Syria’s Fracturing Conflict Escalates as Russia and Iran Face Higher Costs

TUNIS — Syria’s northern theatre illustrates the risks involved in the fracturing of the 7-year-old conflict that has defied all international attempts to stop the bloodshed.
In Afrin, and elsewhere in Syria, pulling the strings of the war seems to have come with a higher cost than anticipated by Moscow and Tehran.
Supporting the Assad regime’s scorched-earth campaign in Eastern Ghouta has painted Russia into a diplomatic corner with Moscow having to justify its partnership with Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Russia is sensitive to perceptions of its role in the conflict. Its image as unchallenged victor in the war against terror has been eroding as pictures of the horrors of Eastern Ghouta shock the world.
Exacerbating Russian difficulties is the high body count among its “private contractors,” with as many as 200 killed in a strike by US forces on February 7, raising the spectre of the country’s disastrous campaign in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Tehran is increasingly resentful of Russia’s monopoly of economic and military contracts. Outlets, such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-affiliated Fars news agency, question Iran’s potential share of post-war dividends, which are likely to be dominated by Moscow.
For Iran, uncertain of its share in any reconstruction effort and denied access to the oil-rich lands east of the Euphrates, the events in Afrin and Eastern Ghouta must be a distraction from its goal of consolidating its reach in southern Syria, close to the Israeli border.
The cost of Tehran’s support for the Syrian regime is beginning to bite. Iran is subsidising the war effort with billions of dollars allocated in next year’s defence budget, London-based IranFocus reported.
Within Iran itself the situation is increasingly dire. Two years after the lifting of US sanctions, unemployment among the 15-29 age bracket remains more than 24%, official statistics indicate.
In this context, it is not obvious how long Russia and Iran will tolerate the Turkish sideshow in Afrin.
“Iran isn’t especially interested in what’s happening in the north-west right now,” Nicholas Heras, a Middle East security fellow at the Centre for a New American Security said via Skype. “[Its] focus is very much on the south-west. Israel is what they care about and, whatever the challenges raised by Afrin, they pale next to that posed by a confrontation between Iran and Israel.”
In the already crowded northern conflict zone, Damascus is vying with the United States, Iran, Russia, Turkey, Iran and their proxies for dominance within an increasingly complex field of wavering alliances and conflicting agendas. The Assad regime wants to reassert control over the country while Ankara, motivated by its anti-Kurdish agenda, aims to remove Afrin-based units of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from its border.
Under a deal hammered out in Moscow, the Assad regime’s Shia popular forces, an array of militias aligned under the Iran-sponsored National Defence Forces (NDF), was supposed to enter and assume control of Afrin. The deal fell apart as soon as it became clear that the NDF was entering Afrin in support of — rather than as a replacement for — the YPG. A further escalation with Ankara followed.
Complicating matters is the United States’ hesitation to back the Kurdish allies of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who have been instrumental in the success of the war against the Islamic State. Approximately 2,000 US soldiers and their SDF partners control much of the oil-rich and arable land east of the Euphrates, territory the United States intends to use to roll back the influence of Iran and Russia in Syria.
The only certainty is that the regional and global powers’ conflicting agendas risk fuelling war in Syria and beyond for years to come.
Simon Speakman Cordall
is a section editor with The Arab Weekly.
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