Over the past few weeks politicians, pundits, analysts and propagandists from across the political spectrum have debated ad nauseam the merits of the Iran deal, however most have overlooked it’s deadliest implications – that this deal is a green light for Iran to expand its foreign intervention in Syria to ensure the survival of the Assad regime.
For 1,602 days, Syria, the nation of my forefathers has experienced the bloodiest conflict of this generation. Many Syrians now fear the convergence of US and Iranian interests will lead to deeper fragmentation and prolonged slaughter of an already decimated population.
The Iranian and the Assad regimes have had a mutually beneficial alliance going back decades. The Assad’s have gained from having the political and military support of a large regional power and in-return Syrian territory (dubbed Iran’s 35th province by some) became a vital support route to Iranian proxies in Lebanon (namely Hezbollah), which extended Iran’s regional leverage & influence.
Since the beginning of the revolution, Iran has kept the Syrian regime from collapsing by providing billions of dollars in credit and oil deliveries, arms shipments, military expertise and surveillance support. With the disintegration of Bashar al-Assad’s army, Iran has reorganized his brutal Shabeeh militias into the more cohesive “National Defense Force”, and has overtly provided “boots on ground” in both defensive and offensive roles. Under the leadership of Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, thousands of foreign fighters from Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and beyond have deployed all across the country in defense of the Assad regime and key transport routes to Lebanon. They have led many of the regime’s offensives, from Daraa in the South, to the Qalamoun mountains on the Lebanese border.
After four and a half years of carnage, it is painfully obvious that Iranian interventions in Syria have kept Assad in power in the roughly one-third of the country he still controls.
Enabling Assad through Inaction
But so has US inertia. Obama’s policies in the region have only empowered the Assad regime, despite rhetoric and impotent programs to the contrary. Obama delayed calling for Assad to step down for 6 long months in 2011. He went against his own advisors and subcontracted rebel support to competing Gulf parties (namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar) and Turkey. And he placed major caveats for 3rd party support, namely restrictions on anti-aircraft arms despite the regime’s daily bombardment of population centers leading to much of the destruction we see today. Most notably, Obama backed down from his infamous ‘Red line” after the regime’s chemical weapon attack on the Damascus suburbs in August 2013, resulting in the chemical weapons disarmament deal and political cover for Assad to hold sham elections in 2014.
As Obama’s Syria policy over the past year focused primarily on the containment of ISIS, a highly publicized $500 million train-and-equip program was conceived to give the illusion of rebel support, while recruiting Syrians to fight only ISIS and not the Assad regime – overwhelmingly the main perpetrator of violence in the country. To date, an exposed group of 54 Syrians have completed the training, with many refusing to take part in the masquerade. Since US airpower took control of the skies of Syria in 2014, ostensibly to contain ISIS, they’ve allowed Assad’s air force to continue decimating Syrian towns and cities resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians.
The Convergence of Interests
Appealing to the US to change its current track means to be blinded to the realities of Obama’s Middle East approach, which aims to secure US interests by reconfiguring the regional balance of power. The US is already providing air support for Iranian-backed militias in Iraq fighting ISIS. Can we now expect this cover to expand into Syria?
For too long, ordinary Iranians have been stuck between crippling sanctions, a repressive regime and the rhetoric of war parroted by hawks in DC, Tel Aviv and Tehran. One can therefore understand their jubilation, hopes and sense of relief with the deal. But to expect a new era of regional stability while turning a blind eye to the role of the Iranian government’s intervention in Syria is to be credulous.
Rather than bringing peace, the Iran deal connects the intersection of Obama’s Middle East vision and Iran’s regional ambitions. This convergence of interests can only prolong the pain and suffering of the Syrian people.
Assad has hailed this deal as a great victory, and he will likely cash in on the expected influx of Iranian funds, arms, and political support that will come with the loosening of sanctions. Iran will continue to directly suppress revolution in Syria under the guise of fighting “terrorism”– only now with a rubber stamp of approval from the Americans, fixated on finding ‘acceptable’ partners on the ground to confront ISIS in both Iraq and Syria.
What is the alternative? As long as Iran holds cards that appeal to Obama’s reconfiguration in the region (namely 10s of thousands of proxy fighters in Syria & Iraq and the lure of untapped economic opportunities), there is no political appetite to rein in Iran’s intervention in Syria. Barring any break-through victories against Assad and Iran/proxies at the hands of Syrian rebels, the Iranian calculus won’t change. It is important to note that Iran’s current presence in Syria is aimed at ensuring influence in the country even if the Assad regime collapses.
Furthermore, the past few years have fully exposed the US administration’s lack of interest in removing Assad, or assertively supporting rebels fighting to take down the regime and instead focusing on the creation of an anti-ISIS force on the ground.
Additionally, the recent Turkish intervention in Northern Syrian won’t alter this equation – afterall the potential ‘safe zone’ focuses on alleviating Turkish fears of further Kurdish autonomy and creating a buffer along its borders to contain ISIS expansion.
Syria is at center of the reconfiguration of power in the area spurring regional competition and local fragmentation. This deal, like many others over the past few years, will only keep Syrian blood running, even while its loudest cheerleaders ponder “how did it get so bad in Syria?”