ACIS Iran Pulse Number 88 ● February 3, 2019


Russian-Arab Alignment in Syria Creates Potential Obstacle to Iran's Land-Bridge to the Mediterranean 


Micha’el Tanchum*


The December 19, 2018 announcement of the U.S. withdrawal from Syria presents Iran with a new geopolitical landscape that challenges Tehran's strategic objective to create a landbridge to the Mediterranean. The removal of U.S. forces from northeastern Syria was heralded as Washington's concession to Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, giving him a green light to eradicate the PKK-affiliated Kurdish forces of the People's Protection Units (YPG). Likewise, the full withdrawal of U.S. troops from all of eastern Syria was also regarded as a reversal of the U.S. commitment to blunt the westward expansion of Iranian power. However, because of Turkey's planned intervention to create a 'safe zone' in Syria east of the Euphrates River, Russian and key Arab nations have aligned in opposition to Ankara's plan. Consequently, several Arab nations have recently reconciled with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad complicating Iran's position in Syria. Instead of having a free hand to develop an overland supply corridor to Hezbollah, Iran's options may be constrained by Damascus and Moscow in exchange for financial support from the Arab Gulf states for Syria's reconstruction.


Using 2,200 Special Forces and air power, the U.S. created a 51,000 square km zone of deterrence in northern and eastern Syria, protecting both the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), spearheaded by YPG fighters, and a coalition of anti-regime rebels. The U.S. military base near the Iraq border crossing at al-Tanf and the U.S. control of 55 sq. km semi-circle of territory around that base have rendered the shortest and safest route across Syria to Lebanon inaccessible to Iran. Seeking an alternative route, Iran and its allies engaged in a drawn-out campaign in November and December 2017 to capture and hold the city of Al Bu Kamal in Deir Ez-Zor province just north of the al-Qa'im border crossing.


Through the combined forces of the Syrian national army, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Iranian-backed Iraqi militias in coordination with Hezbollah, the Iranian-led forces captured the city of Al Bu Kamal in Deir Ez-Zor from ISIS (also known as the Islamic State). IRGC al-Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani oversaw the joint operation for control of Al Bu Kamal, in which Iran and its allies lost over 200 fighters including two IRGC commanders and several Hezbollah field commanders. While paying a high price, the capture of Al Bu Kamal enabled Iran to fulfill its strategic ambition of creating an overland line of supply to Lebanon via Iraq and Syria. This more circuitous route still requires the elimination of ISIS in the southern region of Deir EzZor and in the northern and eastern hinterlands around Homs before significant transports can be undertaken free from ISIS guerrilla attacks. through the shorter and safer al-Tanf route in order to transport weaponry and personnel to Lebanon.


While Russia views Iran's military intervention in support of the Assad regime as a present strategic necessity, Moscow is not keen to see the further entrenchment of Tehran's power in Syria or to create further provocations for Israeli air strikes on Syrian soil. The recent Russian-Arab alignment against Turkey's planned incursion into northeastern Syria has bolstered the positions of both Moscow and Damascus to restrain Iran from obtaining unfettered access to the al-Tanf region.


The rapid reconciliation between the Assad regime and its Arab opponents, notably Egypt and the UAE potentially undermines Iran's position in Syria. If Saudi Arabia follows suit, the anti-Turkey alignment led by Riyadh, Cairo, and Abu Dhabi could mobilize most of the Arab nations against Ankara's safe zone plan, and given Damascus’ opposition to the plan, provoke the crystallization of a broader anti-Turkish Arab bloc. This same bloc could also constrain Iranian options in Syria as Russia is looking to rehabilitate the Assad regime in the Arab world and to obtain substantial funding for the reconstruction of Syria from the Arab Gulf states.


The Assad regime's rehabilitation began with the December 16, 2018 visit to Damascus by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. This visit, the first by an Arab leader since Syria's expulsion from the Arab League in 2011, signaled a wider thaw between Arab nations and the Assad regime as it would not have occurred without Saudi approval. In a telling sign, the Sudanese president travelled to Damascus in a Russian plane. Sudan, cashed-strapped and indebted to Russia, has reportedly given concessions to Russian companies in various extractive industries including gold, diamonds, oil, and gas. Bashir's Damascus visit was partially prompted by Moscow’s eagerness to bolster the Assad regime through renewed ties with the Arab world.


A week later, Syria's security chief Ali Mamlouk, visited Cairo for talks reportedly at the invitation of Egypt's intelligence chief. Subsequently, co-chair of the SDF's political arm, informed the press that the SDF's Egyptian communication channels would be utilized in negotiations with the Assad regime to try to deter a Turkish intervention. Close military partners, Egypt and Russia are actively cooperating to combat Turkish-sponsored Islamist groups in Libya.


On December 27, 2018, the United Arab Emirates reopened its Damascus embassy after an eight-year hiatus. UAE minister of state for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash explained in a tweet, “The Arab role in Syria is becoming more necessary towards Iranian and Turkish [efforts at] territorial change in the region. The UAE today, through its presence in Damascus, seeks to activate this role." Six months earlier, Abu Dhabi and Moscow had signed a Declaration of Strategic Partnership. Hours after the UAE reopened its Damascus Embassy, Bahrain restored its diplomatic mission. Algeria, opposed to Turkey's support of Islamist militants in neighboring Libya, has been lobbying for Syria to be invited the March 2019 Arab League summit.


Moscow looks askance at Turkey's safe zone plan, as the Kremlin's end-game is for Bashar al-Assad's regime to regain all of Syria's territory. On January 16, 2019, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov foreshadowed Moscow’s opposition to the plan. "We are convinced that the best and only solution is the transfer of these territories under the control of the Syrian government," Lavrov stated. Obliquely referring to Turkey's planned intervention, Lavrov added, "We welcome and support contacts that have now begun between Kurdish representatives and Syrian authorities so they can return to their lives under a single government without outside interference." 


For its part, Iran has remained circumspect about Ankara's planned incursion into northeastern Syrian to eliminate YPG forces. While concerned about the close working partnership between the YPG and the U.S. in the campaign against ISIS, Tehran does not share Ankara's antipathy toward the YPG, as the Islamic Republic has provided support to currents within the PPK in the past. Iran has been inclined toward a negotiated agreement between the Assad regime and the Kurds that would return northeastern Syria to the control of the Syrian government. While the U.S. withdrawal and the threat of Turkish intervention has prompted the YPG to engage Damascus in negotiations, Tehran – long experienced in intra-Kurdish politics –is wary that the internecine rivalries among the Kurds could disrupt the Assad regime's efforts to re-integrate northern Syria. The U.S. may attempt to prevent Tehran from developing an overland supply corridor by blocking the route in western Iraq.


The U.S. has reportedly already established two bases in the border cities of al-Qa'im and al-Rutbah in Iraq's Anbar province. During his December 26, 2018 surprise visit to Iraq, U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters that U.S. might base commandos on the Iraqi side of the border to conduct missions within Syria. The government of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi may choose to hinder the flow of Iranian weapons across its western border itself in order prevent Iraq-based U.S. troops from acting.


At the same time, Tehran might try to preserve its supply corridor by enhancing its cooperation with Syria, Iraq, and especially Russia. According to Iran's state-owned al-Alam news channel, the four countries are in the process of developing a joint command center. However, segments of Iran's leadership as well as segments of Iranian public opinion remain sceptical about the reliability of Russia as a partner for Iran. Moscow wants the Assad government re-admitted to the Arab League. Russia will likely encourage Saudi Arabia and the UAE to contribute significant financial assistance for the reconstruction of Syria, giving both Damascus and Moscow the pretext and the reason to reduce Tehran's influence in Syria.


While Tehran is eyeing its future role in Syria's reconstruction, Iran's deepening economic crisis due to the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions precludes Iran playing a major role. Without U.S. troops in Syria, one of the remaining justifications for Iran's role in Syria has been removed. Among Iran's leadership factions, debate has emerged about the relative value of Iran's presence in Syria, especially in light of the increasingly vocal public criticism against the Iranian government for spending the country's dwindling resources abroad.


While the trilateral Astana dialogue between Ankara, Moscow and Tehran has thus far proved effective, the disappearance of opposition to the U.S. presence as a unifying factor in the Syria equation has brought the divergence of interests among the three Astana guarantors to the fore. Turkey cannot enter northeastern Syria without Russia's tacit consent. The rapprochement between the Assad regime and Turkey's major Arab rivals makes obtaining that consent more difficult, and risks Turkey’s Arab rivals supporting Kurdish forces in Syria creating an intractable quagmire for Turkey with significant consequences for its own Kurdish region.


Seeking to preserve Ankara's tilt toward Moscow, the Kremlin has suggested Syrian government forces could establish Turkey's proposed safe zone. During the Moscow January 23 meeting with Turkish President Erdoğan, President Putin declared that the 1998 Adana Protocol between Ankara and Damascus was still operative. Under the agreement, Syria closed PKK bases on its territories, imprisoned PKK fighters, and expelled PKK head Abdullah Öcalan, resulting in his 1999 capture. Iran joined the protocol in 2003 and may feel compelled to support Russia's proposal in order to limit cooperation between the Egypt-Saudi Arabia-UAE bloc and Damascus. At the next meeting of the Astana guarantors, Ankara may find itself forced to accept a Syrian-administered safe zone based on some updated understanding of the Adana Protocol. Similarly, with backing from Russia as well as key Arab nations, Damascus may impose new protocols on Tehran that limit Iran's ability use of Syrian territory as land-bridge to transport weapons and military personnel to Lebanon. 




*Dr. Micha’el Tanchum is a Fellow at the Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, Hebrew University and non-resident, affiliated scholar with the Center for Strategic Studies at Başkent University in Ankara, Turkey (Başkent-SAM) 

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ACIS Iran Pulse No. 88 ● February 3,  2019 

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