While the World Looks at Raqqa, Iran Cements its Arc of Influence
by Hanin Ghaddar*
While we watch the aftermath of the Mousel liberation via images of a complete obliteration of the city, our eyes are on now Raqqa and the rest of Syria, where ISIS is still present. Two concerns arise: How can these cities and towns come back from ISIS and the war? And most importantly, who is taking over?
The victory in Mousel, gloriously celebrated by many, is in fact inadequate. ISIS was driven out of Mousel, and soon we will hear that they are driven out of Raqqa, Deir Ezzour and the rest of Syria and Iraq, but that does not mean that ISIS has been defeated. ISIS has retreated, to the desert and refugee camps, hiding within the defeated cities, and they will probably come back to reclaim their “Islamic State” from the “Shi’ites” with a worse and more brutal sectarian narrative.
According to an Al-Hayat report, there are still more than one hundred ISIS sleeper cells in Mousel itself, but more dangerously, today ISIS is everywhere with cells in Europe ready to avenge their so-called defeat. ISIS’ new version will be more difficult to defeat. They will not have a physical or geographical presence with borders and cities. They will be more like a loose structure that is hard to capture.
With Iran’s Shi’ite militias in Syria and Iraq taking over geography and political decisions, ISIS will have a stronger strategy for recruitment and lobbying a support-base of angry Sunnis, who are left unattended to by their government and the International Community. In this sense, the war against ISIS is far from over.
In Syria, the story of the inadequate war on ISIS - and the upcoming fake victory - will repeat itself. Iran’s militias led by Hezbollah in Syria have already taken advantage of former President Barak Obama’s relaxed policy on Syria and managed to keep Assad in the presidential palace. Iran has forced demographical changes within the corridor that links the Syrian coast to the Lebanese border to make sure that it is Sunni free, and has secured the entire Syrian border with Lebanon, turning Lebanon into Hezbollah’s safe zone.
Today, with a new administration in the US, rhetoric against Iran’s free hand in Syria and Iraq has changed, challenging Iran and Hezbollah and threatening them with severe measures if they don’t comply. However, action does not seem to match the rhetoric. Russia is still allowed to assist Iran’s militias on the ground wherever and whenever they are needed. Meanwhile, the Syrian rebels are being besieged and attacked around Damascus and in South Syria without any serious assistance.
Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron revealed last month a major departure from the position of previous French administrations on Syria. He stated that he would abandon efforts to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who was not the enemy of France and that, with Russia’s support, French foreign policy in Syria would focus on targeting jihadist groups, whose supporters have killed hundreds in France.
Although this statement was shocking in context, it was a result of a changing European and American approach on Syria, where fighting terrorism (read ISIS, not Iran’s militias) became a priority.
This is great news to Iran and its Shiite militias. While the world is looking at Raqqa today, Iran is busy somewhere else. Iran wants to save the Assad regime, protect Damascus and its suburbs from the rebels in Daraa and Ghouta, capture Deir ez-Zour from ISIS, and eventually establish its land bridge between Syria and Iraq and onward to Lebanon. In terms of priorities, Raqqa can go to whoever wants a symbolic victory.
And that’s exactly why they agreed – albeit temporarily – on the ceasefire agreement between the US, Jordan and Russia. It keeps the rebels in Daraa at bay, incapable of challenging Damascus anytime soon, and allows Hezbollah to focus on taking over whatever is left in the suburbs of Damascus.
While this agreement was being discussed and signed, Hezbollah was gearing up its operations in Tadmur, Palmyra, and advancing to Deir ez-Zour. This area is more useful than Raqqa at this point because it is closer to the Iraqi border and can be used to establish the land bridge, and it also contains gas and oil fields and phosphorus mines that could help boost Assad’s economy.
In May and June of this year, the US has struck directly at the Assad regime and its allies in Syria no less than four times, after which Iran’s militias decided to go around the US bases in Tanf and Zakf in South Syria at the Iraqi borders to avoid further confrontation. The US did not strike the Shi’ite militias after this. Iran does not want a confrontation with the US at this moment, and they also understood that if they leave the US-supported rebel groups in that area, they will also be left alone.
So far, this seems to be the only US policy in Syria: If you target our groups, we will strike back to protect them; otherwise, you can go on. Today – and according to this unwritten understanding, Iran’s militias are moving forward to Deir Ezzour and Bou Kamal, without confrontation by the US or its rebel groups, supported by the Russian air force. This move; however, divided the US-backed rebel forces from one another. Some are now trapped south while the SDF is still engaged with ISIS far to the north. And without serious US support, they will not be able to progress further from both sides.
It is the same approach that Iran and Russia followed by dividing the rebel groups elsewhere in Syria. If you look at the map of Syria today, the rebel groups are isolated from each other in small areas, while the regime areas have more continuity and control more geographical space.
This is not going to stop until Iran fulfills its plan in Syria, establish the land corridor, ascertains Assad as the legitimate ruler of all of Syria, and declares victory that will be carried back home by the IRGC, making them more powerful inside Iran than ever. Russia is gaining from the void left by the US, presenting itself as the international mediator, and seeking validity from the US, Israel, and Europe.
With no clear plan to confront the Iranian influence in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, all cities from Mousel to Deir Ezzour, through Raqqa and others, will not be genuinely liberated. It will be a process of replacing one occupation with another, while opening the gates of hell for an ISIS return.
*Hanin Ghaddar is the inaugural Friedmann Visiting Fellow at The Washington Institute.