Iran’s worst week in Syria: Heavy losses, no exit

Pakistan Observer - - INTERNATIONAL - [Joyce Karam is the Wash­ing­ton Bureau Chief for Al-Hayat News­pa­per, an In­ter­na­tional Ara­bic Daily based in London. She has cov­ered Amer­i­can pol­i­tics ex­ten­sively since 2004 with fo­cus on U.S. pol­icy to­wards the Mid­dle East. Prior to that, she worked as a J

JOYCE KARAM OR a coun­try that does not even ac­knowl­edge its troops are fight­ing on the ground in Syria (call­ing them in­stead “vol­un­teers”), ad­mit­ting that it lost 13 com­man­ders in one week is a tes­ta­ment to its deep­en­ing in­volve­ment and the lack of an im­me­di­ate exit. In the last week, the Aleppo bat­tle has ac­cen­tu­ated Iran’s losses in the con­flict, with 13 Ira­nian Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guards Com­man­ders (IRGC) dead, 21 others wounded, and sev­eral kid­napped ac­cord­ing to the Ira­nian me­dia. Iran’s to­tal losses in Syria, es­ti­mated at 342 sol­diers be­tween Jan­uary 2012 and Fe­bru­ary 2016, make the Aleppo toll even more stag­ger­ing, with­out promis­ing how­ever a shift in its role or of­fer­ing a glimpse of an exit.

Goals and strat­egy: Since its in­volve­ment in the con­flict in 2012, some have pro­jected the Syr­ian war to turn into Iran’s Viet­nam, while others have warned of a Iraqi sce­nario whereby Tehran would gain the up­per hand over mat­ters in Syria as it did in postSad­dam Iraq. The re­al­ity to­day is nei­ther. While Iran has gained lever­age and dou­bled down its sup­port for the As­sad regime, a Iraqi sce­nario is un­likely be­cause of a stronger anti-Iran/ As­sad com­po­nent in Syria. Also, Iran’s in­ter­ven­tion is not a quag­mire given that the ma­jor­ity of Ira­nian mil­i­tary in­vest­ment is rooted in for­eign Iraqi, Le­banese, and Afghani mili­ti­a­men fight­ing its bat­tles.

Iran’s goals in Syria are de­fined by keep­ing the regime afloat, se­cur­ing weaponry routes to Hezbol­lah, and ex­pand­ing a mili­tia pres­ence in­side Syria. De­spite its losses and ris­ing costs, Tehran is meet­ing these goals, hav­ing built large para­mil­i­tary force al­lied with the regime, and hav­ing se­cured the routes con­nect­ing Damascus to the coast and to Hezbol­lah in the Bekaa val­ley.

De­spite its losses over four years in Syria, there are no

Fsigns of Ira­nian will­ing­ness to scale down its role in the con­flict. If any­thing, the visit of Ali Ak­bar Ve­lay­ati, an ad­viser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei, to As­sad on the same day that Tehran an­nounced the IRGC ca­su­al­ties last week, is a state­ment of con­ti­nu­ity in sup­port­ing the regime and in­vest­ing in the fight­ing.

Iran vs. Rus­sia: The As­sad-Vely­ati meet­ing also stands in con­trast with Rus­sia’s mes­sag­ing on Syria. While Vely­ati was is­su­ing state­ments that As­sad re­main­ing in power is “Iran’s red­line”, Rus­sian For­eign Min­is­ter Sergie Lavrov was telling Sput­nik that “Bashar As­sad is not Moscow’s ally like Ankara is to Wash­ing­ton.”

Sources close to Rus­sia have been con­sis­tent over the last few months in re­lay­ing “frus­tra­tions” for Moscow in deal­ing with As­sad. These in­clude his lack of co­op­er­a­tion and vi­o­la­tions to the ces­sa­tion of hos­til­i­ties reached last Fe­bru­ary, un­will­ing­ness to re­lease de­tainees from jails, and in­abil­ity to of­fer real com­pro­mises at the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble in Geneva. While Iran has gained lever­age and dou­bled down its sup­port for the As­sad regime, a Iraqi sce­nario is un­likely be­cause of a stronger anti-Iran/As­sad com­po­nent in Syria

Those sources say that as far back as 2014, Rus­sian of­fi­cials have told both the United Na­tions and the United States that they “can coun­sel As­sad but can­not con­trol him.” The Krem­lin em­pha­sized that the “re­la­tion with As­sad the son is dif­fer­ent from the fa­ther” mak­ing the case that with the lat­ter, re­la­tions were “deeper, broader and more strate­gic.” In­deed, As­sad the son has drove his regime closer to Iran and to a level of de­pen­dency. Even be­fore the con­flict, young As­sad al­lowed the trans­port of qual­i­ta­tive weaponry to Hezbol­lah, and re­ceived its leader in Damascus, both would have been ta­boos un­der the fa­ther. To­day, it is Hezbol­lah’s in­ter­ven­tion, and Ira­nian fi­nan­cial, mil­i­tary and lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port that con­sti­tute the life­line for the regime. Ab­sent of Rus­sia’s air sup­port, they can­not score large mil­i­tary vic­to­ries for the regime, but they can keep it go­ing while main­tain­ing a strong in­flu­ence for Iran in key parts and power cir­cles in Syria. For Rus­sia, a deal with the United States that safe­guards its in­tel­li­gence and se­cu­rity pres­ence in Syria is an ac­cept­able out­come. Not for Iran, how­ever. Tehran is tac­ti­cally go­ing for an out­right vic­tory and con­trol over Syria through ex­pand­ing its ground pres­ence in Damascus, near the Golan Heights, and on the full spec­trum of the borders while con­ceiv­ably con­ced­ing mid­dle of coun­try for the rebels or the Is­lamic State (ISIS). That marks the sig­nif­i­cance of the Aleppo bat­tle as a pre­lude to As­sad’s plan to re­take the bor­der ar­eas with Turkey.

While Lavrov and his US coun­ter­part John Kerry sig­nal agree­ment on sev­eral bench­marks on Syria, hop­ing to reach a po­lit­i­cal so­lu­tion be­fore US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama leaves of­fice (Jan­uary, 2016), the re­al­ity on the ground is be­ing driven by Iran, As­sad and the rebels. —Courtesy: AA.

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