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.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.