Kurdish national ambitions are hitting Iranian, Turkish and Arab roadblocks — all for different reasons. Tensions and radical differences are growing more intense between conflicting projects, amid a clamor regarding partition and influence-sharing in Iraq and Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has started building a wall along the border with Iran to prevent the infiltration of Kurdish activists; he has promised to build a similar wall on the border with Iraq, and is already building a wall on the Syrian border.
Masoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, has made it clear it would be “impossible” to backtrack from a referendum on Kurdish independence in Iraq, and has pledged that he will not allow the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), known as Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi in Arabic, to enter Kurdistan. Barzani spoke about the Iranian project, saying: “The Iranian officials have explicitly declared they successfully achieved their program to open a route from Tehran to Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut.” He refused to accept Kurdish responsibility for partitioning Iraq, saying sectarian war is already raging, while the divided Iraqi state “had no sovereignty.”
Regardless of whether the partition of Iraq is coming officially with the referendum on Kurdish independence, partition had already come through George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, then at the hands of former pro-Iranian Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and the PMF, the Iraqi version of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Interestingly, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani recently pulled the defense portfolio from IRGC commanders for the first time in a quarter of a century, appointing instead an officer from the regular army. However, this step remains more symbolic than effective, as long as the regime in Iran does not make a decision to withdraw its militias and proxies from Arab territories, bearing in mind that all these forces are commanded by the IRGC and its extremist expansionist project.
The former US diplomat Henry Kissinger recently warned that a radical Iranian empire could emerge if Tehran manages to take hold of the areas liberated from Daesh, with a “territorial belt reaching from Tehran to Beirut, which could mark the emergence of an Iranian radical empire.” The administration of US President Donald Trump is not clear about whether it wants to accept this as a fact on the ground, or whether it intends to combat Iran’s plan. So far, it appears that the US has outsourced the fate of Iran and its militias in Syria to the Russians. In this context, there have been a growing number of Russian leaks to writers and think-tanks in Russia, all suggesting that Moscow — as it “peacefully seeks” a political solution in Syria — is being hindered by Iran, which “wants to prolong the war” there. What is not clear, however, is whether this is a genuine reproach, a distribution of roles, a sign of serious differences in priorities, or the result of serious US pressures over conditions related to a deal between Moscow and Washington.
Kiril Siminof, an expert on Islamic and international affairs, recently wrote an article titled “Iran Obstructing Russia’s Solution in Syria.” On the same topic, Anton Maradasov, head of the Middle East Conflict Studies at the Institute of Innovative Development, wrote an article titled “Tehran in Favor of Continuing the War, but Moscow Wants a Political Solution.”
Generally speaking, Russian viewpoints either reflect Russian policy, or a Russian desire to send a message for strategic and political purposes. Siminof argued that Iran was proceeding to build a “Shiite corridor” from Iran to the Mediterranean via Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and to “take the conflict in Syria to a new level.” He wrote: “Moscow, which has committed itself to a peaceful resolution of the Syrian conflict, does not want Syria to become an Iranian colony gradually Shiite-ized by Iranian ayatollahs, bearing in mind that the sectarian-ethnic conflict is one of the factors fueling the propaganda of radical Islamists.”
He continued: “In public circles, there are clear signs of contradictions between Russia and Iran.” He said there were meetings in Amman and Cairo that Tehran was not invited to, “but the Iranians can foil such separate agreements on Syria, as they had done in March with the cease-fire, with the blame falling on Russia for not having influenced their allies.” He also wrote that Tehran wants the fighting to continue.
For the Trump administration, the top priority is to crush Daesh and similar groups in partnership with whoever is willing, after which other matters can be dealt with.
What was especially interesting is what the Russian expert called for in Idlib. He wrote: “Russia and Turkey must expedite an agreement on backing moderate rebels against extremists in Idlib, before Tehran and Damascus launch an assault on Idlib under the pretext of the growing strength of extremists there.” He concluded: “Iran believes resolving the conflict requires defeating rebels and wants Russia’s support for this bid. But Moscow is seeking a political and peaceful settlement.”
For his part, Maradasov wrote: “Tehran is seeking to drag Moscow to a new round of civil war.” He said that despite the convergence of Russian and Iranian goals in Syria at the start of Russia’s military intervention, “the gap between the two countries expanded gradually as Russia sought to negotiate with the rebels in order to establish a stable cease-fire.”
Maradasov elaborated further on Russian-Iranian rivalry in east Aleppo, where Moscow is seeking to “impose security and stability,” while “Tehran has sought to shore up its influence in east Aleppo and expand its loyalist militias” and “establish Iranian religious centers that stoke the conflict” on sectarian and ethnic bases.
Such messages may be addressed to Washington, to elaborate the difficulties Russia faces in containing Iranian ambitions and make the Trump administration realize that the price for Russia cutting off its alliance with Iran would be very high.
This price could be paid in Crimea, where Moscow insists on Washington acknowledging that Crimea is Russian. Moscow also diverges from Tehran over their respective ambitions in Syria. However, Moscow is not yet ready to relinquish its strategic relationship with Tehran.
Washington is relying on Russia to rein in Iranian influence in Syria. The Americans either believe Russia is capable of doing so if it wants, or they see the problem as being Russia’s rather than their own. For the Trump administration, the top priority is to crush Daesh and similar groups in partnership with whoever is willing, after which other matters can be dealt with.
Indeed, when Syrian regime forces captured Deir Ezzor and handed control of the border with Iraq to the IRGC, there was no strong American objection, and the impression is that Washington turned a blind eye to this. But Deir Ezzor is a strategic corridor in the route between Tehran and the Mediterranean. So far, Washington did not take any real measure to block the establishment of that component of the Persian crescent project, which both the US and Israel claim to oppose.
Confidence in the US is shrinking among all those who collaborate with Washington. They are all preparing today for the possibility that the US will discard them once its goals are fulfilled, pursuant to the reputation Washington has cultivated over the past years. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are fully aware that the US needs them temporarily, and that US support will not be permanent and will not be guaranteed after the battle for Raqqa is finished. For this reason, the Kurdish-dominated SDF believe its interest lies in keeping hold of Kurdish territories through accords with the regimes in Damascus and Moscow. In other words, a deal with Bashar Assad is more reassuring than US promises, which could change depending on the relationship with Turkey.
Furthermore, the SDF is considering a deal whereby they hand over Raqqa to regime forces in return for an autonomous Kurdish administration of Kurdish territories in Syria. The Kurds doubt US pledges and doubt that the US priority favors them in the balance of long-term US strategic relations with NATO-member Turkey, which the Americans may need at a later time to counter-balance Iranian expansion in the Middle East as well as to determine the fate of Idlib.
Russia is afraid that Tehran and Damascus could take advantage of the situation in Idlib to launch an offensive that could create new alliances between moderate and extremist rebel groups. The Russian idea is based on getting the moderate groups to eliminate the extremist groups, and wants to head off any Iranian-regime gambits in Idlib.
Turkey possesses many tools in Idlib. But it has been accused of sponsoring the idea of giving safe haven to extremists there, and Ankara is considered key to the fate of Idlib and the groups there. Russia has attempted to coordinate moves with Turkey, giving the impression that it is at odds with Iran, but these partnerships remain provisional in Syria.
So far, despite Russia’s peddling of the notion of differences with Iranian projects in Syria, there is no proof of any qualitative shift in the alliance between the two sides. As long as Washington continues to accept any and all alliances and partnerships in Syria in the name of fighting terror — a slogan adopted by the regime first and foremost — Russia will continue to manage developments there and will be the one to decide whether its interest lies in convergence with Turkey and divergence with Iran in Syria. And it is Russia that is deciding the fate of the entire Syrian opposition. This is the reason the Kurds and the US-backed SDF are seeking closer ties with the Russians.
Ultimately, the Iranian knot in Syria’s fate is no secondary issue. Its transnational projects require a foothold in Syria’s geography, and nothing will stop it except a joint Russian-American-Israeli pushback, which has not yet been established.
• Raghida Dergham is a columnist, senior diplomatic correspondent, and New York bureau chief for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is the founder and executive chairman of the Beirut Institute. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an honorary fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She has served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham.
— Originally published in Al-Hayat.