by Dr. Mordechai Kedar
Iran has emerged the victor in the Syrian civil war. And that bodes ill for the rest of us.
The world has accepted the fact that Russian forces have been in Syria for the past two years and that Russia controls the Syrian coastline, its seaports and its two airbases. It has become used to having Hezbollah, the Shiite Lebanese militia, involved in the fighting in Syria and giving Assad much-needed support. Other Shiite militias, commanded by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, are reported to have arrived from Iraq and Afghanistan. These forces sometimes endure losses on Syrian land, leaving the impression that Iran simply sent some Shiite gangs to fight Sunni gangs on Syrian soil.
The real situation is totally different, because the Iranian forces in Syria are not gangs anymore, nor are they militias. They are an army by every existing definition of one. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards are charged with building up Iranian forces in Syria, and they are a regular Iranian armed force, not a militia and certainly not a gang. An army. They have infantry, commando, tank, artillery, air force, intelligence and logistics units. This Iranian army's presence has slowly evolved on Syrian soil over the last four years and it has done so under the radar of world media.
The largest military offensive in Syria in which Iran's army took part was freeing the northern city of Aleppo from Islamic State in 2016. Russia and Iran cooperated in the operation, with Russia bombing from the air and Iranian forces, along with Hezbollah and other Shiite militias, advancing on the ground and handing over control of conquered areas to Assad's army.
Iran has been expanding the area controlled by its forces since early 2017, encroaching upon the desert regions of central and southern Syria which were, until several months ago, in the hands of the Sunni Islamic State (Daesh), the organization now fighting for its survival in three places: Mosul in Iraq, its capital city Raqqa in Syria and Dir A-Zur in eastern Syria. Once Mosul falls,into the hands of the Iranian Army, any day now, the other two cities will follow suit.
Iran's regular armed forces took advantage of the power vacuum created by Islamic State's retreat to take over Syria's central and eastern sparsely poulated desert regions. I estimate that Iran controls over 60% of Syria today, either directly - through its Revolutionary Guards - or indirectly, through Hezbollah and Shiite militias.
Iran's armed forces have several important bases in Syria that allow them complete freedom of movement. Most important of those is the Tadmor airfield in the center of the country, allowing Iran to fly in any military equipment it wishes to bring to Syria, mainly rockets and mortars but also other weapons. Israel is extremely concerned about this development and in March of this year attacked targets in the Tadmor region. The foreign press reported that the raid's objective was an Iranian rocket storage facility.
The entire story shows a basic change in the way Iran is running its affairs. Until recently, Iran used commercial flights to camouflage its arms transports, landing in the Damascus international airport, whille foreign press reports claimed that Israel repeatedly bombed storage facilities in the airport's environs. Iran concluded that Israeli intelligence had enlisted Syrian citizens who work or live in proximity to the airport in order to obtain information in real time. Damascus is not far from Israel, allowing the IDF to operate effectively against objectives near the Syrian capital.
In contrast, the Tadmor airfield is hundreds of kilometers from Israel.The area has few residents, making it harder for Israel to enlist people to pass on information. Israel, however, did bomb Tadmor, possibly having found another source of information. The war of the minds is being waged all the time, even though the public may be blissfully unaware of it.
Reports have claimed that Iran is now using another airport, Alsin, in the Altanef region of southern Syria, near the three-country Syria-Iraq-Jordan border. There is a border crossing between Iraq and Syria nearby, control over which allows the Iranians to freely transport anything at all to Syria. Iranian activity along the Iraq-Syria border is meant to create a continguous land passage from Iran to Syria via Iraq, resulting in Iran being able to move its forces undisturbed all the way to Lebanon, already under Hezbollah's control to all intents and purposes. Hezbollah is the Lebanese arm of the Iranian octopus, so that Iran is turning into a regional power whose forces control an enormous area, ranging from central Asia to the Mediterranean Sea.
In this context, it is important to note that all this is happening under the watchful eys of two global powers, Russia and the United States, each concerned with its own interests. The Russian interest is clear: Russia wants to strenghthen Assad and destroy all the Sunni organizations fighting him with Saudi funding and guidance, in addition to other Sunni Arab countries including Turkey. Putin taught Erdogan a lesson and he is now more fearful of the Syrian Kurds than he is an enemy of Assad and his Iranian allies, making Erdogan an important link in the Russo-Iranian coalition supporting Assad.
The US observed the growing strength of Iran in Syria over the past four years without initiating any serious attempt to stop it, unless one counts the recent downing of two drones, basically a light tap on Iran's spreading wings. Up until January 2017 the US gave silent assent to Iran's moves, because Obama wanted to empower Iran at the expense of the Saudis. He might have considered it preferable to give the Shiite Arabs and Iranians control of the "Masrek", the name for the regions to the east of Israel, while the area from Egypt westward, known as the "Maghreb," would be under Sunni control.
Now that Trump is in the White House, the main goal of American activity in Syria is the elimination of Islamic State, aka Daesh. The US is busy creating "moderate rebel" forces and an alliance ith the Kurds who, helped by US air power, are charged with getting rid of Caliph Abu Bakr al Bagdadi and the state he established. The reason the US is concentrating on Daesh is the American fear, shared by Europe, that the terror-state model of Islamic State might seem like a successful one in Muslim eyes. That could lead to Islamic State clones in other parts of the world, including Europe, with the local Islamist public providing a support base.
Trump did not see Iran's growing power in Syria as a pressing issue. For example, the US did not initiate a meeting of the UN Security Council on the subject, even though the Security Council itself prohibited Iran from transferring weaponry out of its borders. It's quite possible that there are those in the US government who see the Iranian takeover of the Syrian desert as a positive development, preventing a vacuum that might lead to a problematic group, such as Islamic State, taking over instead.
There might even be an understanding between Trump and the Russians that allows Iran to take over central and eastern Syria in which Russia does not have any interest, keeping these regions from becoming a place of refuge for Daesh fighters. America learned about the problem from the Afghanistan debacle when after toppling the Taliban government in 2001, most of the territory was left unprotected, allowing the Taliban to return to its hold over most of the country today.
The coalition of Shiite forces that invaded Syria (Iranians, Iraqis, Lebanese, Afghans) are carrying out ethnic cleansing against Sunni Syrian citizens, and in parts of the country have ejected Sunni residents in order to preempt their homes and villages for Shiite migrants from Syria, Iraq and Afganistan.
This is how, maneuvering between Obama government's purposeful intentions and Trump's choice of objectives, Iran managed to become the clear victor in the Syrian war. No one in the world will succeed in removing the Iranian army from Syria, and we, in israel, Europe and the US, will have to get used to the fact that Iran now includes large swathes of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Hezbollah in Lebanon is now connected to Iran by land, and that is the reason Hassan Nasrallah feels such confidence vis a vis Israel, and why Israel hesitates to build a concrete wall in its own territory to protect Israelis from Hezbollah snipers.
Two years ago, when Syria was in the midst of falling apart, there were Israelis who claimed that Israel's security situation had improved now that Syria was a threat no more and Hezbollah was stuck in the Syrian quagmire. Today it looks very different. Instead of Syria, we have Iran as our immediate neighbor. Hezbollah is no more an isolated terror group in Lebanon but an important arm of the Iranian entity, parked only a short distance from Israel's border.
Worst of all is the fact that Israel's media, which reports from time to time on Iranian forces in Syria, does not show the larger, more threatening picture, the one that has developed from the Iranian line that connects the dots on the map of what was once Syria.
Iran has emerged the great, ultimate victor of the civil war in Syria. The sooner we and the rest of the world realize this, the better off we and the rest of the world will be.
Written for Arutz Sheva, translated by Rochel Sylvetsky
Dr. Mordechai Kedar is a senior lecturer in the Department of Arabic at Bar-Ilan University. He served in IDF Military Intelligence for 25 years, specializing in Arab political discourse, Arab mass media, Islamic groups and the Syrian domestic arena. Thoroughly familiar with Arab media in real time, he is frequently interviewed on the various news programs in Israel.
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