Ibrahim Hamidi is a senior diplomatic editor covering Syrian affairs at the Al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper in London. For a long time, he was the Damascus bureau chief of the Al-Hayat newspaper, before leaving Syria after the outbreak of the uprising in 2011. Hamidi has considerable experience in Syrian affairs, and has broken a number of highly significant stories on the conflict there. Diwan met with him in early July to discuss the ongoing tensions in Syria for control over the country’s borders, in particular the growing regionalization of the conflict. This led Hamidi to describe the war as “no longer a war by proxy, but a direct one between regional and international powers on Syrian territory.”
Michael Young: Recently, an understanding was reached involving the United States, Russia, and Jordan for the creation of a safe zone in southern Syria, near the border with Jordan. This was confirmed by the United States and Russia at the G20 summit last week. You recently wrote an article underlining that Iran, which has allied militias in the area, was excluded from the understanding. Where is the understanding now, and how likely is it to be implemented over Iranian opposition?
Ibrahim Hamidi: Everybody who has met officials from the Trump administration has came out with the assessment that Washington’s priority in Syria is combating the Islamic State and reducing the influence of Iran. When chemical weapons were used in Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib governorate last April, the administration said that the Syrian regime was responsible and stressed that it would never work with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
A statement by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on July 5 outlined Trump’s goals in Syria very clearly: “First, parties in Syria must ensure stability on the ground … Secondly, parties must work through a political process to achieve a settlement that charts a way forward for the Syrian people. Lastly, Russia has a special responsibility to assist in these efforts.” Tillerson called on all sides, “including the Syrian government and its allies, Syrian opposition forces, and Coalition forces carrying out the battle to defeat [the Islamic State], to avoid conflict with one another and adhere to agreed geographical boundaries for military deconfliction and protocols for de-escalation.”
Washington informed the Russians that it was not concerned with the Astana agreement for establishing deconfliction zones in Syria, or even with the Geneva process on Syria. It stressed that the American concern was purely military—gaining control of territory in eastern Syria and cooperating with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to expel the Islamic State from Raqqa, and with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to do the same in Syria’s south.
Washington was seemingly convinced that its two objectives—the defeat of the Islamic State and the reduction in Iranian influence—could be achieved through military control over southern and eastern Syria. This is where Moscow came in to suggest cooperating with the U.S. in southern Syria in the creation of a deconfliction zone there, especially that President Donald Trump was also interested in creating “safe zones” in that part of the country aimed at reducing the refugee problem and combating terrorism. Talks ensued between Russian and U.S. officials in Amman, Jordan, and one of Washington’s conditions for cooperation was pushing Iran and its Revolutionary Guards, along with Hezbollah, away from both the Jordanian-Syrian and Israeli-Syrian borders, to a distance of 30–50 kilometers.
The Americans set up a military base in Tanf, close to the intersection of the Syrian, Iraqi, and Jordanian borders, infuriating the Iranians and prompting them to increase pressure on both the U.S. and Russia by sending more pro-Iranian militias to Deraa in southern Syria. Not only that, but the Iran-sponsored militias went into the countryside of Quneitra, the principal town on the Golan Heights, and starting fighting at a distance of 3 kilometers from the ceasefire line between Syria and Israel.
MY: The United States blocked the advance of Syrian regime forces and allied Shi‘a militias toward its positions in Tanf in May. However, that did not prevent pro-Iran militias from reaching the border with Iraq. Do you feel that the incident showed a U.S. desire to prevent a land connection between Iraq and Syria, or was it simply a limited effort by the U.S. to defend its troops and allies in and around Tanf?
IH: Iran ordered its militias to maneuver around the U.S. base in Tanf, connecting with Syrian regime troops to its north, toward Albukamal, while the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq did the same in Mosul, connecting with the Iraqi army. This is where Russia started to play a mediating role between Iran and the United States, setting up a new base for itself east of Damascus. When the U.S. bombed pro-Iran militias in the desert in May, Moscow hammered out an agreement between Washington and Tehran, specifically outlining the spheres of influence of each party. The U.S. subsequently withdrew from the Zakf base north of Tanf and Iran responded positively by dismantling some of its military checkpoints from the vicinity of the border town, to a distance of 55 kilometers. This was the first real territorial swap, or agreement, between the Americans and Iranians in Syria, brought about through direct Russian mediation.
MY: Recently, Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech that a future war with Israel could draw in fighters from Iran, Iraq, and elsewhere. Wasn’t this acknowledgment that Iran seeks to create a land connection between Iran and Lebanon. And, if so, how will this play out against a U.S., Jordanian, and Israeli refusal to see pro-Iran groups deployed near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights?
IH: I agree with you. Clearly Iran wants to preserve its lifeline to Hezbollah, via Iraq and Syria. There are three such vital lifelines for Hezbollah: one runs through the Damascus-Baghdad highway, the second through Damascus International Airport, and the third through the port of Tartous, which is used to transport Iranian arms to Hezbollah.
Some in the West believe that Iran will accept foregoing the Damascus-Baghdad highway and surrendering its presence in the Golan in exchange for accepting an Iranian sphere of influence that stretches from Damascus to the Syrian-Lebanese borders. I see the recent statements of Hassan Nasrallah as testimony of a readiness to accept territorial swaps in principle, in exchange for spheres of Iranian influence, in the hope that this would guarantee Hezbollah’s political and geographic presence in Syria’s future.
MY: Will the U.S. seek to use its forces and allies in Tanf to eventually push the Islamic State out of Deir Ezzor, Albukamal, and Mayadin? Or is this unrealistic?
IH: A race is underway to overrun the Islamic State capital of Raqqa, carried out on the one side by the U.S.-led Coalition and the SDF, and on the other by Syrian government troops and the Russians. The ancient city on the Euphrates would represent the jewel in the crown of the war on terror, which each party is trying to claim for itself.
For now, the Coalition and the SDF have the advantage after U.S.-backed forces took the nearby city of Tabqa and its military base, and are now positioning themselves to march on the oil-rich city of Deir Ezzor on the Euphrates. The U.S. set up the Tanf and Zakf military bases for that purpose, and it is probably thinking of establishing a new one in Shadadi in the countryside of Hasakeh, east of the Euphrates. It hopes to mount an attack against Deir Ezzor with the help of the SDF and the FSA after securing Raqqa. Meanwhile, Syrian government troops, backed by Iran and Russia, seek a similar victory in Deir Ezzor. A quid pro quo might emerge between all sides: the U.S. would be allowed to take Raqqa in exchange for allowing the Russians to take Deir Ezzor—but without pro-Iran forces involved.
MY: If you had to compare Iran’s and Russia’s influence in Syria, which of the two has the greater influence?
IH: The Russians currently have three military bases in Syria—in Tartous, Latakia, and now in the countryside around Damascus. They also have military police stationed in Aleppo, in addition to advisers and experts working with the regime at government headquarters in the Syrian capital. Iran has militias spread all over the country and has already succeeded in creating a “shadow regime” in Syria. For now the Iranians and Russians depend on each other. Moscow is not prepared to send more troops onto the battlefield so long as Iran is doing the job. And even when it did so in Aleppo, it handpicked them from Chechnya rather than Russia proper. It will tap into other resources in the future, perhaps bringing in troops from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The Russians have tried, however, more than once actually, to distance themselves from Iran. But that is easier said than done.
One of the reasons why the U.S. suggested a “safe zone” in southern Syria was to test Russia’s willingness and ability to distance itself from Iran. There is little doubt that the longer the battles continue, the greater Iran’s influence will become. Iran is so entrenched in the Syrian battlefield that it could still wield tremendous influence, whether the war continues or whether a political settlement is reached. Even if a joint military council were created between the regime and the armed opposition, Iran would still have a say in what happens through the participation of the militias it controls.
MY: Some have assumed that Russia can be used to limit Iran’s reach in Syria. Is this realistic?
IH: I know that some people are betting on a “Russian Syria” rather than on an Iranian one, but I think this is difficult to achieve. The Iranians have invested plenty of money, arms, and manpower in Syria, and will not walk away so easily. Some are speculating that the Iranians will milk the Russian presence in Syria, just as they did that of the Americans in Iraq. This is something else that would be difficult to achieve, due to the different nature of the two conflicts. However, it is worth keeping an eye on such a possibility.
MY: How do you see the struggle for influence over Syria’s borders playing out in the coming six months?
IH: As the war approaches its seventh anniversary next March, I think that the country that many Syrians hoped to create when they took to the streets—one that was secular, united, and democratic—has become an illusion. The Syrian people no longer are deciding on their own future. Their fate is fully in the hands of others. There are eight U.S. military airports and bases in Syria at present, and these are likely to increase, in addition to three major Russian military airports. The Turkish, Jordanian, and Israeli armies are all present in Syria today, in addition to the U.S.-led Coalition against the Islamic State. This is no longer a war by proxy, but a direct one between regional and international powers on Syrian territory. Having said that, neither side will be able to turn the military situation fully to its advantage, but each is capable of preventing the others from a full and clean victory.
Tillerson said something notable on July 5, following a cabinet-level meeting on Syria at the White House on June 30. He called upon all parties “to adhere to agreed geographical boundaries.” Therefore, effectively, we are seeing the rapid transformation of Syria into pockets of foreign influence—American, Russian, Iranian, Jordanian, Turkish, and Israeli. Iran has secured its share stretching from Damascus to Lebanon, and through a security and military belt around the Syrian capital. The Russians control a zone in western Syria, as well as the skies west of the Euphrates, while the Americans control everything east of the river. These zones of influence will remain, although we hope that their status remains temporary until a comprehensive accord is reached—a Dayton Agreement for Syria.