war-torn city, aimed solely at crushing and expelling Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra).
Once that is accomplished, the militia would transform into a police force and run the city with an assortment of power sharers, including the Syrian Army.
A new militia has been established for the job and it goes by the name of the United Syrian Army. It is very similar in structure to Operation Euphrates Shield that was created in the summer of 2016, charged with overrunning the three cities on the Syrian-Turkish border, which were in the hands of ISIS. On paper, this sounds like a good idea, prompting Russian President Vladimir Putin to remark from Ankara, after meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that the “de facto conditions” needed to end Syria’s war “have been achieved.”
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and author of Under the Black Flag (IB Tauris, 2015). He is a former Carnegie scholar and founding chairman of the Damascus History Foundation.