Recently, Qasim Suleimani, head of the Iranian Quds Force, personally supervised the transfer to Damascus of one of the plethora of Iraqi Shiite militias which report directly to Khamenei’s personal office in Tehran. This helped taxidermists to stuff more straw into Assad’s corpse and Russia to continue its Middle-Eastern expansion based on the ‘legitimate invitation’ of the puppet régime, which continues to enjoy a UN seat. The permanence of the strategically vital Russian airbase at Khmeimim depends on this official sanction.
The 1000 fighters from Akram al-Qa’bi’s Harakat Al Nujaba al Shi’iyya al Iraqiyya landing at Damascus airport in troop transport planes, joined other Iraqi militias operating in Syria since 2012: Asa’ib Ahlulhaq, Liwa’a Thulfiqar, Liwa’a Abul Fadl Al Abbas, and Kata’eb Hezbullah. Kata’eb Hezbullah isn’t to be confused with the Lebanese Hezbullah also helping to prop up Assad.
The Syrian army having more or less been decimated over the past 5 years, these are now the effective core of Assad’s ground troops. The loss of 60,000 soldiers by the Syrian Army has been interpreted by many as a sign of the ferocity of the onslaught by Sunni fighters on the Assad régime. However, it is more accurate to say that the death of some 400,000 civilians and the displacement of 15 million people (4.8m of them refugees) is a testament of the ferocity of the attack by the régime on its own people. It is this aggression which elicited the creation of a veritable multitude of local opposition groups, only some of which have been drawn into alliance with nationwide groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, funded by Sunni regional powers.
If Iraqi and Lebanese Shi’a militias therefore represent the ‘boots on the ground’ that are keeping the régime in place, the blood they have shed in Syria is considerable, and this included Qasim Suleimani’s deputy, Hossein Hamadani. This in turn has led Iran to recruit new militias his personnel from Shi’a outside Iraq, as far afield as Afghanistan.
Peace conferences on Syria have come and gone, the latest in Lausanne, Switzerland, involving all parties involved in the conflict aside from Syrians themselves, ended with a whimper. There are many problems with achieving any political solution in Syria.
Firstly, the Higher Negotiating Committee (HNC) set up by Saudi Arabia this year to represent the opposition in negotiations with the régime fails to include the most powerful Sunni forces on the ground in Syria; namely Jabhat al-Nusra, now known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and its allies Ahrar al-Sham. The US has failed to create a replacement ‘moderate’ force for these elements, ever since 2012 Hillary Clinton dismissed the Syrian National Council as a waste of time and a ‘talking-shop‘, which non-plussed its participants at the time, given that they were actually supposed to provide a political solution to the Syrian problem.
Secondly, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) representing the Syrian Kurds refuses to join the HNC, just as they earlier refused to join the Syrian National Council (SNC) in 2012, when initial negotiations with the régime in Damascus were being envisaged. The PYD is angling for its own state. The People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military arm of the PYD went, like Jabhat al-Nusra, gone through a process of rebranding to the ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF), to make their nation-building project more palatable. However, this fig leaf quickly fell apart, as a leader of the Sunni Arab contingent of the SDF, Abdel-Karim el-Obeid, explained in a recent interview. El-Obeid, who has now left the SDF, explains how decision-making was concentrated in the hands a small clique of Kurdish YPG elements in collaboration with US special forces.
Thirdly, Iran is now so deeply ensconced in Damascus that any UN or international negotiations on Syria, which aimed as a serious political resolution would uncover the extraordinary fragility of the Assad régime, and would bring into question the continuance of Shia militias and Quds force personnel located in Syria. This is situation which both Russia and Iran want to avoid.
The Question of Israel’s Change of Attitude
The one important thing to try to explain is why the Israelis might want to support this new Russian/Iranian status quo. Netanhayu has been remarkably quiet over the occupation of Damascus by what are, presumably, Israel’s deadliest enemies: Iran and the Lebanese Hezbullah.
Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCOPA) had been the subject of considerable friction between Netanyahu and Obama. Perhaps the fact that Netanyahu’s visit to the US Congress to appeal against Obama’s policy on Iran backfired, or perhaps the fact that the bitter Iranian pill was sweetened with a record-breaking military package, made all the difference. Nevertheless, JCOPA does mean that serious confrontation with Iran on the part of the US, unless a flagrant breach of the terms of the agreement occurs, is inconceivable. Furthermore, the outcome of this whole process has also put Israel in the novel position of being pushed by the UN to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Obama’s Syrian policy on the other hand, left a void which gave Russia the opening to establish what is now the unshakeable and unmistakable presence of the Khmeimim airbase, which changed the balance of power in the Middle East as soon as Russia deployed the S-400 anti aircraft system there. As one peace conference after another over Syria between the US and Russia fails, Russia digs its heels in, transferring yet more advanced weaponry to the naval base at Tartus, while Russian-Israeli relations in the region develop in new directions.
While a joint mechanism of “de-confliction” was set up to prevent mistaken air and ground clashes, this has not prevented Russian warplanes and drones infiltrating Israel at least 10 times in the past year testing and reporting on Israeli defences. When the Russians did the same in Turkey, after 11 warnings, the Turks shot a Russian fighter plane down. The Israelis, by contrast, held their fire. The arming of Khmeimim with the S-400, and Tartus with the S-300 solicited little comment from the Israel government, although Israeli media was quick to point out the consequent significant change in regional security architecture.
But that wasn’t all. When Russia finally agreed to deliver on its long-standing promise to supply the S-300 to the Iranians to deploy around the Fordow nuclear base, which has been a major bone of contention between Israel, the US and Russia since 2005, the Israeli government said nothing, although the US said ‘it was concerned’.
Since August 2015, Netanyahu has visited and phoned Putin more than any other world leader. Clearly, Russia’s arrival in Syria on the tail of Obama’s abdication required a new pragmatic attitude, especially when it came to Israel’s plans to export gas from the Leviathan field through Turkey to Europe. These Netanyahu declared were crucial to Israel’s future, and required that Israel acquiesce to the new Russian suzerainty over the region.
The matter of the Shi’a militias
Reflecting the plethora of rebel groups in Syria, Iran has seemingly created innumerable militias in Iraq reporting directly to the al-Quds force and Khamenei’s office. But where the Syrian rebel groups represent a groundswell of popular rebellion in different localities against oppression, the Iranians have created competing groups under their control to ensure no one group becomes too powerful to achieve their battlefield objectives informally. Other than Ali al-Sistani’s Al-Housa al-Diniyya Fil Najaf al-Ashraf , and Muqdata al-Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam, which espouse Iraqi nationalism, the over 50 other Shi‘a militias in Iraq report directly to Iran.
While the US is clearly antagonistic towards the Assad régime, little criticism of Iranian policy in Syria and of the Shi’a militias, either on the Syrian or the Iraqi battlegrounds, is forthcoming. Particularly striking, in the context of Iraq, has been the Iraqi government’s aggressive denunciations in regard to 600 Turkish troops stationed at Camp Ba’ashiqah and the consonant disclaimer by the US that Turkey has a role to play in the battle for Mosul.
Such a position clearly turns blind eye to heavy involvement of Iran in Iraqi militias, while trying to deny Turkey a say in the eventual settlement in Northern Iraq, which it feels it is owed in view of the potential backlash on its own security of Iraqi Shi’a militias riding roughshod over Sunni populations in Northern Iraq, and creating a new exodus of refugees toward Turkish borders.