Russia’s presence looms large in Syria’s future, Iran’s shadow lurks

Spoils of war. Iranian President Hassan Rohani (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a meeting in Tehran, on November 1. (AP)

2017/11/05 Issue: 130 Page: 1

The Arab Weekly
Ed Blanche

Beirut- Syrian President Bashar As­sad’s army and its allies, supported by Russian air power, are reported to have seized the strategic eastern Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor from the collapsing Islamic State (ISIS), a ma­jor boost for the Damascus regime as it battles to enhance its legitima­cy before a political settlement to its long civil war.

Securing Deir ez-Zor and the large oilfields across the desert province also marks important gains for Rus­sia and Iran, which engineered the reconquest of several other vital ar­eas in recent months.

Those two powers will likely dominate a post-war Syria and tak­ing Deir ez-Zor bolsters their region­al ambitions to the detriment of the United States as it disengages in the Middle East.

Russia’s political and strategic in­fluence in Syria, which began with its military intervention in Septem­ber 2015 to rescue Assad, then fac­ing defeat, centres on keeping him in power.

For Iran, uprooting ISIS in Deir ez-Zor means it is closer to securing the Mediterranean end of the land bridge from the Islamic Republic to Syria it is carving out under its ex­pansion strategy in the region. Deir ez-Zor province borders Iraq, which is increasingly becoming an Iranian satrapy.

“What we see is a push by the regime and its backers to seize key infrastructure, such as oil and gas fields, and position to disrupt US-led anti-ISIS operations further down the Euphrates,” observed analyst Jennifer Cafarella of the In­stitute for the Study of War in Wash­ington.

The regime’s reported victory came the day after Russian Presi­dent Vladimir Putin visited Tehran, his first trip there since 2015, for talks with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Presi­dent Hassan Rohani on expanding peace efforts in Syria.

The Syrian Observatory for Hu­man Rights, a Britain-based or­ganisation that monitors the war through a network of activists, said on November 2 that Assad’s forces had taken “full control” of Deir ez- Zor after several weeks of heavy fighting.

With ISIS’s former caliphate in Syria steadily collapsing, the loss of Deir ez-Zor and the oilfields in the largely desert province marks a significant victory for Assad, Russia and Iran.

For Russia, it means that its po­litical power in Syria has been en­hanced as Moscow seeks to get new peace talks, jointly sponsored with Turkey and Iran, off the ground in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan. These are expected to embrace most Syrian rebel forces but remain up in the air.

The United States, hesitant about getting dragged into another messy Middle East conflict, has restricted its military presence to air strikes and supporting Kurdish-dominated rebels. This has meant that with no comprehensive strategy in Syria be­yond crushing ISIS, US influence in the country and across the entire region has waned.

Russia and Iran have dominat­ed both the political and military spheres, which are steadily con­verging as the war moves towards its seventh year.

In this context, Assad’s future is the main stumbling block. Russia and Iran insist that Assad, who took over from his late father Hafez As­sad in 2000, must remain head of state no matter what political for­mula is applied.

Increasingly, the Americans want him out. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared on October 26 that Assad and his family have no place in any political transition.

“We do not believe that there is a future for the Assad regime and Assad family,” Tillerson said after meeting in Geneva with the UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura.

“The reign of the Assad family is coming to an end. The only issue is how that should be brought about.”

Ed Blanche has covered Middle East affairs since 1967. He is the Arab Weekly analyses section editor.

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