Iran’s Diplomatic Dance on Syria


Tehran says it backs the Syrian cease-fire — but only if it can still hammer “terrorists” the West sees as the valid opposition to Assad.

By Reese Erlich

Foreign Policy, March 1, 2016

TEHRAN — As a partial cease-fire between the Syrian government and some rebel groups began Saturday, Iranian authorities expressed support for the agreement. But they also sounded a note of skepticism about its chances of success, arguing that the agreement protects an array of armed groups that Tehran considers to be terrorist organizations.

The United States and Russia spearheaded the cessation of hostilities between the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and rebel groups. The agreement allows both sides to continue fighting terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front.

“Iran supports the cessation of hostilities,” Hamid Reza Dehghani, who heads the Middle East Department for Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Foreign Policy in an interview. “But in practice there will be problems. There is no common definition of terrorist groups.”

The Iranians, Russians, and Assad’s government apply the terrorist label to a much larger number of groups than the United States, including groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish al-Islam, and others that fight alongside al-Nusra Front and U.S.-backed rebels. Washington and Moscow hope the cessation of hostilities can lay the basis for future peace talks.

As the partial cease-fire entered its fourth day, the agreement had clearly resulted in a reduction of violence — but there were signs that the cessation of hostilities was fraying in certain areas. Syrian opposition groups accused Russian jets of launching 26 airstrikes on rebels covered by the cease-fire, while Russian military officials blamed Turkey for facilitating an Islamic State attack on a Kurdish-held town in northern Syria. “By and large the cessation of hostilities is holding, even though we have experienced some incidents,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Monday.

Regardless of how long the cease-fire endures, however, the Iranians say they and their allies hold the winning cards in the five-year civil war, which has seen the death of an estimated 250,000 people and displacement of 11 million. Dehghani says rebels now control about 60 percent of Syria’s territory — but only 40 percent of its population. Other estimates say Assad controls less, but in either case, the government has lost sizable areas to rebel groups since major fighting began in 2012.

Since the Russian military started airstrikes and support operations for the Syrian army last September, the rebels have faced serious setbacks, according to Dehghani.

“We can’t say the tide has turned,” he said, “but it is a more serious fight against terrorism. The Syrian government has used the opportunity well.”

Syria watchers in Tehran echoed the Iranian government’s concerns that the partial cease-fire could protect groups that were in a tacit alliance with al Qaeda.

“The big problem is that al Qaeda and its allies are mixed together,” said Seyed Mohammad Marandi, a Syria expert and associate professor of international and world studies at the University of Tehran.

He said Iran, Russia, and Assad will continue to fight the Islamic State and what they consider al Qaeda allies. “Will they [terrorists] refrain from initiating conflict with the government of Syria?” asked Marandi. “I’m somewhat skeptical that these fragmented groups will all have an interest in keeping the cease-fire.”

The Syrian government prefers that the cessation of hostilities takes root, according to Marandi, because it would allow Syria to focus on terrorists.

“If there are groups seriously willing to halt fire, then so much the better for the Syrian government,” Marandi said. “They can decrease their troops in certain areas, talk about reconciliation, and then focus more on the extremist danger.”

Iran has sent Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) advisors into combat in Syria and also finances fighters from the Lebanese Hezbollah and Shiite militias from Iraq and Afghanistan. The IRGC is playing an important and active role against the rebels, according to Marandi.

“They are not in offices,” he said. “They are in the field. They are deeply involved.”

Peace talks between the government and Syrian opposition have so far gone nowhere, in part because of the government’s recent military success. The pro-Assad forces think they have the upper hand and see less of a need for a political settlement at the moment.

The one faction with which the Assad government might be eager to cut a deal, however, is the Syrian Kurds. The Kurdish forces, led by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), have secured an almost contiguous strip of territory in northern Syria, along the Turkish border, and have driven back the Islamic State in the area.

The Syrian government and the Kurdish forces have worked out their own cease-fire without becoming political allies. In the Kurdish region’s largest city, Qamishli, for example, the Syrian government has a small armed presence and controls the airport, while the YPG runs the rest of the city.

The YPG’s political branch is led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, a left-wing movement that has carried out a decades-long guerrilla war against the Turkish state. The Iranian government has also faced armed attacks by a PKK affiliate in its own Kurdish region and, for that reason, treads carefully on questions about the Kurds.

Reese Erlich received a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for his coverage of Iran.

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