The nuclear deal and the fall of Aleppo

When the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, the West looked worriedly on but did basically nothing. Oh yes, President Barak Obama did force Bashar al-Assad to desist from using chemical weapons but, on the whole, the war zones were empty of any Western influence. Assad warned the Western powers to stay out of the war while rolling out the red carpet for Tehran to take over the dirty business of a war which had ceased to be an internal “civil” war and now included Tehran’s own agenda in the area, namely supporting Assad, a Shiite-Alawite, in an effort to Export the Islamic Revolution to Syria. Tehran was only too happy to pour in Hezbollah, IRGC and Shiite militant troops while joining Assad’s warning to the West to stay clear of the region. For three years, the war trudged on with no clear winners and many losers.

In 2014, ISIS began its rampage, claiming to set up an Islamic state which would span from Syria to Iraq and inadvertently, the issue of the West’s support to ISIS in its infancy became the perfect cover-up: Tehran and Assad were killing terrorists who were backed by the Western powers and their proxies in the region, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Every horrifying act of terrorism by ISIS only strengthened this narrative even though the West had stopped supporting ISIS long before it began its rampage in 2014. But Assad and Tehran weren’t only fighting ISIS – in fact, most of the war efforts were focused on eliminating any form of opposition against Assad. These efforts took a heavy toll on the Syrian civilian population and led to a massive wave of Syrians fleeing Syria and seeking refuge in Europe but the West still remained politely out of the war.

Meanwhile, the West was trying to clinch the nuclear deal which would, supposedly, keep Iran’s nuclear program in check. But the issue of the nuclear program seemed secondary to most of the EU representatives who eagerly awaited the cash in on the huge potential of the soon-to-be-opened Iranian economy. As the negotiations on the nuclear deal dragged on, the situation in Syria became worst for all sides and still, the West kept its distance, this time out of fear of endangering the nuclear deal. So while suited diplomats from all over the world haggled over the percentages of Uranium enrichment in fancy board rooms in Europe, Syrian men, women and children kept on suffering and getting killed.

The nuclear deal was finally signed in June 2015 and within four months, the red carpet was once again rolled out by Assad (and Tehran) to Moscow, Tehran’s newest and most powerful ally. Russian planes began bombing Syrian rebels while claiming, as before, that it was there for one reason and one reason only: eradicating terrorists. Moscow’s entry to the war was the beginning of the end for the Syrian rebels. It wasn’t only the issue of the Russian air force, it was the fact that such a superpower openly entered the war while the Western powers maintained their distance, demoralizing the Syrian rebels. All this was done while Assad, Tehran and Moscow continued to hypocritically warn the West to stay out of Syria.

Since day one, Tehran has claimed that the only solution to the war in Syria would be a political one and not a military one while at the same time, Tehran and Moscow have invested in the war in Syria tens of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of troops causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrians and the millions of refugees. This glaring discrepancy was once again ignored under the grand goal of eradicating terrorists and the West, once again, sat on the sidelines. As pictures, videos and information regarding the dire situation of the Syrian population leaked out to the world, the pressure on the West to take a stand increased but, once again, nothing. The danger of an escalation which might lead the West to fight against Russia was left the West frozen in indecision.

And then, the siege on Aleppo began and suddenly, the inaction of the West became more unbearable. Most of the troops involved in the siege of Aleppo were not even Assad’s: they were Shiite militants and Hezbollah troops which Tehran had organized. The city was split into two distinct areas: the Western part was pro-Assad while the Eastern part was anti-Assad. As the noose around the rebels tightened, the Russian planes kept on bombing. The war of conflicting narratives sounded like two distinctive echo chambers: One narrative spoke about “liberating Aleppo from the terrorists” while the other narrative spoke about “conquering Aleppo by Tehran and Moscow”. As the siege on Aleppo became more critical, the accusations from the West increased but apart from words, the West didn’t do a thing for fear of “rocking the boat” and being accused of supporting terrorists.

And then, Aleppo fell, or was “liberated”, depending on your point of view and this time, the war of words reached a much higher level. The US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, slammed Tehran and Moscow for having “no shame” in fighting Assad’s war and victimizing millions of Syrians in the process while the Russian ambassador to the UN pointed out that the US wasn’t “Mother Theresa” and was far from being a neutral “player” in the war. What he should have done is tell Power that Moscow and Tehran are not alone in having no shame and that the US should take responsibility over the fact that it shamelessly abandoned the Syrian people to a fate in the hands of Moscow and Tehran. History might not forgive the Iranians and the Russians for what they did in Syria but it won’t forgive the West either for what it didn’t do there either or as Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.

 

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Suleimani Links Moscow to Assad and to Tehran


If you listen closely, between the noise of the bombs and the cries of the refugees, you can probably hear Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s sigh of relief all the way from Damascus: Moscow finally made a power play and increase its support for him. If you listen even more closely, you might also hear quite a few cheers of victory from Tehran, especially the cheers of Qassem “Supermani” Suleimani, (the “Shadow Commander”), the chief of Iran’s Qods unit and the mastermind for all of Tehran’s military procedures and policies outside of Iran with bases in Beirut, Baghdad and Damascus. Why?  Suleimani has just returned from his second trip to Moscow, despite sanctions against him travelling, and he is the crucial link between Moscow, Tehran and Assad.

All this is good news for Assad, bad news for the Syrian rebels and worrying news for the US/NATO. But will it be enough to save Assad? Tehran’s backing is ideological and the Iranians will fight for Assad right up to victory or defeat. Moscow, on the other hand will support Assad, and Tehran, as long as it politically convenient to do so. For now, it is content to send more weapons and reportedly, Russian troops, as well as shows of force of warships and submarines.

 

Just in Time


Why did the Russians move now? According to an article in Middle East Briefing, there are 4 reasons and all of them are related to Iran:

  • Diplomacy is dead in Syria: The P5+1 have invested very little in diplomacy in Syria, compared to the nuclear negotiations with Iran, and since Assad is being supported by Tehran, it seemed impossible to deal with both issues at once. Moscow, which had favored diplomacy and had long objected to any foreign military presence in Syria, suddenly decided to do exactly what it warned others not to and beefed up its military presence there.
  • The nuclear deal and the regional reshuffle: The nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran allowed Russia and Iran to become regional partners. Trade deals were inked, Russian missiles were promised to Iran, strategies to drop the US dollar in favor of local currencies were launched and Tehran finally had its option to the West. Khomeini’s “neither West nor East” slogan was put aside as Tehran found itself being wooed by the West (US/EU) and the East (Russia/China) simultaneously with Russia topping as its best ally to fight the US’s involvement in the region.
  • ISIS and the rebels gained ground: As ISIS gained more control of Syria and Iraq and the rebels successfully defeated Assad’s troops, the situation in Damascus went from bad to worst. Meanwhile, the US continued its strategy of focusing on the nuclear deal and its relations with Iran for fear of leading the country to “another Iraq”. Assad was on the brink of disaster which would have led to another void that could have allowed foreign troops to enter Syria. Putin decided to follow Iran’s lead in fighting ISIS and supporting Syria.
  • The US’s continued inaction in Syria: The US’s role in Syria was ineffective to say the least. Washington sent people to train the rebels without really fighting for them and in the process was labelled as a partner of the rebels without actually helping them. The vacuum left by the US’s inactions in Syria and Iraq (as well as the Ukraine) was too tempting for Tehran, and now for Moscow, to not fill. The US was so focused on the nuclear deal with Iran that is was weary of going to war against Tehran in Syria and this played directly into the hands of the Putin who, as he showed in the Ukraine, is not afraid of military options.

Beyond these geopolitical reasons, there are two others that are of a more personal nature:

  • Putin and Rouhani will speak at the UN General Assembly later this month: Although Rouhani has already spoken twice at the assembly, it will be Putin’s first and both will probably use their involvement in Syria as a justification for their foreign and military policies.
  • It’s become a “Putin vs. Obama” issue: Obama’s hesitancy to go to war is juxtaposed to Putin’s readiness to do so and Putin revels in his macho branding of the tough guy who walks the talk and is unafraid to take on any world leader. Although the US/NATO are “concerned” with the Russian move into Syria, Putin is betting on the fact that Obama will not send American troops to fight abroad and therefore deploying Russian troops doesn’t really put him at risk of confronting the US in the battle field.

 

Blame ISIS and the West


Without Moscow, Assad’s future looked dim not only on the battlefield but in the media since many are rightly blaming him for the devastation of the civil war in general and the plight of the Syrian refugees in particular. Assad is not only avoiding his responsibility for the plight of those Syrian refugees who are fleeing him and not ISIS, he is blaming the “West” (including the EU) for the refugees’ plight since the “West” at one time had supported “terrorists” (ISIS).

The fact that it is Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah fighters that are pulling the triggers is trivialized in view of the horrors of ISIS which cannot be defended by anyone but the brutes themselves. ISIS, ironically, has become a singular pretext for Assad, Rouhani and Putin to carry out their policies by redefining themselves as fighters against terror while using terrorist militias and tactics themselves. Rouhani initiated this move by redefining terror based on fighting ISIS in Iraq and in Syria in his World Against Violence and Extremism (WAVE) initiative – suddenly the narrative moved from Tehran being a massive supporter of terrorist militias to being a fighter for freedom. Suddenly, all Syrian rebels were tagged as being ISIS terrorists irrespective of the legitimacy of the Syrian rebels’ cause to oust the young dictator from power.

The fact that ISIS was supported in its infancy, long before it began its rampage, by the US/West (as well as Saudi Arabia) only made the issue easier to abuse by redirecting the blame for terrorism with total disregard to the terroristic tendencies of Tehran and Assad. Blaming Riyadh also served to support Tehran in its rivalry against Saudi Arabia. On its part, Saudi Arabia claims to have taken in 2.5 million Syrian refugees who were obviously fleeing Assad.

What the world needs to understand is that just because ISIS is labelled as “bad” doesn’t make the people fighting it “good”. Had Assad allowed free elections from the start, ISIS would never have reached the tipping point necessary to break out the way it did.

 

Suleimani in the Middle

Suleimani’s role in Iran’s wars beyond its borders is crucial. Widely respected and feared in the region, he had, until recently, earned the title of the second most powerful man in Tehran and voted the man of the year by the Iranians. Perhaps these acclaims went to his head because suddenly, pictures of Suleimani in the war-fields of Iraq and Syria began showing up on the internet and he must have been “tugged in” by none other than Khamenei himself.

But when it came to coordinating with Moscow on Damascus, he remains the perfect man for the job. He has a large office in Damascus where he meets with Iranian, Hezbollah and Syrian military leaders and he regards himself as the boss known for exclaiming that “the Syrian army is useless! Give me one brigade of the Basij, and I would conquer the whole country”.

His fame has placed him in a unique position to be given the reins of command by all who share Tehran’s agendas: “Experts agree that it is hard to overestimate Suleimani’s role in Iraq…at times of crisis Suleimani is the supreme puppeteer…He is everywhere and he’s nowhere.”

Suleimani’s repeated trips to Damascus, Baghdad and now Moscow place him in the perfect position to became the man in charge of coordinating Syrian, Iranian and Russian efforts in Syria and, in the future, in Iraq as well. Once Russia has entered the fray in Syria, doing so in Iraq is a natural development under the pretexts of fighting ISIS.