January 31, 2017
By Reza Taghizade
Amid a flurry of executive orders issued in the first week of the new U.S. administration, Donald Trump has directed the Pentagon and the State Department to draw up plans for the creation of a safe zone for civilians fleeing the Syrian conflict. The move marks a shift in American foreign policy and could alter the geopolitical dynamic of the region.
The Obama administration had reduced the number of the U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and had opposed the creation of a safe zone in Syria. Since 2013, the US government has spent over $1bn a year to arm and train Syrian opposition forces. The weaponry is transported through Turkey and Jordan, or delivered by military aircraft originating in Eastern Europe. The U.S. backed opposition forces fighting Bashar al-Assad that includes Kurdish fighters, the Free Syrian Army, and the Islamic Front are trained in Syria.
In a limited CIA-sponsored operation, 400 US military advisers currently train 5000 Syrian rebels near the Jordanian and the Turkish borders. It is estimated that around 30,000 military personnel will be needed to manage and protect the refugees in any planned safe zone. In addition to the U.S. military, other members of the coalition forces fighting Assad’s regime are expected to deploy troops in the safe zone. Saudi Arabia has already volunteered to provide military assistance. The implementation of a safe zone in Syria will most likely be followed by the creation of a no-fly zone (NFZ).
The Islamic republic opposes any U.S. military presence in the region. It has objected to U.S. involvement in Syrian ceasefire talks in Astana, Kazakhstan held January 23-24, 2017. Russia stunned the Iranian delegation in Astana by introducing a preliminary draft for the new Syrian constitution. Iran is justifiably concerned about the seemingly cordial relationship between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin and its implications. Furthermore, the renewed hostilities between Tehran and Washington could make it more difficult to implement the nuclear deal.
Iran’s military involvement in the Syrian conflict has reportedly cost Tehran $15bn since 2011. According to a report by the Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans Affairs, the Iranian military has suffered more than 1000 casualties in Syria with another 1000 wounded. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Qods Force (IRGC-QF) has set up its headquarters in the city of Al-Zabadani in south-western Syria, close to the border with Lebanon.
The Islamic republic will be the biggest loser if Assad’s regime were to fall. While Russia would secure control of the naval base at Tartus, on the Mediterranean coast of Syria, until 2024, it would leave Iran empty-handed. As such, the Islamic regime will have to explain its Syrian policy to the disillusioned members of the Iranian army and the IRGC, many of whom have been questioning the merits of fighting a foreign war.
Although Iran has followed the Russian lead in the Syrian conflict, it has pursued its own agenda. In the midst of the nuclear negotiations, Moscow pressured Tehran to sign the Syrian peace plan drafted at the UN-backed Geneva II Conference in 2012. The Islamic regime also agreed to align its policy in Syria with Moscow after a visit by Vladimir Putin to Tehran and his talks with Ayatollah Khamenei in November 2015.
Despite Iran’s objections, Russia asked the host country, Kazakhstan, to invite the U.S. ambassador to attend the Astana talks as an observer. The subsequent decision to hold Geneva III Conference on February 8, 2017 to discuss peace and the transfer of power in Syria, strengthens the notion that Washington and Moscow intend to exclude Iran from the talks. Tehran has signalled that it would not support the creation of the safe and no-fly zones in Syria.
Washington’s announced plans for the creation of a safe zone in Syria seems to have surprised Moscow. A day after President Trump signed the executive order, Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that “Our American partners did not consult us on this issue. This was a unilateral decision.” Russia has filled the vacuum left by the departure of the U.S. military and is not thrilled at the prospect of a muscular American presence in the region. It would reduce the military cost for Moscow but would add to the number of players in the region. Turkey, sharing a long border with Syria, is concerned for its own security and strongly supports the U.S. presence in the region and desperately wants to limit Iran’s influence in Damascus and Aleppo.
The Russian-drafted constitution for Syria and the U.S. plan for safe and no-fly zones are on the agenda at the UN sponsored Geneva III peace talks planned for February 8, 2017. That agenda and the thawing of the relationship between Washington and Moscow could sideline the Islamic regime in Tehran during Syrian peace talks and undermine Iran’s status as a regional power.
The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said that the Geneva III peace talks planned for February 8, 2017 between the Syrian government and the opposition has been postponed. However, the UN could not confirm the delay of the next round of talks.