June 19, 2016: Reports from Syria are proliferating about clashes between the Syrian army and Hizbullah fighters in the Aleppo area on June 16, with seven or eight Hizbullah men having been killed, some after an attack by Syrian aircraft. The organization, for its part, hastened to deny the reports and accused “regional intelligence mechanisms” and the United States of trying to drive a wedge between the group and Russia. These reports, however, point to tensions in the relations between the sides. The tensions apparently center on Russia’s growing involvement in devising a diplomatic solution to the ongoing Syrian crisis as it tries to mediate between the various opposition elements and the regime.
In particular, Russia is leading an effort to formulate a new constitution for Syria. According to the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, which is affiliated with Hizbullah and usually reflects the view of its leadership, Russia is even framing main sections of this constitution. The newspaper claims to have in its possession a draft of the proposed constitution that includes comments written by the Syrian leadership. Assad, for his part, denies any such involvement. Already at the end of May 2016, Al-Akhbar published an initial report on the issue of Russia’s role in crafting the constitution.1
Iran and Hizbullah are not happy about Russia’s stepped-up efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis. Despite the cooperation between Iran and Russia, which apparently is piloted by Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, they disagree more and more on Syria’s future once the crisis comes to an end. This dispute also bedevils the Syrian regime (and Hizbullah), which finds itself between the Russian hammer and the Iranian anvil especially as the clashes escalate among the various forces and militias operating in different regions of Syria.
[This week Hizbullah announced more than 20 of its fighters died in clashes with Syrian rebels near Aleppo.]
At the same time, senior officials in Iran who are actively dealing with the Syrian imbroglio continue to underline the need to sustain Iran’s presence in Syria, including with regard to Iran’s national security. Iraj Masjedi, one of Soleimani’s senior advisers, praised the Iranian forces along with others fighting beside them that hail from “other Muslim countries including Pakistan and Afghanistan and Lebanon.” Masjedi said that Iran’s presence in Syria and in Iraq (where forces loyal to Iran are leading the battles to liberate Fallujah and Mosul from the Islamic State) is aimed at safeguarding Iran’s borders against Saudi Arabia and Israel and at protecting the Shiite shrines in Syria and Iraq. He added that Aleppo, Fallujah, and other parts of Iraq and Syria constitute the frontline of the resistance and that the IRGC and the Basij (the IRGC’s voluntary arm) will keep fighting in these arenas until the Islamic State is destroyed.
A memorial ceremony was held for 13 IRGC fighters killed (and dozens were wounded) in the battle of Khan Touman in the Aleppo area on May 6, 2016. That clash is considered one of Iran’s heaviest defeats in Syria at the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra and other rebel groups.2 It was further reported on a site identified with Soleimani (top portrait) that Basij fighter Asad Allah Ebrahim Fatimiyoun, a brigade commander (bottom picture) who was one of the defenders of the Shiite Sayyidah Zaynab pilgrimage site (the grave of Zaynab, the daughter of ‘Ali and Fatimah and granddaughter of Muhammad) near Damascus, was killed in mid-June.3
Qasem Suleimani was quoted as saying that given the large number of martyrs’ in the battles near Aleppo his troops will not return to Iran until they triumph or are martyred in Aleppo.4
Iran, which keeps displaying a high-profile involvement in Syria, has not responded to the war of words between its two main clients in the region, Syria and Hizbullah. Russia’s continuing deep involvement in Syria, which benefits Iran in the short term by maintaining the survivability of the Assad regime, also stands to exact a high price from Iran when it comes to a long-term solution for Syria.
Time to Consider the Long Term Solution for Syria?
Until the Islamic State’s recent setbacks in Iraq and Syria, that question had been pushed to the side. Now, in light of the Islamic State’s defeats and territorial losses in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, the question is on the agenda in the sensitive Syria-Iran-Russia triangle. Hizbullah, which keeps paying a heavy price – both in casualties and politically in the Lebanese arena – finds itself in a problematic situation; it is Hizbullah that will be forced, under Iranian pressure, to bear the costs of the settlement in Syria with no real achievement to show for it. It should be emphasized that Hizbullah also continues its high-profile involvement in the warfare in Yemen and in Iraq, where its advisers are serving Shiite militias working to free Iraq from the Islamic State.
For Iran, the Syrian theater is getting more complicated. The possibility of losing a sphere of influence and operational activity in Syria, mainly because of the growing Russian interest, is deeply troubling to Iran. Neither the domestic criticism of its ongoing involvement there nor the high weekly toll of casualties is causing Iran to change its policy, as it keeps regarding Syria as one of its main lines of defense. This is not only because of Syria’s proximity to Israel and Lebanon, but mainly because it is the main arena of competition among Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, Iran, and Russia (with the United States watching from the sidelines) when it comes to shaping the new regional and international order in the Middle East, which is still undergoing the upheaval of the Arab Spring.
Iran continues to view the Iran-Iraq-Syria-Lebanon as significant as a strategic setting of the battle it is waging with Saudi Arabia over the redefinition of the Middle East. This battle is also being conducted in other places, such as Yemen, where, despite the peace talks in Kuwait, the clashes between the Iran and Hizbullah-supported Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition continue; and in Bahrain, where Iran keeps supporting the Shiite majority.
Iran was harshly critical of Bahrain’s recent decision to ban the activities of the Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society party and of Bahrain’s measures against the country’s Shiite majority, in general. According to the Bahrain government, Al-Wefaq was responsible for “an environment for terrorism, extremism, and violence as well as a call for foreign interference in internal national affairs” – a broad hint at Iranian involvement and subversion.5 Bahrain also sentenced eight Shiite citizens to 15 years in prison for their role in setting up a terror group in 2014.6
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