Exclusive - What Next for Syria after Soleimani’s Killing?
The assassination of Iran’s Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani will leave an impact in Syria, where four armies are involved in the country’s nine-year conflict. Syria has a special personal and geopolitical interest for Iran where Soleimani personally oversaw the expansion of Tehran’s influence over the past two decades, most significantly with the eruption of its conflict in 2011.
Iran views Syria as the land link between Iraq and Lebanon. It also represents a second front against Israel after Lebanon. It also borders Jordan and Turkey and provides vital access to the Mediterranean under Russian cover.
Iran exerts its influence in Syria through its various organizations and militias. Four other militaries are present there: The American forces leading the anti-ISIS coalition. They are mainly deployed east of the Euphrates River near Arab groups recruited by Tehran and deployed at the Alboukamal base in the Deir Ezzour countryside. The other military is the Turkish one positioned in northern Syria. Israel’s shadow looms over Syria through its various strikes against Damascus and perceived Iranian and Hezbollah threats.
The most significant military presence is Russia’s. It has set up three long-term military bases in Latakia, Tartus and al-Qamishli and deployed various advanced missile systems.
Iran has been mulling avenging Soleimani since his assassination in a US air strike near Baghdad on Friday. It has vowed revenge against American interests and Syria may be the arena where this plays out. However, it must take into consideration military factors and various players on the ground:
- East of the Euphrates: This seems like the ideal location because of the American troop deployment near Iranian groups. Both sides have since taken precautions in anticipation of any attack. Alboukamal may be another option. It is where Soleimani sought to open a land route that starts in Tehran, passes through Baghdad and Damascus and ends in Beirut. This route was severed when the Americans took over the al-Tanf base and cut the main highway between the Iraqi and Syrian capitals. Alboukamal seems more vulnerable to Iran’s revenge now that the “architect of the alternate route” has been taken out of the picture.
- Aleppo: Soleimani had visited the neighborhoods of eastern Aleppo several times after the regime recaptured the area in December. He also visited western Aleppo leading to Idlib. Pro-Iran groups did not get involved in recent battles in southeastern Idlib, vast areas of which were seized by Damascus. There is a belief that Damascus may seek to speed up efforts to capture the entire province as the world continues to reel from the fallout of Soleimani’s killing.
This move, however, depends on Wednesday’s summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The two leaders will discuss a possible truce in Idlib. Tehran may hesitate in pursuing its revenge in Idlib because it may affect understandings it had reached with Russia and Turkey during their Astana talks.
- Golan Heights: Southern Syria came into focus after Iran and Hezbollah became involved in the Syrian conflict in 2013 where they worked to set up cells and groupings. This presence came under pressure after Russia entered the fray in 2015. Israel began to carry out strikes against Iranian and Hezbollah targets with implicit Russian coordination. Moscow had also sponsored an agreement that called for the withdrawal of all non-Syrian forces, meaning Iranian ones, from the south and Golan in exchange for the return of regime forces to that area.
Soleimani is believed to have encouraged these groups to use to the Golan Heights to target Israel. The last such attack took place in November when Tel Aviv assassinated prominent Islamic Jihad officials in Gaza and Damascus. Tehran also tested drones that flew from central Syria to its south. The Israeli retaliation targeted Iranian and Syrian positions near Damascus and beyond.
In mid-2015, Soleimani visited Moscow where played a significant role in persuading Putin in directly intervening militarily in Syria to support regime forces, who at the time were only in control of ten percent of the country. Russia and Iran then entered into an uneasy “marriage of interests” where Russia deploys its air power and Iran its non-Iranian militias, overseen by its Revolutionary Guards Corps, to fight for the regime.
This balance met Putin’s demand to avoid a “second Afghanistan” in Syria and led to victories at a minimal human and material cost. It also met Iran’s ambitions in saving its strategic ally in Damascus and allowed it to infiltrate Syria’s social fabric. Russia and Iran reaped from the regime significant agreements and economic interests. Moscow signed 49-year deals to set up military bases. It also reaped oil, gas and phosphate contracts. Tehran and Damascus also signed economic, trade and military deals.
The difference between Russia and Iran was vast, however. Moscow focused on state institutions, such as the military and government. Iran, meanwhile, focused on setting up a “shadow state” through “social” and “charitable” organizations. Russia was present in the light and cities, while Iran spread in the shadows and countryside.
Soleimani was the architect of this shadow state in Syria and his absence will be felt. His assassination will bring Iran’s role in Syria into the spotlight related to whether it can seek its revenge there or highlight its presence in the war-torn country. Soleimani’s absence “liberates” decision-makers in Damascus from the past ten years. The same applies to Putin should he wish to limit Tehran’s role. The assassination weakens the role of Iran’s cells and provides an opportunity to boost state institutions.
Soleimani’s elimination may pave the way for Russia to restore Syrian-Iranian relations to the way they were away from the personal aspects. It may also pave the way for allowing Arab and western countries to rebuild Syria, support the return of refugees and push non-state forces and militias to withdraw.