TSG IntelBrief: Geopolitical Tremors Shake Syria and Iraq
September 28, 2015

Geopolitical Tremors Shake Syria and Iraq

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• The last week has seen more geopolitical maneuvering than at any other time in the Syrian civil war, and at any time over the last five years in Iraq

• Russia has moved quickly to hijack the anti-Islamic State coalition and turn it into a coalition to preserve the Assad regime

• In addition to their collaboration in the Syrian civil war, Moscow, Tehran, and the Assad regime are now establishing a fusion cell in Iraq to coordinate intelligence and operational efforts against both the Islamic State and American influence

• Both Syria and Iraq remain localized tragedies with increasing regional and global involvement that both enables and frustrates a negotiated resolution.

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For two conflicts that seem to continue apace with constant suffering and little substantial change, the past week has seen potentially meaningful developments in both the Syrian war and the Iraq war against the so-called Islamic State. Russia has hijacked the international approach to the Syrian civil war, pushing the anti-Islamic State coalition to accept the necessity of the Assad regime as a guarantor of stability. In the span of just a few weeks, the conventional wisdom has become such that tolerance of the Assad regime will be a key part of the upcoming fight, as Russia and Iran join the anti-Islamic State effort.

Russia and Iran, along with Hizballah, have publicly renewed their support for the Assad regime; Moscow is bringing in a level of military support above and beyond what is suitable to fight the Islamic State. The conflict has now devolved into a dangerous Cold War dynamic that will not be easy to walk back once it has taken root. The prospect of Russia conducting airstrikes against Western-backed rebels is likely in Syria, with unknowable consequences. The planned meeting between Presidents Obama and Putin on September 28 will focus on deconfliction in the Syrian arena, as well as the fighting in Ukraine. The conflict in Syria is firming up to be a fight between the West and the Russia-Iran partnership as much as one between Assad and the rebels.

In Iraq, where the fighting has been continuous since 2003, there is now open recognition of what has been going on for quite some time: a fusion cell of Russian, Iranian, Syrian, and Iraqi intelligence operations is collaborating in the fight against the Islamic State. The collaboration, distinct from Iraq’s cooperation with the United States and other Western countries, only highlights the reality of what is happening on the ground in Iraq. Washington, which never had the influence it believed aid and assistance had bought it, is being sidelined by Tehran, with its natural influence, and by Moscow’s determined push for influence.

With the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) this week, there will be many side meetings between countries maneuvering for influence in both Syria and Iraq, in addition to the formal meeting between Obama and Putin. Over the weekend, France conducted its first airstrikes in Syria against the Islamic State, which had more geopolitical impact than military. At the same time, the UK has stated its willingness to allow Assad to remain as part of a transitional government—quite a departure from the calls for Assad’s arrest as a war criminal only several months ago.

The situation in both Syria and Iraq is in flux, and it is difficult to ascertain which moves will have lasting impact and which are tactical bluffs. What is clear is that the status quo in Syria has been upended by a clarifying division of sides; Russia, Iran, Hizballah, and the Assad regime on one side, and a fractured anti-Islamic State/anti-Assad coalition on the other. Iraq’s fight against the Islamic State seems stalemated at best. This may be the final positioning in advance of a negotiated settlement in Syria, and a determined push against terrorism in Iraq. It only goes to show, however, that while the players may have changed, the game remains the same.

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