Rival powers vying for space to grab in Syria’s east

The Syrian war since 2011 has caused over 370,000 deaths and forced millions of people to flee their homes. (AFP)
Updated 06 January 2019
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Rival powers vying for space to grab in Syria’s east

  • The Syrian government, the Kurds, Russia, Iran, Israel and Turkey have all had a hand in the country’s nearly eight-year war

BEIRUT: The planned US troop withdrawal opens up a void in the north and east of Syria, and the conflicts and rivalries among all the powers in the Middle East are converging to fill it. The sudden American decision to pull out its 2,000 troops has forced a reassessment of old alliances and partnerships. The Syrian government, the Kurds, Russia, Iran, Israel and Turkey have all had a hand in the country’s nearly eight-year war — each in a way, fighting its own war for its own reasons within Syria. Now all of those conflicts play out in the territory being abandoned by the Americans, creating new tensions, potential chaos and bloodshed. Here is a look at what is at stake.

The territory

The area up for grabs is around a third of Syria, forming a rough triangle. To the north is the border with Turkey, to the east the border with Iraq, and the third side is the Euphrates River. This was the heart of the Daesh foothold in Syria until the US partnered with a Kurdish militia, creating a force of some 60,000 fighters — including some Syrian Arabs and Christian Assyrians — that wrested it away from the militants.

The territory is strategically important. For the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad and its allies Russia and Iran, regaining it means re-establishing sovereignty. The territory was once the source of Syria’s wheat and barley, its dams generated electricity and it holds some of Syria’s richest oil resources. Without it, Assad will have a harder time with reconstruction and operating long term. For the same reasons, it’s been a source of income for the Kurdish militia.

Assad and Russia

Without the Americans, the door opens for Assad and his Russian backers to move in.

“The only obstacle preventing Assad from gaining control of the east was the US presence and the cover that it provided to the (Kurdish militia). 

“With that gone ... there is simply no real challenge that would prevent the regime from re-establishing control over those areas,” said Ayham Kamel, of the Eurasia group.

Abandoned by the US, the Kurdish fighters are forced to move toward Russia and Assad for protection against their more feared enemy, Turkey. 

Syrian officials boast that the withdrawal is a defeat to America. Controlling the east would help seal Assad’s victory in the civil war. The American move also accelerates a trend by Arab states to normalize relations with Assad, whom they shunned for years. The UAE, a close US and Saudi ally, recently reopened its embassy in Damascus.

Turkey vs. Kurds, Russia and Assad

Turkey’s military, along with some 15,000 allied Syrian opposition fighters, is poised to launch an offensive in the east to break Kurdish control over the border.

But an offensive risks creating friction with Russia. In particular, it could wreck a cease-fire agreement the two reached over Idlib, the northwestern province held by rebels and extremist militants where Turkey has influence — enabling a Syrian government assault on the province. Russian and Turkish officials have been holding talks, trying to avert tensions.

Iran and Israel

A Syrian government move east means the spread of Iran as well. It will dramatically widen the land corridor where Iran enjoys free rein for its allied fighters, weapons and supplies across Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. 

Already, Iranian-backed militias have expanded control over areas near Syria’s border with Iraq and freely cross back and forth. That has alarmed Israel. The likely result will be increased Israeli airstrikes against suspected Iranian-linked targets in Syria.

US, Turkey and Daesh

President Donald Trump dismissed the idea that the US needs influence in the conflict, saying Syria was nothing but “sand and death.” He claims the US mission there — to fight Daesh — has largely been completed. But Daesh still holds pockets and US-led coalition officials warn it could surge again.

There has also been growing unrest among Arab tribes in the east, disgruntled by the Kurdish-led administration. They too are likely to be a source of tension and may be leveraged by the different players for their own advantages.


From tourism to terrorism: How the revolution changed Iran

Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi with his third wife Farah and their son Reza (left). Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (right). (AFP)
Updated 59 min 57 sec ago
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From tourism to terrorism: How the revolution changed Iran

  • Forty years ago on Wednesday, the shah went into exile and less than a month later, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini assumed power
  • His departure paved the way for the establishment of an Islamic republic hostile to Arab Gulf states

DUBAI: Forty years ago today, Iran’s then-shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, fled the country after a 37-year reign, in the first stage of a revolution that would replace 2,500 years of monarchy with an Islamic republic.

Prior to the revolution, Iran very much resembled Western countries, with a flourishing economy and tourists flocking to the country for its breath-taking landscapes, beaches and various activities, including hiking and skiing. 

The shah’s departure, prompted by mass protests, paved the way for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to return from exile in France, assuming power on Feb. 11, 1979. 

It was “a genuine social revolution against tyranny, domestic and foreign — the first represented by the shah and the second by… the US,” said Dr. Albadr Al-Shateri, politics professor at the National Defence College in Abu Dhabi.

“The revolution went awry when religious leaders dominated the government, imposed its version of Islam and eliminated their partners in the revolution, including Iranian nationalists.”

Not long after Khomeini took over, the world got a taste of the new regime. Fifty-two American diplomats and citizens were taken hostage on Nov. 4, 1979, and were held for 444 days, after a group of Iranian students who supported the revolution took over the US Embassy in Tehran. 

The Iran-Iraq war, which began in 1980 and lasted for eight years, contributed to the deterioration of Iran’s situation. 

“Fear of the new regime’s attempt to export the revolution to a Shiite-majority neighbor led Iraq to initiate the war,” Al-Shateri said. 

“However, Iran’s insistence on continuing the war until the toppling of the regime of Saddam Hussein exacted a heavy cost on both countries in human and economic terms,” he added. 

“Iran had legitimate grievances against the US, but the way it tried to redress these gripes was counterproductive.”

The shah was considered one of the best customers of the US defense industry. But his Western-inspired reforms sparked turbulent social change that aggravated the clergy, while his consolidation of power and the secret police gave him the reputation of a dictator.

Opposition to his reign and corruption among Tehran’s elite created an influential alliance of radical Islamists. 

Although Pahlavi tried to modernize Iran, driving up oil prices in the early 1970s and implementing reforms in education and health care, he became alienated among Iranians and angered the conservative clergy, who helped drive his exile. 

“Iran changed significantly from before the revolution to after, from a more civil, open and decent Iran to a closed, aggressive and sectarian one,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, former chairman of the Arab Council for Social Sciences. 

“Post-1979 Iran is deeply sectarian, and is not only responsible for sharpening the Sunni-Shiite divide, but also wholly responsible for politicizing and militarizing it,” he added.

Iran “has funded and armed Shiite militias, and has done everything possible to strengthen them so they can challenge the nation-state, Lebanon being a clear example.” 

Post-1979 Iran does not “play by the rules of the game,” Abdulla added. “It became radical, revolutionary and sectarian, and was about to become nuclear, which is deeply destabilizing.”

He said: “Gulf states have lived with Iran for thousands of years, and they knew how to deal with it all along. They had the best possible neighborly relationship, but it has always been a difficult Iran, whether under the shah or Khomeini.”

Abdulla added: “We’ve never seen an Iran that has become the number-one terrorist country in the world except in the last 40 years.”

Mark Katz, professor of government and politics at the Schar School of Police and Government at George Mason University in the US, said: “Unlike the shah’s Iran, the Islamic Republic of Iran sought to export its revolution to other Muslim countries, especially the Arab Gulf ones.” He added: “Still, it must be remembered that the shah’s Iran was also fairly aggressive. It seized Abu Musa and the Tunbs (islands) right when the British were leaving the Trucial States and the UAE was being formed. It had also laid claim to Bahrain.” 

Furthermore, while the shah’s troops helped defend Oman against a South Yemeni-backed Marxist insurgency in the 1970s, Katz said the presence of those Iranian troops in Oman was unsettling to Saudi Arabia in particular. 

“The shah had also got the best of Iraq in their border rivalry — something that Saddam Hussein sought to reverse after the Iranian revolution,” he added. 

Before the revolution, the shah’s Iran often behaved “aggressively toward its Arab neighbors, but its close cooperation with the US against the Soviet Union, which Iran bordered and the Gulf Arab states didn’t, meant that Washington wasn’t willing to act against the shah for doing so,” Katz said. By contrast, the rise of an anti-American government after the revolution led to the US working with Arab Gulf states against Iran. 

“Because the Islamic Republic behaved in such a hostile manner, both toward the Gulf Arabs as well as the US, the 1979 revolution led to the isolation and containment of Iran for many years,” Katz said. 

“Although it may seem counterintuitive, Iran may have posed a far greater problem for the Gulf Arabs if the… revolution hadn’t taken place, because if it hadn’t and Western investment in Iran continued or even grew, there would’ve been a tendency for Tehran to assert — and the US to value — an Iranian effort to be the leader in the Gulf in collaboration with the US.”