Ibrahim Hamidi

As Iran leads “the battle for the south” the Syrian regime bleeds

Tehran is fighting to plant its flag on the regional map

An Iraqi woman walks past a giant poster showing Iran

Once again, Barack Obama has put an end to debate, both within US institutions and with the country’s allies in the region: the priority is the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq. In Syria, he will not engage in any military escalation that might put the necks of US forces under the Iranian sword and threaten current cooperation on degrading ISIS in Iraq. Neither is he about to take any provocative step that could affect current negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program.


The Obama administration has clearly informed its allies that US fighter jets will not launch any direct or “indirect” strikes against Syrian regime bases. In fact, it has gone further still: it announced that information has been “conveyed” to Syria about the timing of strikes via the Iraq-Iran gateway. It says that current interests would not be served by toppling the regime but that, at the same time, the US will not cooperate politically with Damascus. So, Obama and his advisors are working according to the following “sequence”: Iraq and ISIS come first; the Assad regime remains in place; and later attention will be solely dedicated to the regime. Pressure will be exerted and a political solution reached.


US political discourse has shifted from calls for Bashar al-Assad to “step down” and claims that his “days are numbered” at the end of summer 2011, to insistence that he must “step down before the beginning of the transitional period.” At first, Assad was “not part of the transitional period” — now he either “will not be a part of Syria’s future”; “the Syrian people will not accept him in the future”; or “he has no future.”


The current policy, according to remarks made by Secretary of State John Kerry a few days ago, is that Assad should take his people’s interests into consideration — even if Department of State spokesperson Jen Psaki did recently reaffirm the US stance that “Assad has lost all legitimacy and must go.” The statement by Psaki came in response to United Nations special envoy Staffan de Mistura’s announcement — or test — that Assad is “part of the solution for the reduction of the violence.”


Until the end of last year, debate was open both in Washington and with US allies. The Turks and the French agreed on detailed plans to set up a no-fly zone in northern Syria at 35.5 degrees north latitude and safe zones near the Turkish-Syrian border: an isolated area with international air cover that would be protected on the ground by security forces and the opposition’s army. Ankara acquired French support after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Paris last autumn. US, French and Turkish military and security officials also discussed all the technical details of the bipartite plan. In fact, the coordinator for the Arab-international coalition against ISIS, General John Allen, who presents periodic reports directly to Obama, approved the proposed safe zones and no-fly zone. The plan included various scenarios, including the division of Syrian air space into three categories: an area exclusive to Arab-international coalition planes, an area in which coalition fighter jets would fly and respond to any attacks, and an area over which jets would fly to protect Free Syrian Army (FSA) troops.


The proposals were brought to Obama, but the answer was no. It wasn’t the first “no” to come from the president in response to the proposals of his advisors and officials from his administration. In recent years, these “nos” have caused several high-level resignations. In autumn 2012, for example, proposals from political and military officials to arm the FSA were rejected. This negative response was one of the reasons behind former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s resignation. Among other reasons, the latest rejection helped precipitate the resignation of former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who made reference to a handwritten memo to Obama suggesting that the Syrian regime “might benefit” from the coalition’s air raids.


Reluctantly, Obama has made two “concessions”: Firstly, he has increased the budget of the CIA’s covert program to train and arm opposition fighters by nearly $500 million (added to the original $1.5 billion.) This has allowed for a larger number of trainees and made higher grade weapons available to opposition fighters. Clearly, preference has been given to the operations room in Jordan and the ISIS-free southern front near the Jordanian border. The northern front near the Turkish border — known for “chaos” and being dominated by ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra — has received less attention. Delivery of US weapons to the north has been frozen, with the possibility of a new faction being selected for resumption of this support. Secondly, the Department of Defense (DoD) has been given the go-ahead to run another program — a budget of half a billion dollars has been allocated to train 5,000 “moderate fighters” every year over the next three years.


US General Michael K. Nagata, the DoD program supervisor, toured Syria’s five neighboring Arab states in preparation for the new effort’s launch. The plan, which has been authorized by Congress, includes the establishment of four bases in Turkey, Jordan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Congress’s authorization hinged on two elements: firstly, moderate fighters would be trained to combat ISIS and provided with defensive capabilities as part of a wider strategy against the group; secondly, pressure would be exerted to reach a “political solution.”


Congress did not directly say that these “moderate fighters” would come into confrontation with the regime. So far, however, Nagata has said that for the mission to succeed they must be given offensive authority. He has also asked what US fighter jets would do if US-trained opposition fighters were targeted by regime air strikes.


Obama and his advisors haven’t given a clear answer to that question yet, but Nagata wants the answer before those troops are deployed to fight ISIS in Syrian territory. On the other hand, they have now been authorized to defend themselves against any attack, whether it comes from ISIS or regime forces. They will also now receive US medical aid — something the covert CIA program does not benefit from — and heavy weaponry.


The program to train the “moderate opposition” is set to begin at the end of this month with the first installment of around 100 fighters. 3,000 fighters will be trained before the end of this year by trainers from the US, the United Kingdom and elsewhere, and 4,500 more will be trained the following year. The deployment of these new forces in ISIS-controlled areas of northern Syria is expected to begin next May.


That is how a Western official summarized the painful Syrian scenario from the terrace of the White House. The Obama administration, he added, believes that over one or two years the CIA and DoD training programs will “put pressure” on the regime and its allies in Moscow and Tehran. This, he said, will be achieved through the combined effect of increased financial and military resources and falling oil prices. The regime will be forced to accept that the conflict cannot be resolved militarily and that “a political solution must be reached.” It will also have to accept the formation of “a transitional governing body representing all Syria’s constituent parts.”


What the official didn’t say is that, after all that has happened in Syria over the past four years, Syria itself is no longer important. It has become a theater for the West’s struggle with Iran. Today, Syria is a place where Iran and its allies can be “worn-down,” an arena for regional struggle, and a pressure card in weapon-dominated diplomatic negotiations on the nuclear file and Iran’s role in the region. This will continue as long as the way Obama sees the nuclear deal remains the same: a “crown” he can put on his head at the end of his term and enter the history books.


The clearest sign of all this is Iran’s unilateral decision to lead the “battle for the south” near the occupied Golan Heights and Jordan. In doing so, the Islamic Republic is exerting pressure on two sensitive points: Israel’s security and the security of the Gulf.


This article was originally published by Al-Hayat and has been translatd from the Arabic by Ullin Hope.

An Iraqi woman walks past a giant poster showing Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tahrir Square in central Baghdad on February 05, 2015. (AFP/Ahmad al-Rubaye)

What the official didn’t say is that, after all that has happened in Syria over the past four years, Syria itself is no longer important. It has become a theater for the West’s struggle with Iran.