By Alex Vatanka
Foreign Affairs Mag. November 29, 2017 - Today, the latest round of UN-brokered Syria peace talks begins in Geneva, with the goal of bringing President Bashar al-Assad and various armed opposition factions to a political settlement that could put an end to half a decade of civil war in the country.
The Geneva talks come one week after another set of Syria talks, this time in Sochi. The November 22 gathering, which included some of the conflict’s key remaining players—Iran, Turkey, and Russia—was supposed to be a turning point in the issue of Syria’s future. At least that had been Tehran’s hope. Instead, the talks highlighted emerging fissures between Assad’s two main foreign backers, Iran and Russia, and even divisions within Iran between the civilian government of President Hassan Rouhani and the leadership of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
In short, the IRGC, which over the last seven years has established a strong presence in Syria through its various militias and local proxies, is anxious to preserve its gains against pushback from Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. This stance might soon bring it into open conflict with Russia and other actors, including Rouhani, who might be more open to a multilateral political settlement to end the Syrian war. Specifically, the IRGC wishes not only to secure Iranian influence in postwar Syria, but also to transform its allied Syrian militias into an institutionalized military-political force in its own image, one which could become its local abettor similar to the role Hezbollah plays in Lebanon.
SUSPICIONS IN SOCHI
In Sochi, the Iranians, Russians, and Turks ostensibly agreed on one key point: that all parties should respect Syria’s territorial integrity. Other issues were discussed, including how to continue to uphold the process of de-confliction in the zones that had been agreed upon at Astana in May. Sochi was above all a summit intended as a demonstration of the ascendancy of the Iranian-Russian-Turkish partnership on Syria.
In Tehran, though, considerable doubt continues to exist about both Russian and Turkish intentions in Syria. The Iranians are particularly mindful—and resentful—of Moscow’s latitude to work with many different partners in the region. Alone among the three countries that were at Sochi, Russia has a strong and ongoing dialogue with every other state that matters on the question of Syria’s future, from the United States to Israel to the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. In turn, Tehran naturally fears that deals are being cut over its head and to its detriment. The generals from the IRGC are reminding everyone, including Assad and the Russians, of their continued power and influence.
Two days before the Sochi summit, for instance, Russian President Vladimir Putin held a four-hour meeting with Assad, who had flown to the city to consult with the Russian leader. Reports on the visit in the Iranian media indicate that Tehran had had no prior knowledge of it. But it was Putin’s decision to brief U.S. President Donald Trump about Moscow’s plans just before the Sochi summit that seems to have really irked Tehran. The Iranians read this briefing as a Russian attempt to assuage the United States, which is sternly opposed to any settlement in Syria that would institutionalize Iran’s presence there. Mollifying Washington, the Iranians rightfully worry, can only come at the expense of Tehran’s influence and interests in postwar Syria.
It is therefore no coincidence that in the days since the Sochi summit, the IRGC has started to tout its capacity to deploy, maintain, and mobilize pro-Iranian militias in Syria. This is a show of hard power, and Putin and his advisors are no doubt part of the intended audience.
In other words, with Moscow preparing to turn itself into the ultimate diplomatic kingmaker in these sunset days of the Syrian conflict, the generals from the IRGC are reminding everyone, including Assad and the Russians, of their continued power and influence. And as Iran looks to maximize its relevance in postwar Syria, the country’s hardline faction, represented by the IRGC, is banking that its years of investment in various Syrian and other Arab militias will finally pay off.
DIPLOMACY WON'T DO
The head of the IRGC, General Mohammad Ali Jafari, has been increasingly explicit about his intentions to elevate pro-Iranian militias in Syria. On November 23, for instance, Jafari said that Assad knows he is “indebted” to the “people’s militias” and understands that they are critical to his political survival. Jafari also ventured a guess that Assad “will, of course, institutionalize [the militias] so they will remain relevant in the face of future threats.” It goes without saying that for Jafari, it is up to the IRGC to determine the identity of such future threats, and it is a safe bet that the group’s usual targets—notably the United States and Israel—will be on that list.
The IRGC’s goal is to eventually turn the Syrian militias currently under its control into semi-state actors that will become permanent instruments of Iranian influence in Syria, akin to how Hezbollah operates in Lebanon. This strategy is perhaps not surprising, as the IRGC is itself a product of such an evolution. Back in 1979, immediately after the Iranian Revolution, the IRGC began as a small group of die-hard devotees to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Over the years, this band of Islamist militants morphed from armed servants of the revolutionary clerics to a powerful state-within-the-state that rules over a vast empire of men and money.
This rhetorical escalation by the IRGC, moreover, is not only aimed at foreign audiences. The future of the pro-Iranian militias in Syria is also part of an intra-regime debate in Tehran. Rouhani has publicly kept his distance from IRGC’s plan to institutionalize its militias, but he has not been overly critical of it either. And yet, IRGC-controlled media outlets constantly hint that the Rouhani government is soft on Western demands for Tehran to abandon or at least disarm the militias. For the IRGC, this is a non-starter.
The IRGC’s goal is to eventually turn the Syrian militias currently under its control into semi-state actors, which will become permanent instruments of Iranian influence in Syria.
In response to Rouhani’s relative dovishness, the IRGC position is twofold: first, that it would be foolish to cut a deal with the West (or Russia) on the future of the Syrian militias. Why give up hard-earned clout on the ground in return for dubious promises of international cooperation on Syria’s future? The prevailing mood in Tehran, which is that Iran was shortchanged by the 2015 nuclear deal, presumably gives the IRGC argument more momentum than would have otherwise been the case.
Second, the IRGC has also been quick to remind everyone that it is better equipped than the civilian government to lead Iran’s efforts to secure a slice of reconstruction spending in Syria. This is nothing short of a jab at Rouhani. In fact, Jafari has claimed that both Rouhani’s team and Assad’s have agreed that IRGC-controlled economic enterprises, which can work directly under the protection of IRGC-controlled militias, are the best candidates to manage reconstruction projects in Syria. Rouhani has not yet responded to this assertion.
Observers inside and outside of Iran will find the IRGC brass’s increasingly hawkish position on militias to be a bad omen. But in Tehran, the IRGC has the upper hand when it comes to Syria policy, and it clearly believes that it possesses a blueprint for success: more Hezbollahs wherever possible.
As IRGC commanders are keen to repeat, the quickly shifting regional security environment requires that Iran constantly adapt and reinvent its military strategy. In Tehran, this is referred to as “forward defense” and is premised on the idea that Iran should battle its opponents outside its borders to prevent conflict from taking place on Iranian soil. Controlling Arab militias abroad, such as those allied to the IRGC in Syria, is part and parcel of this idea of forward defense, making it unlikely that Iran will shift its stance any time soon.
From a broader Syrian perspective, however, it is hard to see how enduring peace can return to the country if armed local groups answerable to an aggressive, ideological foreign organization such as the IRGC continue to play a critical role in the political process.