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Paul McLoughlin

Foreign hands in Syria's war creating new problems for Assad

Israel's intervention in Syria has been mostly secretive. [Getty]

Date of publication: 15 May, 2020

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Foreign intervention has marked Syria's war. Now it could lead to Assad's downfall.
Israeli planes made another round of airstrikes in Syria last week, targeting Iranian militia bases in the east and an alleged chemical weapons research laboratory in Aleppo province.

The number of Israeli strikes in Syria over the past nine years is estimated to be in the hundreds, but the significance of the latest actions comes amid several noteworthy developments to emerge from Israel.

The first is that Israel's military spokesperson Hidai Zilberman alluded that the devastating coronavirus outbreak in Iran has impacted on its military capabilities overseas, likely referring to Syria.

Perhaps more importantly was Defence Minister Naftali Bennett's pledge to continue Israeli airstrikes in Syria until Iran pulls its forces out of the country.

Secret war

Israel's air campaign has been widespread, sustained, and relatively secretive, given the sensitivities about intervention in the Syria war.

Although there have been decades of acrimonious relations between the two countries, Syria's border has often been described as Israel's "quietest", although this is likely in part to the former's occupation of the strategic Golan Heights.

The number of Israeli strikes in Syria over the past nine years is estimated to be in the hundreds

This changed when Iran intervened in the war to bolster its long-time ally, the Syrian regime.

Thousands of Iranian officers and foreign militia fighters from Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Pakistan have helped Bashar Al-Assad's regime survive, but the intervention has also drawn Israel into the war.

Bennett accused Iran of seeking to use Syria as a "forward operating base" and pledged to continue the military pressure on Tehran until the last Iranian soldier leaves the country.

Although Israel has hit Syrian military positions and air defences, the campaign has been mostly focused on hitting Iranian and Hezbollah assets, particularly eastern Syria and areas close to the Lebanese border and the occupied Golan.

Bennett also appeared to offer Syria a way out of the crisis and indicated that "regime change" is not Israel's objective, instead he encouraged Bashar Al-Assad to decrease his reliance on Tehran.

"Syria is paying a growing price for the Iranian presence in its territory, for a war that isn't [Assad's]. Iran has turned from an asset in Syria into a burden," military officials added, according to The Times of Israel.

The general view is that Israel's claims of an Iranian withdrawal from Syria are false.

Although there has been a reduction of Iranian-backed fighters in some parts of Syria, this reflects troop movements towards new hotspots such as the Syrian Desert - where a new Islamic State group insurgency has broken out. 

There is also unrest in Daraa, in the south, which has witnessed an uptick in attacks on regime forces.

"In the history of the Syria war the Iranian-backed forces have always worked on a priority basis, you will find them where they are needed the most," Syria analyst Danny Makki told The New Arab.

"As the situation in the Homs-Deir Ezzor desert region grows more unstable due to the increased ISIS insurgency, forces will be redeployed from other areas to make up for the vacuum."

Iran might be suffering from the dire economic consequences of sanctions and the coronavirus crisis, but the amount of resources Tehran has poured into Syria and Iraq over the past decade means it's unlikely to withdraw from either country.

"Syria has become the cornerstone in what the Iranians consider their forward defence. Losing it would be worth more than all the mediocre airplanes or speedboats the Iranians can possibly weld together," said Heiko Wimmen, Project Director for Iraq, Syria and Lebanon at the International Crisis Group.

"Every dollar invested in maintaining Iran's position in Syria gives a multiple in strategic return dollars invested in most military hardware - except precision missile and drone programmes - so if they reshuffled I would assume the reasons are tactical."

Of particular importance for Iran has been control of the Middle Euphrates River Valley region, where they have faced challenges from the Syrian Democratic Forces and Islamic State group.

"One reason may be the focus of the regional confrontation shifted to Iraq since last year. I can't see any scenario where they would 'leave' Syria, in the sense of letting Damascus slip out of their orbit," Wimmen added.

Domestic tensions

Mohanad Hage Ali, director of communications and a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, told The New Arab that the direct Iranian military presence in Syria was always limited, although Tehran-backed fighters - such as Lebanese Hezbollah - remain in the country in large numbers.

"Hezbollah's engagement in Syria increased after the killing of Soleimani and Iran and its militias took part in Idlib military operations," he told The New Arab.

Russia's pressure on the regime is mounting, and the recent criticism of Assad in Russian media signals fatigue about his rejection of reforms and concessions for a political deal
- Mohanad Hage Ali

The recent Idlib operation highlighted the current stalemate in Syria and just how reliant Assad is on his two main foreign backers - Russia and Iran.

As with other offensives, early regime victories in Idlib and northern Hama were largely due to Iranian manpower. This time the operation ended when Russia - perhaps Assad's most important backer - and Turkey made an agreement to end the fighting.

The deal hammered out between Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan indicated that Russia is perhaps more concerned with maintaining good relations with Turkey rather than letting Assad win the war.

Months later and relations between Moscow and Damascus reached a new low point with widespread talk that Russia was poised to drop Assad as leader of Syria, after the regime continued to rule out political reforms that might weaken its hold on power.

First came the attacks on Assad in Russian media, including claims - which now appear to be false - that the president bought his wife, Asma, David Hockney's 1966 painting "The Splash" for £23 million.

Then "Syria's richest man" and Assad's cousin, Rami Makhlouf, appeared to challenge the president in two videos posted on his Facebook page, where he complained of a shakedown by the state and harassment by intelligence.

The fact that Makhlouf faced no direct retribution from Syria's feared intelligence agencies for the public comments suggested that the businessman could have powerful foreign patrons, along with continued popularity among some Alawite Muslims.

"The emerging variable or shifting block in the Syrian conflict is the Russian policy. Russia's pressure on the regime is mounting, and the recent criticism of Assad in Russian media signals fatigue about his rejection of reforms and concessions for a political deal [with the opposition]," Hage Ali said.

Stalemate

Joint Russian and Turkish military patrols taking place on the M4 highway, have pretty much ruled out a new regime offensive in Idlib.

"Assad wants a military victory and this is not feasible," Hage Ali added.

"Given this emerging tension, Assad might tilt even further to the Iranian side to balance the Russian pressure. This might prove risky for Assad, given the level of Russian influence in the military and security services."

As mentioned in the The New Arab last month, Makhlouf's troubles with the state appears in part motivated by challenges to his business empire from Bashar's inner-circle, including his wife Asma and his brother Maher.

Kheder Khaddour, non-resident fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, recently wrote that Makhlouf's influence has waned after a decade of war and the current dispute reflects domestic differences within the regime -signalling major changes in Syria's post-war economy

Although this rivalry within the regime will probably not lead to clashes between Assad and Makhlouf's forces, it is still a dangerous precedent for Assad and one that could force Russia and Iran to pick sides if the situation escalates.

"Iran and Russia want different things in Syria. Sometimes these objectives can be at odds, but they do not work at cross-purpose by default and it's not zero sum," said Wimmen.

"They are not best friends for sure, and they may be competing to co-opt parts of the security system into their own networks of influence, but in the end they need one another, not only in Syria." 

There is no reason for Tehran's militias to leave. The Iranian military presence in Syria will continue for the foreseeable future
- Danny Makki

"The Assad-Makhlouf feud has been a tricky one to handle for the Iranians, as they cannot take sides or be seen as stoking tensions, Iran has had close ties with Rami Makhlouf since the inception of the conflict, working closely with Al-Bustan group both on the charitable side and the military," Makki told The New Arab.

Iran was critical to the development of Al-Bustan's - Makhlouf's charity - "20,000 strong militia", Makki said. It has made some in Syria's ruling elite wary about Mahklouf's growing military muscle, he added. 

"Whilst Iran will not have its fate tied to one person, it is early to say whether the incident was a clash between Russia and Iran, as both countries wouldn't have much to benefit from such a feud that would only further weaken a fragile Damascus-led state," Makki added.

"Even the Russians with their interests fully secured would stop short of getting involved in a very messy and delicate domestic affair."

Makki said that a reduction of Iranian-backed forces in some parts of Syria reflects changing military priorities for Iran and the regime.

Yet Iran's military presence in Syria is like to remain due to tensions between the regime and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the new IS insurgency, and unrest in Daraa.

"There is no reason for Tehran's militias to leave. The Iranian military presence in Syria will continue for the foreseeable future, and it shows no real signs of scaling down, at least not while the situation on four fronts remains unclear," Makki said. 

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab and author of Syria Weekly

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin

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