Iran plans to dominate post-Assad Syria too

Bassam Barabandi, former Syrian diplomat, writes about developments in Zabadani, a key town on the Lebanese border:

What is happening at Zabadani is the beginning of a long process. Emboldened by the nuclear deal, Iran is trying to consolidate its power and position itself as an indispensable broker for peace. Tehran is even beginning to test the waters for a post-Assad Syria.

Assad (and by extension, Iran) has been failing militarily. Given the amount of treasure Iran has invested in Assad, that failure has more of an impact on Iranian leadership at this point than it does on Assad.

The original “train and equip” program started in Zabadani in the 1980s with Iranian training and equipping of Hizbollah. They have been a force and a player politically in Zabadani ever since.

Once the revolution began, Zabadani was hotly contested by rebels and the regime. Rebels took control of it early. For the most part, they have held the town ever since.

In 2012, Davutoğlu, the Turkish Foreign Minister, scoffed at Assad’s threats that he would attack Turkey, when he could not even break through in Zabadani. The next day Zabadani was beleaguered by airstrikes and has been under siege ever since. Humanitarian assistance is badly needed and the Assad regime has refused to allow it through.

Hizbollah attacked Zabadani this year precisely because it has been under siege and seemed an easy target that might help the regime gain some ground in an otherwise bad fighting year. This was not the case. Fighters, mostly allied with Ahrar as-Sham, account for roughly 30% of the population of Zabadani.

Plagued by defeats throughout southern Syria, Hizbollah was also unable to deliver clear, decisive defeats to the rebels at Zabadani. These difficulties have provided lessons to the Iranian leadership, which began to transition to a new strategy. Tehran has recognized that it will not be able to achieve all of its goals through military means only.

Last week Iran began dealing directly and solely with rebels from Ahrar as-Sham, successfully negotiating a cease-fire without the Assad regime. Their objective is to negotiate outcomes that they could not secure through force.

The Assad regime is trusting Iran as its primary interlocutor in these matters. ISIS is knocking at Ahrar as-Sham’s door. Assad is all but telling the rebels that ISIS cannot get through while the regime still stands, positioning himself as an indirect protector of these areas of Syria. This has the potential to open up cross-border humanitarian assistance through UN resolution 2165.

For Iran, there are two possible outcomes:

  1. If the cease-fire with Ahrar as-Sham holds, Assad can be seen as opposing ISIS incursions in Zabadani as well as allowing cross-border humanitarian assistance from Lebanon on the basis of UN resolution 2165;
  2. If the cease-fire fails, the Iranians will be able to blame it on Assad or the rebels, whichever proves to be more advantageous.

Iran’s ultimate aim is to change the demography of Zabadani from Sunni to Shia. Their hope is that through these negotiations they can get the combatants, who they say are foreigners, out of Zabadani, thereby opening up space for new residents to come in.

The Iranians are trying a similar maneuver in Fou’ah, in northern Syria. There they are negotiating a cease-fire, attempting to get foreigners to leave. In Fou’ah there are perhaps 1000 fighters from Hizbollah, Iraq and Afghanistan. But in Zabadani, the fighters are Syrians from Zabadani. The Iranian maneuver there is destined to fail.

The fact that Iran is attempting this negotiation without Assad is a major development and a possible harbinger of Tehran’s new strategy in Syria. It is testing the waters for a post-Assad Syria, in which it envisions itself as the only way to bring peace to the country. Iran would then be in full control. The Iranian leadership feels that in the wake of the nuclear agreement they have more clout and legitimacy to take on a more prolonged, intensive political role in Syria.

Zabadani looks to be the first stages of long process whereby Iran is moving Assad aside and positioning itself as the sole power in Syria, using its Quds forces and Hizbollah as the primary military and training apparatus for Syrian forces.

PS August 15: Bassam Barabandi updates yesterday’s post on Zabadani:

Yesterday Iranian negotiators and representatives from the armed opposition force known as Ahrar Al-Sham agreed on ceasefire in the Zabadani area adjacent to the Lebanese border and four Shia villages located in northern Syria.

What’s unfortunate about the the results of this ceasefire is that the deal will entail the swapping of populations. The Sunni Arabs of Zabadani can leave to Idlib and the Shia Arabs of the four villages can go to the area under the Assad regime’s control.

Ahrar Al-Sham used the authorization from the people of Zabadani to do such a deal under the rubric “humanitarian reasons and to save life.”

It’s more complicated than simply this one issue.

It’s clear that the deal is between Iran and Turkey to share influence over Syrian territory. The regime authorized Iran  to negotiate. Foreign Minister Zarif was in Damascus for this reason.

The people of Zabadani will issue a statement soon rejecting this deal. Should it be implemented, it will be the first time since the beginning of the revolution that a population swap based on sectarian lines is conducted in Syria.