As war edges toward end, Iran faces hard fight to keep its influence in Syria

As war edges toward end, Iran faces hard fight to keep its influence in Syria

Israel and the US are actively trying to force Tehran out, and even its allies Russia and the Assad regime don’t seem eager for the Islamic Republic to stay

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

The government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media shows Iran's army chief of staff Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, left, looks into binoculars as he visits and other senior officers from the Iranian military on a front line in the northern province of Aleppo, Syria, October 20, 2017. (Syrian Central Military Media, via AP)
The government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media shows Iran's army chief of staff Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, left, looks into binoculars as he visits and other senior officers from the Iranian military on a front line in the northern province of Aleppo, Syria, October 20, 2017. (Syrian Central Military Media, via AP)

The civil war in Syria is far from over. Syria’s citizens, certainly in Daraa in the south and Idlib in the north, could be in for long months of hardship before it’s done. And news of more battles, from Daraa to the Jordanian frontier, come on a regular basis now, as the Syrian army continues its advance southwards.

According to the Syrian army’s top spokesperson, its troops seized nine objectives along the Jordanian border this week in areas that had been under the control of rebels for the past few years.

“Syrian troops advanced toward the village of al-Mataiya,” the military said, “and from there toward Nasib on the Jordanian border.”

It’s important to note that the Syrian army has not yet completed its takeover of Daraa, nor has it begun to deal with the Quneitra region next to Israel on the Golan Heights. Similarly, the largest concentration of opposition troops is now in Idlib, and Bashar Assad’s forces have not even begun to address it.

Smoke rises above rebel-held areas of the city of Daraa during reported airstrikes by Syrian regime forces on July 5, 2018. (AFP/Mohamad Abazeed)

Still, all the parties involved in some way in the Syrian conflict — Assad’s regime, Iran, Hezbollah, Israel, the United States, Russia, the Kurds, the rebels — already feel that “the day after” the civil war in Syria has arrived. Everyone is busy with the battle to shape the new Syria. Perhaps that should be the title of the summit between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin scheduled for July 16, a day after the World Cup soccer final in Moscow.

A quick checklist of each side’s accomplishments in Syria should satisfy both leaders. The US succeeded, with the help of quite a few of its friends, in removing the Islamic State terrorist group from the scene as a political entity; IS has ceased to exist as it once did.

Russia succeeded in forging a decisive victory for its client Assad.

Now, both powers are looking to shape the Syria that survives the war in a way that will benefit them in the future. And while they haven’t said as much publicly, both leaders seem, finally, to have found common ground. Both want Assad to survive, and neither wants too much Iranian involvement in Syria.

For Iran, the Syrian issue is only the tip of the iceberg in the long list of troubles it faces because of the Trump administration’s policies — not only from the US backing out of the nuclear agreement, but also the very real blow to Iran’s economy delivered by new and restored US sanctions, even before many have had a chance to go into effect. These shifts have undermined Iran’s internal stability, at least to some extent, and reduced its influence in the region. One clear sign of the times: ongoing American and Israeli actions in Syria against Iranian-backed forces and interests, as well as the persistent attacks of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

It seems that Iran and the ayatollahs’ regime will have to deal with one of the most difficult and problematic periods that they have known in recent decades. This includes external pressures from the US and Sunni Arab states, together with growing hardship at home prompting demonstrations and strikes. All this creates a feeling that the ground is burning beneath the feet of Iran’s rulers.

A group of protesters chant slogans at the old grand bazaar in Tehran, Iran, Monday, June 25, 2018. Protesters in the Iranian capital swarmed its historic Grand Bazaar on Monday, news agencies reported, and forced shopkeepers to close their stalls in apparent anger over the Islamic Republic’s troubled economy, months after similar demonstrations rocked the country. (Iranian Labor News Agency via AP)

It is no wonder that after the Trump Administration declared it wished to restrict the export of crude oil from Iran to the lowest amount possible, Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander Ismail Kowsari threatened (yet again) to close the Straits of Hormuz.

Iran in Syria? Not necessarily

The sums that Iran has spent in recent years on establishing itself in the region range have been huge. For a country suffering from inflation, unemployment, severe poverty and drugs, it is hard to understand how the authorities could decide to expend approximately $30 billion over the past seven years on the project known as “exporting the revolution.”

It is no wonder that the slogans “Death to Syria” and “Death to Palestine” were heard at demonstrations that took place in Iran over the past two weeks. If we look at Iranian policy in Syria and Yemen over the past several years, it seems that Tehran’s officials made an unequivocal strategic decision that Iran would do anything necessary to increase its regional influence — even at considerable domestic cost.

Yet the combination of the Trump administration’s desire to put a stop to this trend, together with severe economic problems, decisive actions carried out by Israel (according to the foreign press) in Syrian territory, and mainly a change in direction from Russia, are complicating the regime’s strategy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar Assad during their meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, May 17, 2018. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

In other words, it suddenly seems that the price of the policy of “exporting the revolution” could turn out to be too high for the regime. If priorities are at issue, then with all due respect from Iran to Syria, Yemen and even Islamic Jihad in Gaza, the survival of the ayatollahs’ regime will obviously take priority over the many other considerations.

On the eve of the Trump-Putin summit, the critical question regarding the Syrian issue is, of course, Russia’s position. The US strongly opposes any sort of Iranian presence in Syria on the day after. Russia wants to make sure that there is no Iranian presence 80 kilometers away from the Israeli border. But does Russia even want an Iranian presence beyond that? Not necessarily.

It is true that Russia cooperated with Iran and Hezbollah during the civil war in order to ensure the survival of Assad’s regime. But now that this has been assured, do the Russians still see a continued Iranian presence there as a positive thing? The answer seems to be no, and the signs of that are evident even now.

The Russians did not agree to an Iranian presence near their port in Tartus. They also want Russian companies, not Iran, to benefit from the reconstruction of Syria. In the end, even officials in Moscow realize that a permanent Iranian presence in the new Syria will be a burden, not a blessing, for Assad.

It may well be that Assad himself, whom the Russians and the Iranians rescued, realizes that too much influence from Tehran over what goes on in his country will interfere with his efforts to rebuild Syria. He also has come to understand that an ever-increasing Iranian military presence, that will in turn lead to Israeli and American actions, will be an obstacle to any possibility of rebuilding Syria, and will certainly keep investors away.

These developments pose a complex problem for Iran. Any celebration of the regime’s misfortune would be premature. At least at this stage, Iran is still strongly determined to act on its policy of establishing itself in Syria. It will also be quite some time, if ever, before Syria goes back to being anything like the country that it once was.

While the Islamic State may have vanished from the earth as a state, it still exists as a concept, and it and similar organizations are responsible for quite a few terror attacks. The Kurdish enclaves, together with those of the opposition in the Idlib region, will not be disappearing from the Syrian map anytime soon. At present, the road to redemption still seems long.

But the path ahead for Iran is looking considerably murkier.

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