The most recent ceasefire in Syria, which was initiated by the Russians and Turks, has temporarily (at least) stopped the bloodshed and the massive humanitarian wave of refugees streaming for the Turkish border. But that ceasefire, while beneficial to both the Turks and Russians, isn’t so for the Iranians, while it leaves the Syrian regime stuck in limbo.
Until the recent ceasefire, the fighting in Syria was involving more and more units of the Turkish military, the Russian Air Force and some of their “contractors” as well as large units of the Syrian army, which, while equipped with Russian armored vehicles, artillery, and aircraft, is largely considered third-rate. Iranian led militias, advised by their Quds Force, were also active in Idlib.
The Assad regime has been waging a bloody civil war for nine years. Much of the country has been devastated by the fighting and the government is intent on reclaiming all of its territory. The last rebel stronghold is in Idlib province.
In Idlib, the violence had gotten increasingly bloodier. And after 36 Turkish soldiers were killed during heavy clashes between the Syrians and Iranian-led forces backed by Russian airstrikes, the Turks and the rebels they’re supporting struck back. Using drones to great effect, they killed or wounded more than 60 Iranian-led militia fighters.
This led to Iran, doing what it always does when facing a crisis, rattling its saber.
Iran’s Military Advisory Center (MAC) in Syria, published a statement through the Lebanese News Agency U-News late last week. It made the veiled threats it always makes while trying to paint itself as being the more rational party in the conflict. The statement read: “Since the time we have been in Syria, the Turkish Army bases have been within our range of fire.”
They then stated that they’ve abided by the previous agreements and have not attacked the Turkish Army positions.
“We have thus far refrained from targeting any Turkish center in the region. In order to annihilate the terrorists and protect Syria’s territorial integrity, we will continue to stand by the Syrian nation, its government and the Syrian army. We invite everyone to think rationally about the risks and consequences of attacking Syria.”
Of course, the unspoken message being that the Iranian proxy militias could decide to attack the Turkish army directly. With the announcement of the ceasefire with Russia, that would be a fool’s errand if they and the Syrians decide to go it alone without Russian airpower for support.
The Turkish government of President Erdogan, cannot allow the Syrians and Iranian militias to advance any farther. The Turks are already struggling to house more than 3.5 million refugees that have fled Syria since the civil war started. Since December, when the fighting in Idlib began in earnest, there have been nearly a million more civilians displaced. They’re staying in horrible conditions in makeshift areas around the Turkish border. Many live out in the open.
Turkey can’t afford any more refugees streaming across its borders and wants them to return to their homes.
Iran and Russia, while seemingly on the same side of this conflict, have different priorities. Although both are fighting to protect the Assad regime, Assad is much more important to Tehran than to Moscow, despite outward appearances.
Intelligence analysts tend to believe that the Iranians have become increasingly more influential in Assad’s inner circle. Iran needs to have the major highways under the control of the Syrian government so it can use them as a land bridge to funnel arms and missiles from Iran, through Iraq and Syria to its proxies in Lebanon.
The Russians have long been an ally of Syria and they want to maintain their control over the Syrian ports as well as their strategic airbases in the country. Through the years, they’ve carefully cultivated many high-ranking military officers. With Assad becoming more influenced by Tehran, he could quickly become replaceable.
Putin has seen that the Turkish hand was forced and that Turkey was willing to go to war. It has flooded troops over the border and has shown that it will not back down. Russia has worked hard to create a relationship with Ankara and Erdogan in order to subvert the influence that the U.S. has with the government. Putin doesn’t want to risk that over Idlib, especially since the Turks haven’t shown any inclination of moving further into Syria, something which would threaten Assad’s regime.
With Russia now reducing its presence in the area, especially the provision of a protective umbrella of air cover for the Syrian army and Iranian proxies, Syrian hopes of pushing into Idlib have now ground to a halt. The Iranians know they can’t sustain any long-term military operation as their economy is a mess, especially with the crippling U.S. sanctions. To top things off, Iran is facing increasing protests against the regime and an epidemic of coronavirus, which just adds to its woes.
The Iranians misjudged what the Turkish and Russian response would be and are now struggling to come up with alternatives. Some believe that the Russians played this perfectly since the bloody nose the Syrians suffered could lessen the influence that Quds Force have within the government.
Tehran is now struggling to counter the Russian ceasefire and is trying to involve Turkey directly in talks. While the Iranians weren’t invited to the meeting in Moscow, their foreign ministry has invited both Assad and Turkey to a meeting, freezing out the Russians.
What is the purpose of this proposed meeting? It seems to be mainly a power play by Tehran to keep their influence over Assad and downplay the Russians’ ability to push them further from the source of power.
But Iran’s ability to project power with the Quds Force, without the protection of the Russian Air Force in Idlib, is pretty much non-existent at this point. Iran knows that if it and the Syrians attempt to take on the Turkish military they’d take a beating. Therefore, they are now going to try the end-around and engage Turkey and Syria politically.
It will be intriguing to see if the ceasefire in Idlib holds up. Most analysts don’t believe it will. It is doubtful that the Russians or Turks, who have agreed to joint patrols will break it. So, would the rebel forces engage the Syrian army? Or will the Syrians or Iranian proxies try to inflame the violence again? That could be a risky proposition for the Assad regime.