It is amazing how little Bashar Assad and the Syrian government have to do with the disposition of Syrian assets and territory as the murderous rampage of the last eight years draws to a close. Syria’s “allies” — Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah — are taking what they want, cutting in Turkey as desired and cutting out the United States and Israel.
This bodes ill for future stability in the region, and for U.S. interests.
After years of careful coordination with Israel — and acquiescence to Israel’s management of red lines in Syria — Russia is now working with its historic adversary, Iran. While it seemed that Russia’s goal in Syria was to solidify its bases at Tartus and Latakia, recent reports have Russia turning Latakia over to Iranian management, solidifying the western end of Iran’s Shiite Crescent. Russia is likely to turn its back the “no-Iran, no-Hezbollah zones” near the Israeli border that it helped to establish, leaving Israel to manage the border with little outside political support.
Russia’s establishment with Turkey of a jointly-patrolled demilitarized zone in Idlib province became effective in October 2018. The joint patrols are largely Turkish, leaving the last rebel stronghold in Turkish hands. This could be interesting later, as Turkey has armed, funded and sheltered Syrian rebels from the start of the war. There is potential here for a resurgence of violence at a time of Turkey’s choosing.
Moscow will be content now with political influence.
Iran’s largely-non-Iranian Shiite militiamen will remain in Syria, taking up space in the decimated historically Sunni center of Syria. In 2018, The Jewish Policy Center wrote:
“You can see the damage in Homs and Hama and Aleppo. The Sunni suburbs of Damascus and Palestinian refugee camps near the capital have been under siege from the beginning. The Yarmouk camp, formerly 150,000 people, is now 4,300; Khan Esheih, originally 20,000 people, is now less than 10,000. The current, vicious fighting in the Sunni suburb of Ghouta is led by Iranian-organized Shiite militias, undeterred by the UN demand to stop.”
The broad movement of people out of Sunni-dominated areas, under the yoke of an Alawite government, supported by Shiite Iran and its militias, is the very definition of “ethnic cleansing.” Their replacement by Shiites is a violation of the 4th Geneva Convention. The JPC continued:
“American sources put the number of Iranian-commanded Shiite militia members at more than 80,000; Israeli sources say there are 3,000 members of Iran’s IRGC commanding 9,000 Hezballah, and 10,000 ‘violent Shia militias recruited from across the Mideast, including Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.’ The rest are Syrian — presumably Shiite. Iran controls more troops inside Syria than the Assad government Human Rights Watch (HRW) says Iran been dragooning Afghan and Pakistani refugees in Iran into the militias.”
The last is a violation of their refugee status.
Iran and Turkey — historic enemies, with one seeking the Shiite caliphate and the other the restoration of the Sunni Ottoman Empire — will work together to stomp on Syria’s northern Kurdish population. The Kurds and their Syrian Sunni allies are presently sitting close to the oil producing areas of Syria. Turkey has been conducting air strikes against Kurdish positions since 2015, but this week’s joint Turkish-Iranian offensive is a first. Turkey claims it is only after the PKK, but their troops have not been requesting ID cards.
And, if you thought it was odd that Iranian-backed Shiite militias fought alongside the United States and its allies to contain and then eliminate ISIS in Iraq in 2016, the other shoe has now dropped. Iran was willing to cooperate with the United States to rid the region of a Sunni adversary — albeit one that it incubated for the express purpose of creating instability in the Sunni heartland of Iraq. But its fighters stayed in Western Iraq and are now harassing and threatening American forces as they continue to mop up ISIS positions.
ISIS, deprived of its land base and oil revenue, will take its ideology to more hospitable territory, probably Africa. There, again, it will find Iran willing to be helpful and the battle will continue. According to a former senior IDF intelligence officer, Iran’s goal is to use Sunni forces to create a new power base, destabilize the region and undermine American influence in Africa.
Back in Syria, as the casualty numbers are staggering. At the end of 2018, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than 500,000 Syrians have been killed, 85 percent of them civilians killed by the Syrian government and its allies. They no longer publish injury statistics. In 2011, the population of Syria was 23 million. As of November 2018, more than 5.6 million Syrians had fled the country, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and more than 6 million were displaced internally; about half the population.
The hell Bashar Assad brought on his people is petering out. The fighting over the corpse continues and the repercussions will be felt for decades.
• Shoshana Bryen is senior director of the Washington-based Jewish Policy Center.