Al-Hayat – 11th August – Raghida Dergham
For a multitude of national and regional reasons, the Kurdish national aspirations clash with Iranian, Turkish and Arab obstacles. Disputes and clashes are increasing between conflicting projects and the noise of oratory about division in Iraq and sharing in Syria. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has begun building a wall on the Turkish-Iranian border to prevent Kurdish activists from infiltrating Turkey, and has promised another wall on the border with Iraq, similar to the Syrian border wall. Masoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, explained that he considers it impossible to reconsider the organisation of referendum on the region’s independence, and pledged that he would not allow the Popular Mobilisation Forces, who are supported by Iran, to enter Kurdistan. Barzani spoke about the Iranian project, and said that “the Iranian authorities have openly declared their success in opening a Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus-Beirut route”. He refused to hold the Kurds responsible for the division of Iraq, noting that “it is a sectarian war, and the [divided Iraqi] state has no sovereignty”.
Regardless of whether the Kurdish independence referendum officially instated the division of Iraq, that division had already come thanks to the war of George W. Bush in Iraq, pro-Tehran former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and the sectarian Popular Mobilisation Forces, an Iraqi force after the model of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. It was striking this week that Iranian president Hassan Rouhani was the first in nearly a quarter-century to withdraw the defence portfolio from the leader of the Revolutionary Guard, instead assigning it to an officer in the regular army. However, this move remains mostly symbolic as long as Iran retains its armed militias and units in Arab lands, given that all of these are under the command of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and its extremist, expansionist plans. Henry Kissinger this week warned that Iran’s control over the lands which have been liberated from ISIS could lead to the establishment of a “radical Iranian empire,” resulting in a “territorial belt stretching from Tehran to Beirut”. Trump’s administration is unclear on whether it intends to submit to a radical Iranian imperial belt, or if it would expose it and prevent its establishment in the field. Until now, it appears that the Trump administration has charged Russia with the issue of Iran and its militias in Syria. What is remarkable is the increase in Russian leaks to writers and researchers in Russian intellectual institutions, to produce the idea that Moscow is striving for a political solution in Syria and that its efforts are being hindered by Iran who want to continue the war. Is this a message, or a distribution of roles, or serious disagreements or differences in Russian-Iranian priorities, or is it a result of serious US pressure as a condition of the hoped-for deal between Moscow and Washington?
Expert in Islamic and international affairs Kirill Semonov has written an essay, “Iran hindering Russian solution in Syria”, for the site “Rageopolitica”, which was published by Al-Hayat last Wednesday. That was accompanied by another article by Anton Mardasov, the head of the Department of Middle Eastern Conflicts at the Institute for Innovative Development, on the same topic, entitled “Tehran is for continuation of the war, Russia is for a political solution”. Generally, the publication of Russian articles with this perspective means either that this is the Russian political mentality, or that this is what the Syrian leadership wish to market for its own political and strategic goals.
The connotation of what Semonov wrote is interesting, as he speaks of Iran’s strengthening of the “Shi’ite Corridor” (between Iran and the Mediterranean, across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon) and “the movement of the conflict in Syria to confrontation on a new level”. “Moscow, which is committed to a peaceful compromise in the Syrian conflict, does not want Syria to be gradually transformed into a Shi’ite Iranian colony at the hands of the Ayatollahs, given that the sectarian-ethnic conflict is one of the elements on which Islamist extremist propaganda is based… In public circles, there are obvious indicators of a discrepancy between Russia and Iran.” He noted that Tehran did not call for the meetings which were held in Amman and Cairo, “but the Iranians are capable of thwarting these agreements, and of ratifying separate agreements in Syria, as they did in March with the truce. The blame will fall on Russia, the largest player, and it will be taken that they did not influence their allies in the best manner.” Semonov said that Tehran “wants to continue the fighting”.
What is particularly notable is that the Russian expert in Idlib himself called on “Russia and Turkey to hasten an agreement on measures to support the moderate opposition in its struggle against extremists in Idlib, before Tehran and Damascus begin to attack Idlib under the pretext that extremist positions are being reinforced”. He concluded saying “Iran sees that the solution requires overcoming the armed opposition and wants Russia to support it in this endeavour. However, Moscow desires a peaceful political resolution”.
As for Anton Mardasov, he opens his article stating “Tehran is striving to drag Moscow towards a new round of civil war”. He pointed to the proximity of Russian and Iranian goals at the beginning of the Russian intervention in Syria, “but the gap between the two countries has gradually started to widen as Russia seeks to negotiate a stable ceasefire with the armed Syrian opposition”. Mardasov spoke of the Russian-Iranian rivalry east of Aleppo, where Moscow hopes to “spread security and stability”, as he says, while “Tehran has begun to consolidate its power and expand the ranks of loyal militias”. The opening of Iranian religious centres in Aleppo “is fueling the conflict on the basis of ethnicity and religion”.
These messages, perhaps, are directed at Washington, to impress Russian difficulties in containing Iran’s ambitions, and to force Trump’s administration to recognise the high cost if Russia decided to sever its ground alliance with Iran, and the price in the Crimea, where Moscow insists that Washington recognise that it has recovered Russian territory. Moscow differs from Tehran in how the Russians approach their messages, since the Iranian plan in Syria is very different from the Russian. Moscow is not prepared to dispense with its strategic relationship with Tehran unless it is fully sure that the Iranian plan will plunge it into the quagmire of civil war in Syria, nor is it prepared for a Russian-American deal.
Washington is relying on Russia to curb the Iranian hegemony in Syria, either since it trusts that Moscow is able to do so, if it desires, or because it sees that the problem is a Russian problem, and not an American one. The most important thing currently for the Trump administration is the longed-for crush of ISIS and its like, in partnership with anyone, and then some, for every recent incident. The Syrian regime forces’ recovery of Deir az-Zour and its surrender of the Syria-Iraq border to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard raised no American objections. The impression given is that Washington pretended not to notice, and tacitly approved of it. Deir az-Zour is an important region for the corridor connecting Tehran and the Mediterranean, and even now, Washington has not implemented any actual steps to oppose the establishment of a “Persian Crescent” which it and Israel claim to oppose.
Confidence in the US is low for all those who cooperate with it, and all sides are prepared for the possibility that the US will dispense with them once American goals are achieved – such is the American reputation. The mainly-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces believe that its interests require a focus on preserving Kurdish territories through mutual understandings with Damascus and Moscow. A deal with Bashar al-Assad is certain to rely on American promises, which may fluctuate with the relationship with Turkey.
Thus the Syrian Democratic Forces aspire to a deal in which they hand over Raqqa to regime forces in exchange for a promise by al-Assad for an autonomous Kurdish administration in Syrian Kurdish territories. The Kurds question the American pledges and complain that America’s priority with the Kurds will be within the remit of the relations with NATO member Turkey, which Washington may need to control Iranian expansion in the Middle East, and to determine the fate of Idlib, as some claim.
Russia fears that Tehran and Damascus will exploit the situation in Idlib with an armed attack, resulting in a new alliance between the moderate opposition and the extremists. The Russian idea is to charge the moderate opposition with eliminating the extremist opposition, as they want to block any Iranian efforts or regime adventures in Idlib. Turkey has a number of links to the fate of Idlib, as it is accused of offering safe harbour to extremists therein. Russia is currently attempting to coordinate with Turkey, giving the impression of a dispute with Iran, but these are merely temporary transitional partnerships on the Syrian battlefields.
So far, despite Russia’s acknowledgement of differences with Iranian plans, there have been no signs of any qualitative shift in the Iranian-Russian alliance towards a strategic break. As long as Washington gets along with any alliance in Syria under the banner of fighting terrorism – a label mainly adopted by Damascus – Russia will take the lead on managing developments, determining whether rapprochement with Turkey or divergence from Iranian plans in Syria are in its interest, developments which determine the fate of the Syrian opposition as a whole. Thus the Kurds and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces turn are inclining toward Russia. However, in the end Iran is not a transient issue in the fate of Syria, and its cross-border plans need Syrian territory. The execution of these plans will not be stopped without a Russian-American-Israeli resolution, which remains to be adopted.
Translated by Conor Fagan
Original article found here.