Syria: Amer­i­cans with­draw, Ira­ni­ans stay

Arab News - - FRONT PAGE - AB­dUl­rAH­mAN Al-rASHed

APART from de­feat­ing Daesh, the pres­ence of Amer­i­can troops has had no crit­i­cal role in the Syr­ian war. How­ever, their with­drawal would make it eas­ier for the Ira­nian regime to com­plete ‘the fi­nal chap­ter’ of its full takeover of Syria, and con­trol over Iraq and Le­banon. In a speech in Ohio on Thurs­day, US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump sur­prised his au­di­ence when he said: “We will pull out our forces from Syria,” and “We will leave if we elim­i­nate the re­main­ing Daesh en­claves.” Mean­while, in his own as­sess­ment of the sit­u­a­tion in Syria, the Saudi Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man said that if Bashar As­sad were to re­main as pres­i­dent he should not be un­der the con­trol of the Ira­ni­ans, but has to get rid of them. The Amer­i­can pres­ence blocks the es­tab­lish­ment of a di­rect route from Iran to Le­banon, through Iraq and Syria, the crown prince said.

The sit­u­a­tion in Syria to­day looks like a torn dress. Russia has bases in the ar­eas un­der the regime’s in­flu­ence. The US has limited its pres­ence in Syria to fight­ing Daesh, with­out in­ter­fer­ing in the war be­tween Syr­i­ans them­selves. Is­rael is con­cerned that Iran and its mili­tias might threaten its se­cu­rity. Turkey is also in­ter­ested in chas­ing the Kurds in Syria far from its borders. And de­spite the losses of the Free Syr­ian Army, some of its fac­tions re­main es­tab­lished in their re­gions, dis­ap­point­ing a lot of peo­ple who had de­clared its death. As for ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions such as Jab­hat Fatah Al-Sham, i.e. the for­mer Al-Qaeda-re­lated Al-Nusra Front, they have been de­feated and dis­tracted but not com­pletely erad­i­cated.

Thus, As­sad re­mains es­tab­lished, re­ly­ing on two pow­ers: Ira­nian ground forces and the Rus­sian air force.

It is hard for most peo­ple with a con­science in the Arab world to ac­cept that Bashar As­sad should re­main in power af­ter all he has done.

Crown Prince Mo­hammed, how­ever, talked about the sit­u­a­tion as it re­ally is to Time mag­a­zine; As­sad’s pres­ence is a re­al­ity, he said, but he called on him not to be a façade for Iran and its mili­tias.

Here two es­sen­tial ques­tions come to mind. Is As­sad truly ca­pa­ble of rid­ding Syria of the Ira­ni­ans? And if he were to do so, would he be able to sur­vive with­out their aid?

In or­der to con­trol Syria, Iran has lost thou­sands of its fight­ers and its mili­tias’ fight­ers, and wasted bil­lions of dol­lars. If Qassem Soleimani and his Ira­nian forces and mili­tias were pulled out of Syria, that would re­duce their in­flu­ence in Le­banon and Iraq too.

With­draw­ing from Syria would have reper­cus­sions on Ira­nian life, as the Tehran regime has been, for four years, jus­ti­fy­ing its war there as a nec­es­sary mea­sure to pro­tect the regime it­self; in­deed, that it was a mat­ter of sur­vival. That might not be un­true, es­pe­cially, amid the re­cur­ring pop­u­lar up­ris­ings in the streets of Iran’s main cities.

The sec­ond test for As­sad is; if he or­dered Iran’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps and its Le­banese, Iraqi, Afghan and other mili­tias to leave Syria, and hid be­hind the UN and the ma­jor pow­ers to im­ple­ment such an or­der, could the Syr­ian regime sur­vive with­out them?

I doubt that; the ma­jor­ity of those who fought the armed op­po­si­tion in East­ern Ghouta, in greater Da­m­as­cus, were ei­ther from Iran and/or Hezbol­lah in Le­banon and Iraq, with Russia han­dling the air at­tacks.

Hence, if As­sad’s forces were in­ca­pable on their own of manag­ing and ex­e­cut­ing a bat­tle rag­ing in the cap­i­tal’s out­skirts, how would they man­age and pro­tect a big state such as Syria, which has in­her­ited hos­til­i­ties and vengeance from the war of the past seven years?

Let us not for­get that the ma­jor­ity of the other se­cu­rity and armed forces of the regime have been dec­i­mated in the war by in­ter­nal di­vi­sions, hu­man losses, and the es­cape abroad of many draft-age men.

Even if As­sad wanted to turn a new page and ev­ery­one agreed to stop the blood­shed, no one would be­lieve any prom­ise of the with­drawal of Tehran’s forces. They would stall for ever, es­pe­cially now that they have dug them­selves trenches and bases, show­ing their in­ten­tion to stay in Syria. For starters, the sit­u­a­tion might re­quire an in­ter­na­tional so­lu­tion that of­fi­cially re­gards the Ira­nian forces in Syria as an “oc­cu­pa­tion force,” and or­ders them out.

Ab­dul­rah­man Al-Rashed is a vet­eran colum­nist. He is the for­mer gen­eral man­ager of Al Ara­biya news chan­nel, and for­mer edi­tor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat.

Twit­ter: @aal­rashed

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