TSG IntelBrief: Aleppo Victory Bolsters Iran’s Regional Strategy
January 4, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front:
• Iran views the recapture of eastern Aleppo as a validation of its strategy to support forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
• Iran will strenuously resist any efforts by Russia—its main ally in Syria—to negotiate a political solution that requires Assad to step down.
• The fall of the rebel-held parts of Aleppo—achieved with the help of thousands of Iran-recruited Shi’a militiamen—helps Iran’s efforts to establish an Iran-friendly corridor stretching all the way to Lebanon.
• The Aleppo battle has furthered Iran’s advantage in its region-wide conflict against Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies.
In December 2016, forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad expelled rebel forces from the stronghold in eastern Aleppo that they had occupied since 2012. Within hours of the Syrian regime’s declaration of ‘victory’ in Aleppo, the Commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force (IRGC-QF), Major General Qasem Soleimani, took a highly publicized tour of the quieted Aleppo battlefield. The Soleimani tour, coupled with statements by Iranian political leaders, underscored Iran’s view that the Aleppo battle vindicated its strategy of backing a military solution to the conflict, and resisting efforts by the U.S., EU, and regional states to broker a transitional government.
At the same time, the recapture of Aleppo threatens to divide Iran and Russia—Iran’s most potent ally in Syria. Iran, whose main goal is to keep Assad in power indefinitely, sees the Aleppo battle as the first step to achieving a total military defeat of Assad’s armed opponents. Russia is more interested in preserving the Syrian state as a bulwark against extremist movements linked to al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State, with Assad’s rule as a secondary consideration. Immediately after the Aleppo battle, Russia began efforts to negotiate a ceasefire and a political solution to the conflict, working primarily with Turkey, which has not generally been aligned with Russia or Iran on the Syrian issue. Russia’s post-Aleppo posture indicates that it does not necessarily support Iran’s goal of pursuing military action until outright victory. The Russian stance might be intended, at least in part, to demonstrate to the incoming Trump administration that Russia seeks a compromise that would end the fighting and enable large numbers of Syrian refugees to return home.
Iran seeks to keep Assad in power because he remains central to Tehran’s vision of translating its victories in Syria into a broader regional power shift in Iran’s favor. Iran’s involvement in Syria has given pro-Iranian Shi’a militias control over significant parts of northern Syria. Not surprisingly, Iran wants to solidify those gains, and is resisting proposals to withdraw these militias from Syria. When coupled with the deployment of Iran-backed Shi’a militias in the ongoing battle to recapture Mosul in Iraq, Iran appears to be trying to establish a secure land bridge all the way from Iran to Lebanon. Iran has long sought to build such a corridor, which would allow it to securely support its main regional ally, Lebanese Hizballah—which is also the main outside Shi’a force helping Assad. Iran has long sought an alternative to relying on resupplying Hizballah via cargo flights into the Damascus airport, which are easily detected by foreign intelligence services.
Iran might have more ambitious goals than establishing a secure land route to Lebanon. Sunni regional leaders, including those of Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf states, and Jordan, have long warned that Iran is seeking to assemble a strategic ‘Shi’a belt’—composed of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon—to serve as a strong counterweight to the Sunni-led states. These leaders blame Iran for the region’s growing sectarian rift. Regardless of whether Iran’s intent is as sweeping as Sunni Arab leaders assert, it is clear that the Syrian victories have further shifted regional power in Iran’s direction. That shift began 14 years ago with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, which brought Iraq under the leadership of pro-Iranian Shi’a leaders. Since then, Lebanon’s government has become extensively influenced by Hizballah; a Sunni Iran-supported movement, Hamas, has taken control of the Gaza Strip; the pro-Iranian Zaydi Shi’a Houthi rebels in Yemen have taken control of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, and remain there despite military efforts led by Saudi Arabia; and Shi’a-led unrest continues to challenge Saudi Arabia’s closest Gulf ally, Bahrain.
The fall of Aleppo also exposed the weaknesses of Saudi Arabia and its allies in the regional power struggle. East Aleppo fell despite Saudi Arabia supplying the Sunni rebels there with sophisticated U.S.-made anti-tank weaponry and other systems. The Saudis, as well as Turkey, had calculated that the U.S. would either intervene on behalf of the rebels or, at the very least, act to prevent intervention from a large power such as Russia. Those calculations proved incorrect, as the U.S. stayed out of the conflict and Russia’s entry assisted Assad dramatically. Saudi Arabia and its allies do not expect the incoming Trump administration to shift U.S. policy toward actively promoting Assad’s overthrow. However, the Gulf states have taken the statements of the incoming administration as an indication that the U.S. intends to counter Iranian influence region-wide, even if it decides to continue implementing the multilateral nuclear deal. Still, any efforts by the new U.S. administration to counter Iran in the region and shift the power balance back toward the Sunni states will be constrained by Iran’s successes and continuing presence in Syria, particularly its victory in Aleppo.
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