How the Iran Entente Caused the Syria Crisis

Kyle Orton

Kyle Orton

Associate fellow, Henry Jackson Society

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~ Also by Kyle Orton ~

From the Blog

The White House’s desire to empower Iran as a way to extricate itself from the Middle East has led to predictable—and disastrous—consequences.

When you start viewing Iran as a partner in stability and begin handing it countries as spheres of influence, while doing nothing to deter or raise the cost of Russia intervening to enforce this imperium, the devastation witnessed in Aleppo in February is the result: gains for Western adversaries, a humanitarian crisis, and destabilization not only of the Middle East but Europe.

The United States has reoriented U.S. policy away from containing Iran in alliance with traditional allies—the Gulf states, Turkey, and Israel—and toward a partnership with Iran on some issues, specifically defeating the Islamic State, and more broadly creating an equilibrium in the Middle East (which by definition means empowering Iran), the prime goal being to allow the withdrawal of U.S. resources from the region.

Unfortunately, Iran did not want to be a “very successful regional power,” as President Barack Obama described his hopes for the Islamic Republic in 2014. Instead, it saw in the U.S. withdrawal a chance for hegemony. In alliance with Russia, Iran has pressed this intention, most obviously in Syria, where the U.S. has tacitly ceded the country as an Iranian protectorate, but in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and increasingly Afghanistan, too.

The ongoing tragedy in Syria is the logical outcome of this policy. Without a policy reversal there will be many more Aleppos. For the high price of moral complicity in such crimes, the proposed pay-off for détente with Iran—the elimination of threats like ISIS and other Sunni extremists—will never be realized, and could not be even if Iran wanted it to be.

At the beginning of February, as the Iranian-led ground forces advanced on Aleppo under the cover of Russian airstrikes, encircling the city from the east and north, cutting off the rebels’ final supply line into Turkey, it had seemed plausible that this was the beginning of the end of the Syrian revolution and the victory of Syria’s ruler, Bashar al-Assad.

70,000 Syrians fled almost immediately from Aleppo. The population had good reason to fear a regime siege. Of forty-six sieges currently ongoing in Syria, forty-three of them are imposed by the regime, including the six most severe, which have starved people to death.

As in so many civil conflicts, Lebanon being a notable case, the tipping point never arrived, and instead the inherent limitations of the factions—in this case the limited manpower of the Assad regime—reasserted themselves.

By February 21, ISIS and some al-Qaeda-linked forces attacking from the opposite side blocked the regime’s supply line in southern Aleppo, which was enabling the offensive further north, ending the momentum for the pro-regime coalition. Several days later the regime retook Khanaser, before reportedly losing it again several days after that. The regime had lost Khanaser to ISIS once before, last October.

What this shows is that the regime cannot sustainably hold new territory without endangering the territory it already has in western Syria, even with the massive assistance of outside powers. The territorial gains in northern Aleppo, while incredibly strategic, were physically modest, and the regime could not defend them. The notion that Assad was or ever will be close to a position where he could march on ISIS’s capital in Raqqa—an idea doing the rounds again after the fall of Palmyra—is a fantasy. Assad himself conceded as much in an important speech on July 26, 2015. “Everything is available for the army, but there is a shortage in manpower,” Assad said. By the next month, Russia was building up forces on the Syrian coast; by the month after that, Iran had brought in thousands more troops and Russia had begun conducting direct airstrikes in Syria. This was the last in a series of escalations by Iran and Russia.

The ongoing tragedy in Syria is the logical outcome of the Obama administration’s desire to create a regional equilibrium between Iran and the Gulf states, allowing the U.S. to withdraw from the region.

In the summer of 2012, Aleppo City and Damascus became fully embroiled in the rebellion and several senior members of the Assad regime were killed. The regime appeared to be reeling. In late 2012, the Quds Force—the expeditionary wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), charged with spreading the revolution—and soon units of the regular IRGC were in Syria to reorganize, train, and lead Assad’s various sectarian militias, folding them into the ostensibly-unified National Defence Forces (NDF).

“As a strictly volunteer force, the NDF immediately gained a reputation…for its steadfast loyalty to Assad,” writes Charles Lister in his new book The Syrian Jihad. “This ultra-loyalism and the dominance of Alawite and Shia members also encouraged the NDF to become an organization founded largely on sectarian principles.” The Alawi commanders of the NDF, indeed, said the organization was meant to “kill the Sunnis and rape their women in revenge [for rebelling].” IRGC officers were “embedded within individual units,” Lister adds, and Iran allegedly wanted a more hearts-and-minds-focused counterinsurgency program. But when the NDF matched ISIS cruelty-for-cruelty—including burning alive whole families, never mind single captives—the Iranians did nothing to stop or punish the NDF.

The NDF was constructed to “play a predominantly defensive role, thereby freeing up the army to go on the offensive,” as Lister notes. But the Syrian Arab Army—the “official” army of the government—was deeply depleted by late 2012. The regime had ostensibly started the conflict with nearly 300,000 troops, but it deeply distrusted the Sunni conscripts—and not without reason, since many defected and led the early Free Syrian Army-branded rebel groups—so confined Sunni soldiers largely to barracks and over-relied on several elite, Alawi-dominated units, which not only locked in sectarian dynamics but restricted the regime to a trusted force of about 38,000. With an insurgency of more than 50,000, this was a problem. One solution was to disperse these elite forces among the rank-and-file as effectively barrier troops, but that had severe limits. As Syria’s sovereignty was ceded to Iran, another solution was adopted.

Concurrent with its creation of the NDF, Iran orchestrated a full-fledged international Shi’a jihad to give Assad’s battered army some offensive capability, bringing in men from Afghanistan to the Ivory Coast. At any one time there are perhaps 20,000 Shi’a holy warriors fighting in defence of the regime, including from designated terrorist groups like Lebanese Hezbollah and Kataib Hezbollah. These Shi’a jihadists spearheaded the latest offensive in Aleppo and Palmyra—as they have all recent regime offensives, north and south.

The immediate trigger for the regime offensive in Aleppo was the Geneva III peace process. After negotiations in Saudi Arabia in December, the rebels formed the Higher Negotiating Committee (HNC), which includes armed opposition groups, political oppositionists, and activists, bringing together for the first time something that could reasonably be said to represent the broad majority of the Syrian opposition.

In theory, the HNC would then sit down with the Assad regime and negotiate a political settlement in Syria. The agreement would have to involve the resignation of Assad personally and his senior lieutenants, but would also fuse the rebels with much of the regime’s security apparatus, including the effectively imprisoned conscripts, in order to restore order and defeat ISIS. The rebels are unable to do so at the present because the government keeps bombing them, especially when ISIS is attacking them.

The problem was that after Russia intervened directly in September, the regime was simply too secure on the ground; it saw no reason to negotiate. Instead, Russia enabled the largely-Iranian-controlled regime to go on the offensive under the cover of negotiations: while engaged in diplomacy, the United States and allies were de-escalating—restricting access to weaponry for the rebels in early January, for example—and ostensibly expected that Russia would soon follow suit. While Russia has lowered the tempo of its attacks since the “cessation of hostilities” began on February 27, its war continues in areas where it feels it is necessary, without even the pretence it is fighting “terrorists”—a loophole in the ceasefire that many observers had expected Moscow to exploit since it labels all opposition to Assad as “terrorist.”

The problem with the peace process from the start was that with facts on the ground as they were and the U.S. unwillingness to change them, the HNC had little to bargain with. The U.S. would have to either abandon the process, which President Obama and especially Secretary of State John Kerry had invested political capital in, or keep the process by forcing their own ostensible side—the rebels—to agree to the regime’s conditions. The U.S. chose the latter.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a speech about the United States’ Syria policy, November 12, 2015. Photo: U.S. Institute of Peace / flickr

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a speech about the United States’ Syria policy, November 12, 2015. Photo: U.S. Institute of Peace / flickr

The HNC arrived in Geneva on January 29, and by February 4—the day after the Assadists captured the territory that choked off rebel supplies in Aleppo—the conference was suspended until February 25, and was then put off again until March 7. Why did the opposition refuse to sit with Assad? Because the pro-Assad coalition continued to bombard and starve civilian areas. And what was the American reaction to this? Kerry said—agreeing with Assad and his allies—that the cessation of war crimes and access to food should be something that was negotiated about, not imposed as a precondition.

Just after the suspension of the talks, Kerry was confronted in London by a Syrian civil society activist about the fact that the Russians were using the peace talks as a distraction for their aggression in Syria. Kerry is reported to have said, “Don’t blame me—go and blame your opposition,” since their refusal to treat with Assad meant that the regime offensive had not been halted. (Kerry’s spokesman later denied that he made that comment.) This could have been passed off as a misunderstanding or a biased report, but Kerry’s blaming the opposition for Russian-enabled regime escalations has become a theme of the Geneva III process.

Prevailed upon by a Syrian aid worker at the same conference to get the Russians to do more to stop the airstrikes on civilian areas—the single most devastating component of this war, which not only kills and maims but is the (deliberate) primary driver of the refugee crisis—Kerry responded: “It’s going to get much worse [if the HNC doesn’t come to the table]. This will continue for three months, and by then the opposition will be decimated.” A Western diplomat shortly afterwards put it even more bluntly: “It’ll be easy to get a ceasefire soon because the opposition will all be dead.”

To say that the rebellion will soon be defeated by Russian war crimes is one thing analytically; to use it as leverage to force the opposition to accept the regime’s terms for what is effectively surrender is quite another. Kerry’s statements come very close to doing the latter. And when the proposal for a ceasefire, theoretically part of the preparation for negotiations, was moving forward, other parts of the U.S. government started to echo Kerry.

To say that the rebellion will soon be defeated by Russian war crimes is one thing; to use it as leverage to force the opposition to effectively surrender is quite another.

The February 27 “ceasefire” was a second attempt just in February, the first having failed even to take hold. Violence was indeed lowered, most notably on the first day, though this reduction in hostilities saw the regime reportedly use poison gas by the second day. Russia, as mentioned, has shown some restraint, but the goal remains the same. “Russia and the regime consider the truce as a military tactic, not as a preparatory measure for a political solution,” Capt. Abdulsalam Abdulrazzak of Kataib Nooradeen az-Zangi, a rebel group that has received U.S. anti-tank missiles, told The Washington Post. Regime consolidation and an ability to prepare new offensives against the rebellion was not how this ceasefire was sold, but it is what has happened.

One of the notable positives from the reduction of hostilities is the wedge it has driven between the mainstream rebellion and Jabhat an-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch. Nusra has laced itself into the insurgency as part of a long-term stratagem of fostering co-dependency with the opposition and opposition-supporting populations so it can socialize them into al-Qaeda’s worldview and secure a durable base from which to wage further jihad—both to expand its envisioned Syrian “emirate” into the caliphate and to attack the West. But without the level of extreme violence the regime habitually imposes, the necessity and dependency falls away. Clashes have erupted between U.S.-supported rebels and Nusra, and for more than three weeks, the population of Maarat an-Numan has been protesting, every day, against Nusra. Unfortunately, the U.S. did not come to the support of its assets, who were driven out of town (again); and there is no plan in place to take advantage of this schism between the population and Nusra, which will surely crack down eventually.

Unfortunately, untangling Nusra from the rebellion is not in Russia’s interest. To the contrary: The re-emergence of the protest movement the moment Syrians had a chance is not what the regime and Russia need, which is why the Assad regime directed airstrikes at the Maarat an-Numan protests. Russia wants in the short-term to largely leave ISIS alone and use the Nusra smokescreen to destroy all moderate opposition, which actually threaten Assad’s key areas at the present time, securing Assad physically in power for now. Russia has claimed that “dozens” of known Free Syrian Army-style groups, some of them supported by the U.S. and its allies, are under Nusra’s control and thus are legitimate targets. And in the longer term, Russia wants to secure Assad politically by leaving only extremists against Assad.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, September 29, 2015. Photo: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, September 29, 2015. Photo: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

The most disturbing thing was that Russia’s air attacks were used by the U.S. as leverage against its own ostensible allies and excused in advance as legitimate counter-terrorist activity. Hadi al-Bahra, the former president of the Syrian political opposition, reported that Kerry had said: “We are clear, if you don’t choose be part of [the ceasefire] then you are choosing to perhaps make yourself a target.” Laying out how the Nusra exception to the ceasefire would be operationalized, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said: “al-Nusra and Daesh [ISIS] are not part of any kind of ceasefire….So if you hang out with the wrong folks, then you make that decision.…Who you hang out with…sends a signal.”

On the ground in Syria, a lot of the U.S. moves in the build-up to the ceasefire looked like the U.S. and Russia working in tandem to destroy the Syrian revolution. Whether or not the Obama administration consciously thinks in those terms, its Syria policy—which is a subset of its Iran policy—gets awfully close to doing just that.

The nuclear deal signed with Iran in July was advertised by the Obama administration on the “narrowest possible terms” as an arms control agreement, but behind this political sell were “grander ambitions” to “open up relations with Tehran and [make it] part of a transformation in the Middle East.” The President intended to lead an “equilibrium” in the region between Iran and its neighbors, as he laid out more clearly in his recent series of interviews with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic. In short, the nuclear deal was not about stopping Iran’s nuclear-weapons program; it was about removing the nuclear question from U.S.-Iranian relations so the U.S. could draw Iran into the Middle East security architecture and draw down the U.S. investment in the region.

Over time, the threat of ISIS would be used to justify the policy of détente with Iran. President Obama even engaged in an (unrequited) letter-writing campaign to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, which by the end of 2014 was using the apparently-common threat of ISIS as the facilitator of an entente. But the determination of the administration to pursue this course began before ISIS was on the horizon: Obama’s letters to Khamenei began in 2009. Nor did the strategic change toward engagement originate on the Iranian side, as the administration would later frame it, with the election of the “moderate” president Hassan Rouhani in June 2013. To the contrary, the initial secret contacts that led to the interim deal in November 2013 had begun in July 2012 and more substantive meetings began in March 2013.

The nuclear deal was not about stopping Iran’s nuclear-weapons program; it was about removing the nuclear question from U.S.-Iranian relations so the U.S. could draw down its investment in the region.

The Iranians were reading from a different script, however. It was within days of the nuclear deal being signed, promising to release up to $100 billion, that Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani was in Moscow finalizing the arrangements for the Russian intervention in Syria, which had been planned in June and began on September 30. Suleimani has American blood on his hands, and made this trip in violation of a travel ban put in place because he has been designated as a terrorist by the United States—twice.

During the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, Suleimani orchestrated the creation of “Special Groups,” IRGC-run Shi’a militias, which killed or wounded more than 1,000 American soldiers. Suleimani’s deputy, Jamal Ebrahimi, better-known as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi who has been an Iranian agent since the 1980s, was designated a terrorist in 2009 due to his role as leader of Kataib Hezbollah, the most elite of the Special Groups and the only one formally designated as terrorist. Oddly, Suleimani was not designated until May 2011, due to his direct support to the Syrian intelligence branch overseeing the murderous crackdown on the then-peaceful uprising, and was listed again after he tried to blow up the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C.

The Quds Force is the clearest reason why any concept of equilibrium cannot work in the Middle East: Iran has asymmetric capabilities that the Gulf states simply cannot match. Being even-handed between Iran and the Gulf states is another way of siding with Iran. This wasn’t the U.S.’s only flawed assumption.

A key fact overlooked by the U.S. was that Iran does not want to defeat ISIS—at least not right now. The ability to present ISIS and al-Qaeda as the only serious opponents of Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s client regime in Syria, increases Assad’s international legitimacy. The presence of a Sunni jihadist statelet covering the Sunni areas of western Iraq and eastern Syria is not a concern to Iran: it could not rule over these areas for simple manpower reasons and has no incentive to in any case. The ISIS threat keeps the regimes in Damascus and Baghdad weak and reliant on Iran, allowing Tehran to have the unthreatening neighbor on its border that always wanted, plus the Syrian land-bridge to Lebanese Hezbollah, the group that provides the original template for the Special Groups and the primary means of leverage against Israel.

Entire neighborhoods of Aleppo were destroyed in the fighting. Photo: BBC News / YouTube

Entire neighborhoods of Aleppo were destroyed in the fighting. Photo: BBC News / YouTube

For Iran, the scheme to have the international community view Assad as the least bad option has essentially worked, making the U.S. into Assad’s air force. The U.S. told Iran in advance of beginning airstrikes in Syria that Assad was off-limits and the only target was ISIS—though the U.S. also later struck local insurgents. Possessed of an American security guarantee, Assad focused his energies on eliminating the moderate opposition to create the binary situation—the dictator or the terrorists—he had always wanted and had propagandized was the case all along. With U.S. forces back in Iraq, where Iran had taken over the security sector with the very same Special Groups that murdered Americans, Tehran was able to add the additional threat: if the U.S. moved against Assad, it would reactivate the militias’ campaign against U.S troops.

With the U.S.’s Syria policy subject to an Iranian veto, Iran was able to intervene in Syria ever-more flagrantly, beginning with the formation of the National Defence Forces and the influx of Shi’a jihadists in late 2012. It is very noticeable that this mass-movement of Shi’a terrorists, who are deeply integrated into Iran’s global terrorist network, has not provoked the response that al-Qaeda’s “Khorasan Group,” a cell of a few dozen (at most) externally-focused operatives in Syria, did.

The reason Iran has been allowed all of this is because the real goal of the nuclear negotiations was securing their partnership in the region, which meant allowing them their “equities.” Rather than the U.S. using Syria as a theater in which to demonstrate that the nuclear deal was a narrow instrument and that Iran’s aggression would be resisted no matter what, instead, because the real goal was détente and the paper agreement was needed to get there, Iran could proceed unobstructed in Syria and use Syria to increase leverage in the nuclear negotiations.

Russia’s support for Iran’s imperial push into the Arab world has been visible for some time. Russia has frequently played spoiler in efforts to diplomatically restrain Iran’s nuclear program and is in the process of selling Iran an S-300 anti-aircraft system that would protect Iran’s nuclear program militarily. The increased intelligence cooperation between Iran and Russia became publicly visible in late 2014, and recently this became an official intelligence-sharing cell in Baghdad that also includes the Iraqi government and Assad—both under significant Iranian sway.

American hegemony in the Middle East is thus severely eroded already, and an Iranian-Russian axis is taking shape in its place. It cannot bring peace—having neither the forces nor the inclination to do so, relying on sectarian instruments that create their own counterweight—but it can secure the key zones needed by two malign international actors, while leaving the rest to chaos and violence that is already destabilizing European politics.

During the Aleppo assault, there was an outbreak, among prominent supporters of the Iran nuclear deal, of recognition that the Obama administration is effectively supporting Tehran and Moscow in Syria. One of the stranger phenomena is that those advocates condemn the latter but hold to their support for the former, never making the connection that the one facilitated the other. Perhaps that recognition will come. Whether it will be in time to save Syria from the dire—and ultimately false—choice of the Islamic Republic or the Islamic State remains to be seen.

Banner Photo: BBC News / YouTube