The civil war in Syria entered its seventh year last Wednesday.
After six years that UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein described to the UN Human Rights Council as “the worst man-made disaster since World War II,” encouraging news came from Astana, Kazakhstan, last week. The third round of Russia-led talks on reconciliation in Syria began with an announcement that a special team would be set up to supervise the implementation of the ceasefire on the ground. The members of the team will be Turkey, Russia, and Iran.
According to a statement by Alexander Lavrentiev, head of Russia’s delegation to the talks, the parties agreed to provide maps showing the location of terrorist groups such as Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly known as the al-Nusra Front).
But in case anyone thought, even for a moment, that any light was visible at the end of this blood-drenched tunnel, the reports from Damascus brought them back to reality: two terror attacks, one at the Damascus court complex and the other at a nearby restaurant, that killed more than 25 people.
It was an unequivocal message from the Sunni Islamist groups to anyone who was counting on a return to the past and the re-establishment of Greater Syria. Not much is left of the Syria of six years ago. Nearly half a million people have been killed and unknown millions have been wounded. Five million people have left their homes, either displaced or as refugees (a fifth of a population of approximately 22 million). Syria’s economy is crushed, its infrastructures is in ruins, and its population suffers from constant shortages of power, water, and proper medical treatment.
What the Astana talks have made abundantly clear is that Syria is no longer in Syrian hands. An unholy mixture of superpower and other foreign interests is reshaping the map of what used to be Syria. Its coastal strip and several of its large cities are still controlled by Bashar Assad, the nominal president. That area, once known as “Alawistan” for the politically dominant Alawite branch of Islam, is now known by Israeli officials as “Assadistan” (because Sunni residents are the majority in those areas by close to 70 percent), while the rest of the territory is divided among moderate rebel groups, extremists such as Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, Kurds and Turkey.
But the picture is even more complicated. The influence of foreign players such as Russia, the United States, and, of course, Iran, is visible in those areas as well. Islamic State’s weakness in the region and its loss of the territory that it used to control — due to massive American aerial attacks, among other things — has resulted, simultaneously, in the entrenchment of significant Iranian influence throughout Syria, mainly in the areas controlled by Assad.
The regional superpower
Thus Iran, as it takes advantage of the civil war in Syria and Islamic State’s takeover in Iraq, is looking more and more like the big winner of the Arab Spring in the region stretching from Tehran to Latakia and southward to Beirut. The Shiite crescent, which King Abdullah of Jordan warned about more than a decade ago, is amassing unprecedented power in the region even without possessing an atomic bomb and with its nuclear program frozen. If the saying “Islam is the solution” was common in the past, particularly among the Sunnis (in reference to groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas), perhaps the saying from now on should be that Shiite Islam is the solution.
Iran is in control of with swaths of territory running from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea; it has taken control of Iraq and is expelling Islamic State from there using Shiite militias under its command.
The Hebrew-language Walla news site reported this week that Iran has been paving a “trans-Iraq” highway from Iran to Syria. Tehran has enormous influence over what happens in Syria militarily and economically. It operates a cellular franchise throughout Iraq, and — as was mentioned in talks between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow earlier this month — is working to build a port in Latakia, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast.
While Iran has not yet begun construction, it has submitted a draft proposal for the port to Assad, who tends toward approving it. The proposal states, in simple terms, that Iran will lease land in the city from Syria and use it to establish the maritime terminal. The port would be under Iranian sovereignty in every way, and the Syrians would have no access to it. In other words, it would be like the naval base that the Russians established in Tartus. The land would be leased to the Iranians for fifty years.
Iran’s influence in what used to be Syria does not end there, of course. Roughly 1,300 to 1,500 Iranians — combat soldiers, intelligence personnel, members of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, logistics personnel and others — currently operate there (according to Israeli assessments, 150 to 200 Iranians have been killed so far in the fighting in Syria).
In addition, there are the Iranian-funded Shiite militias, which number approximately 7,000 to 10,000 fighters who came from places as far afield as Pakistan and Afghanistan. And the Shiite fighters of Hezbollah — approximately 8,000 on Syrian soil — who take orders from Tehran (according to various estimates, between 1,700 and 2,000 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in Syria).
Iran has been doing more in recent months than merely transferring arms to Hezbollah and the Shiite militias in Syria and in Lebanon. According to a recent report in the Kuwaiti newspaper al-Jarida, Tehran has begun speeding up its armament effort by setting up rocket-manufacturing facilities in those countries. The details provided in the report are partial, of course. Members of the IRGC supervise the facilities, which are deep underground — in both countries, not only Lebanon.
The arms that are manufactured there ought to cause Israel quite a bit of concern. These are not ordinary rockets that are being added to the usual ordinary arsenal; they are particularly precise.
Iran’s deployment in the post-Arab Spring era does not stop between Tehran and Latakia and Beirut. Indeed, its long arms also stretch to Yemen and the Gaza Strip.
Thus, as the civil war in Syria enters its seventh year, that country’s remaining citizens and the Middle East as a whole may be able to breathe a sigh of relief on one level: Islamic State’s control over the area is weakening. But the Iranian influence, which will have harsh implications for the Sunnis in the region, is growing, and neither calm nor stability is visible on the horizon.