August 26, 2018

Iranian defense minister in Damascus - the Syrian situation map

Iranian and Syrian defense ministers meeting in Damascus

Iranian defense minister Brigadier General Amir Hatami arrived in Damascus today for a two-day visit for a series of consultations with Syrian officials, no doubt to discuss the current situation in the country, but also to protect Iran's equities for the future.

The Iranians are concerned, rightly, that the Russians, along with the Americans and Israelis, might pressure the Syrian government of Bashar al-Asad to ask his Iranian allies to leave the country. Bashar would have to decide who is the more critical ally. I am betting on Russia.

If that happens, it would be a major blow to Iran's designs on becoming the key power broker in the area extending from Iran, across Iraq and Syria, all the way to Lebanon, in addition to its growing influence in Yemen, Bahrain, and even Afghanistan.

I will leave analysis of the meeting between the defense chiefs of the two countries to my colleagues. For a good rundown on the meeting, I refer you to a piece written by Seth Frantzman of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, How Iran's Defense Minister in Damascus sent a message to Washington.

For the purposes of my article, I draw your attention to the above photograph of a meeting released by official Iranian media of Hatami and his Syrian counterpart Lieutenant General 'Ali 'Abdullah Ayyub.

I recognize the conference room at the Syrian Ministry of Defense - I've been in it a few times when I was the air attaché to the American Embassy in Damascus.

Note the situation map on the wall. I have enlarged and enhanced the map to bring out some of the details as best I could, and added captions. While maps released to the public by Syrian state media have not always portrayed the true situation, this is a map intended for the two ministers of defense and is accurate based on my understanding and analysis.

It does not take a military genius to see that the regime now has the upper hand as well as momentum, given the advances over the last three years. That coincides with the initial Russian deployment in September 2015 to augment the basically failing Syrian forces which remained viable only because of the earlier commitment of Iranian-sponsored militias and Hizballah fighters.

I view Hizballah as nothing more than an expeditionary force of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its Qods Force. Remember that the Qods Force grew out of the IRGC's Syria/Lebanon contingent (IRGC-SL), formed as "the resistance" (al-muqawamah) to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

The Iranians have expanded their commitment in Syria since they intervened in 2012 to prevent the collapse of the Syrian armed forces and the likely fall of the Bashar al-Asad regime. A regime defeat would have severely limited their access to Lebanon and Hizballah. Not only did the IRGC provide advice and leadership for the Iranian militias, but brought in Iraqi Shi'a militias, as well as Afghan Shi'a volunteers.

With Russian airpower, field and rocket artillery, and special forces support augmenting the efforts of the Syrian armed forces and their Iranian-led allies, it was only a matter of time before the disjointed, ill-equipped, and poorly led factions of the opposition forces were defeated.

In most of these military operations, the Syrians preferred to make deals by which fighters were allowed to surrender in exchange for passage to opposition areas, primarily Idlib. Note the position of Idlib on the map - it remains the single largest rebel holdout.

Preparations are underway for the impending assault on Idlib. Idlib will be different than previous battles - there is nowhere for the rebels to go. Their choice here will not be to surrender and relocate, it will be to surrender or die. Again, it is just a matter of time before the regime reasserts control over the entire area.

After the defeat of the rebels, the remaining pockets of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) will be reduced and eliminated. We have always known how and where the ISIS fight ends, we just did not know exactly when.

After Idlib is retaken and ISIS is a bad memory, the real battle for the future of Syria begins.

What becomes of the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF), the mainly Kurdish force which was arguably the most effective ground force in the fight against ISIS? The Syrian Kurds have tried to politic for what their Iraqi cousins have institutionalized - an autonomous Kurdish area. They have already formed a political entity - the Syrian Democratic Council in the area they have named Rojava, the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.

The Syrian government has thus far refused to discuss automomy, stating that in time they plan to reassert control over the entire country. It is uncertain what the United States will do to support its Kurdish allies, keeping in mind the NATO ally Turkey is also against any Kurdish autonomy anywhere - Syria, Iraq, Iran, and especially Turkey.

The battle for Idlib is not the end of the war by any stretch of the imagination, but it does move it into a new phase. Russia, Turkey, the United States, the Kurds, and the Iran have vested interests in the future of Syria.

What we are seeing today is Tehran letting everyone know they certainly intend to be a key player.


Personal anecdote. Back to the map on the wall of the conference room. Note the international boundary to the west of Idlib governorate. It indicates the de facto border between Syria and Turkey (shown below in red), with the sanjak of Alexandretta in Turkey. Syria does not recognize the inclusion of the sanjak in Turkey - public maps in Syria all show it as part of Syria. The disagreement is the result of a treaty between Turkey and France, the League of Nations mandatory power for what are now the countries of Syria and Lebanon.

When I was the air attaché in Damascus, with few exceptions, I had virtually no contact with the Syrian military. One exception was the monthly attaché dinner at the Syrian Officers Club to welcome new attachés and bid farewell to those about to depart.

Departing attachés were presented a small inlaid wooden box, a Syrian specialty. On the top of the box was a medallion with a map of Syria, inclusive of the sanjak of Alexandretta.

At every presentation - like clockwork - the two Turkish military attachés (one seen with me in the photo) would stand at attention and march from the room in protest of the inclusion of what they considered to be Turkish territory on a map of Syria.