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What does Iran want in northern Syria?

| Sep. 23, 2018

In early September, the Trump administration finally announced what various officials had been suggesting over the past months: that US troops will stay "indefinitely" in Syria. US President Donald Trump signed off on this reversal in policy after previously declaring that he wanted to pull US soldiers out of the country.

Just two weeks earlier, during a visit to Israel, Trump's national security adviser John Bolton demanded that Iran withdraws its forces from Syria. Tehran responded by sending Iranian Defence Minister Amir Hatami to Damascus where he signed a military cooperation agreement which effectively ensured Iran's continued defence role in Syria and which made it clear that it did not intend on leaving anytime soon.

Facing mounting pressure by the US and Israel, Iran is not only refusing to withdraw, but in fact, intends to consolidate its position in the Middle East. In Syria, Iran's ultimate goal is to push back against the US, curb its influence and make its military presence there costlier. To do so, it is focusing its efforts on northern Syria, where it is trying to establish new realities on the ground with the help of Russia and Turkey.

It seeks to do so by encircling the area east of the Euphrates River currently under the control of US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and portray the US forces there as a destabilising factor which is frustrating efforts at a peaceful resolution of the Syrian conflict. Iran wants to frame the situation as a US "occupation" which is preventing the area east of the Euphrates from joining the rest of the "liberated" Syrian territories. Tehran hopes that promoting such a narrative would bring the international community to perceive the US as an occupier in Syria and increase pressure on Washington to withdraw.

But there is one major challenge Iran faces in fulfilling its plan: Idlib province, the last stronghold of the Syrian armed opposition. That is why Iran is working with the Syrian government to gain control of the province, either through diplomatic or military means, which would leave the SDF-held territories as the last "barrier" to peace.

It was this strategy that Iran was pursuing at the September 7 summit with Russia and Turkey in Tehran. The Iranian government was hoping for a consensus to be reached with Russia and Turkey to move against the armed opposition and force it to accept a reconciliation deal, similar to the ones concluded in the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta and in the southern provinces of Deraa and Quneitra

Once that was accomplished, the next target would be the SDF-controlled area, where the interests of Russia, Turkey and Iran could conveniently align.

Ankara sees the SDF, a majority Kurdish force, as a branch of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which it considers a terrorist organisation and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly reiterated that securing the Turkey-Syria border against "terrorists" is one of his highest priorities.

Although the three countries failed to agree on a plan for Idlib at the Tehran summit, the Turkish president's comments that Turkey is "extremely annoyed" by the United States continuing to support terrorist organisations were welcomed by Tehran. For his part, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that the final step to resolve the Syrian crisis would be "in eastern Euphrates [where] it is mainly America's illegal interventions that are causing the problems … one of our demands are for American forces to get out of Syria immediately."

Ten days later, Russia and Turkey reached an agreement in Sochi to establish a demilitarised zone in Idlib and work on eliminating "terrorist" groups in the area. Although at a first glance the deal runs against the Iranian interest, Tehran expressed support for it. It most probably sees it as a temporary settlement to help resolve persisting differences with Turkey over a permanent solution for Idlib.

The Sochi agreement and the announced demilitarised zone will delay the offensive on Idlib only temporarily. Iran will likely pick up its effort to reach a solution, either diplomatically or militarily, in the coming weeks and months.

Although there are a number of major disagreements between Iran, Russia and Turkey, what is important in the end is that they are all opposing the current US policies in Syria. All three countries have suffered from US sanctions and all have serious trust issues with the Trump administration. Emphasising this common ground, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier in September that "the US is containable" and that Iran and Russia should continue close cooperation towards this goal.

Despite recent reports about tensions in Iranian-Russian relations, Iran is not concerned about Russia's posture towards its presence in Syria as they share common geopolitical concerns about the US. Likewise, Moscow has greatly benefited from its partnership with Iran, increasing its strategic depth and credibility in the Middle East.

Apart from the diplomatic effort in the international arena and through the Astana process, Tehran also has a number of options on the ground to increase pressure on the US in northeast Syria. Together with its allies, it can exploit differences among Kurdish groups in Syria to bog down the US troops in a complex security situation similar to the one in post-2003 Iraq; they can incite anti-US sentiments among the Arab population in those territories; and they can push radical elements out of Idlib into SDF-held areas, where US forces will have to face them.

Whichever strategy Iran chooses to pursue, the US will likely feel the pressure on the ground soon enough. That could end up being an effective deterrent against US plans of opening additional fronts against Iran in the Middle East.

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What does Iran want in northern Syria?
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For Academic Citation: Ahmadian, Hassan.“What does Iran want in northern Syria?.” Aljazeera, September 23, 2018.