Iran is absent from political agreements but present in Idlib battles
Iran develops a foggy policy with the roles it plays in the file of Syria’s war-battered Idlib. At a time when Iran was absent from the agreements that have shaped the map of the military control in the province of Idlib, its allied militias, alongside the Syrian regime forces, spearheaded every attack on the opposition-controlled areas.
Iran was absent from the two most important agreements in drawing the military influence map and control ration in north-western Syria, the first of which was signed by Russia and Turkey in the Russian Black Sea city of Sochi in September 2018. The essential provisions of the Sochi agreement included a ceasefire, the conduct of joint Russian-Turkish patrols, and the establishment of observation posts and the demilitarized zone between the Syrian regime and the opposition. And the second was the Moscow agreement signed between Russia and Turkey on 5 March 2020, amid a complete absence of Iranian politicians.
The three roles of Iran in north-western Syria
Maan Talaa, a researcher at the “Omran Center for Strategic Studies,” highlighted to Enab Baladi that the developments of the fourth “de-escalation” region and the subsequent agreements that contributed to the growth of the bilateral Russian-Turkish discussions and the diminish of the Iranian effectiveness showed that the “Astana Triangle” (Russia, Turkey, and Iran) remained as a framework dominated by the Russians and Turks in formulating understandings about Idlib.
Russia and Turkey talks have witnessed many delicate military and security negotiations between the two countries, which contributed to changing the Iranian position in the course of the discussions.
In return, Tehran has tended to redefine its qualitative involvement in the military scene in north-western Syria, and its movement can be summed up in three roles.
The first role was, in essence, to influence the creation of field events through its qualitative military presence and ability to benefit from adapting the agreements in a manner consistent with its goals, as what is known as “313” forces are deployed in the vicinity of Kafr Nabl. These forces, which include Syrian and foreign fighters, are funded and supported by Iran.
Iran-backed Hezbollah’s “Radwan Forces” and Iraqi militias loyal to Iran are deployed in the vicinity of Saraqib city, as Iranian militias have reinforced their concentration points around Jabal Shashabo, northwest of Hama, by the militias of the “Fawj al-Nabi al-Akram,” which is loyal to Iran.
The second role Iran plays in Idlib is to put pressure on the Syrian regime and drive it to violate any ceasefire or prepare it to make use of any possible breach carried out by the other party (benefiting from the qualitative power of its militias and their formation as a constraining factor). This can be observed via a set of indications of bringing in reinforcements to the region in the past few weeks, especially on the Jurin front in the north-western countryside of Hama, amid fears of the return of battles. In addition, the Iranian militias have been built up in the axes of the western countryside of Aleppo, but they are still defensive in the current stage.
This was what happened on 16 April, when the “Jaysh al-Nasr/Army of Victory,” which is part of the Turkish-backed “National Liberation Front,” announced that two elements were killed by drones which are believed to be Iranian in the western countryside of Hama.
A spokesperson for National Liberation Front (NLF) opposition alliance, Captain Naji Mustafa, emphasized that unmanned drones operated by the Iranian militias targeted fighters from the opposition factions in the al-Ghab Plain.
The factions responded to the ceasefire violations committed by the Syrian regime forces and Iran.
According to Mustafa, the opposition factions are prepared for all future scenarios, especially after monitoring military build-up in the village of Jurin by the regime forces.
Another Iranian drone targeted a car carrying members of the “First Coastal Division,” which led to the death of a person, while the factions managed to shoot down one of the two drones in Hama countryside.
According to the researcher Maan Talaa, the third role of Iran is restricted to sending several messages and statements stating its specific positioning, and therefore the need to take into account its interests in an effort to intensify the factors supporting the return of its momentum in the course of “Astana,” and to confirm that its policy was not affected by the killing of its Engineer Qassem Soleimani at the beginning of last January.
North-western Syria will paint the “the political deal”
The researcher, Maan Talaa, stressed that Iran is putting all its energies in adapting the Syrian scene in the interest of its regional policies, and it is in its best interest to be one of the important and influential forces in the general scene of north-western Syria because it is the last area of conflict between the Syrian regime and the opposition, and therefore the form in which the region will settle will contribute to crystallizing “the political deal.”
What worries Tehran at this stage is the possibility that the Turkish-Russian agreements will transform into significant bases for the final agreement in the region, in contradiction to its interests and strategic gains.
Iran also aspires to invest traffic and transit on international roads, and thus benefit from them to adapt them to strengthening its bases and programs in Syria.
The opposition armed forces used to control the two international highways: Damascus-Aleppo (M5) and Aleppo-Latakia (M4), which together constitute the vital artery of ground transport within Syrian territory, and between Syria and the neighboring countries.
During the military campaigns, which began in early 2019, and were suspended with the agreement of last March, the Syrian regime forces managed to re-control the Damascus-Aleppo(M5) highway completely, while the March deal provided for the conduct of joint Russian and Turkish patrols on the Aleppo-Latakia international highway (M4), which is met with a refusal in Idlib to prevent the conduct of patrols to date.
Iran is trying to anticipate any attempt to form a platform, even indirectly, that includes Russia, Turkey, and America, because if this platform is established, Tehran will be the first to pay the price, in terms of diminishing its influence and power and tightening the noose on its military presence in northern Syria. Furthermore, Iran’s dream to have access to warm waters through a strategic outlet to the Mediterranean would be over. Available data shows that Iran’s presence in northern Syria faces objections from all regional players, according to Talaa.
Iran’s absence from fateful agreements but its presence on the ground
On 17 September 2018, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, reached an agreement to establish a demilitarized zone of a depth of 15-20 km ( around 9-12.4 miles) in Syria’s Idlib region between the armed opposition and government troops, with a withdrawal of all the heavy weapons, tanks, rockets systems and mortars of all opposition factions. Besides, coordinated Russian-Turkish patrols would also monitor the zone. The agreement also stipulated preventing “provocations” between the parties concerned and “violating the agreement concluded.”
The agreement came after Syrian’s regime military-media buildup on the outskirts of Idlib governorate, intending to advance into the area, at the time when the United Nations and international community issued warnings of the risk of a humanitarian catastrophe which could hit the region if Russia and the Syrian regime launched a military operation.
This was repeated in the “ceasefire” agreement between Russian and Turkish officials on 12 January, and in the last Moscow agreement of last March. After each agreement, the Iranians release statements supporting the agreements.
Enab Baladi’s correspondent reported a military source as saying that even though the Iranians were ignored or ostracized from the political agreements, they did not abandon their positions but rather brought military reinforcements to the lines of contact in the rural areas in Idlib and Aleppo, especially after the Syrian regime issued a decision to end the retention and summons of reserve officers, retained officers, and individuals who have completed the actual reserve service of seven years or more.
In a previous interview with Enab Baladi, Captain Abdul-Fattah Abdul Razzaq said that Iran has been mobilizing some mercenaries from its militia in recent weeks around Idlib, but considered that Russia has the final say, because their fight against the Turkish-backed opposition factions, without the support of Russian air force, will not succeed.
Speaking earlier to Enab Baladi, Information Unit Manager at Omran Center for Strategic Studies Navvar Şaban suggested that skirmishes or shy attempts of advance on the ground could occur in the vicinity of the Aleppo-Lattakia highway (M4). However, a massive military operation would not be launched, due to the spread of the new coronavirus (COVID- 19), and its impact on the global level.
On 16 April, the most prominent violation of the recent ceasefire agreement took place when three unmanned drones struck the Syrian opposition-held areas, according to what the faction of “Jaysh al-Nasr,” which was targeted by one of these three drones, announced. The faction added that these drones also targeted the faction of the First Coastal Division, and the attack resulted in the deaths of two fighters of the Jaysh al-Nasr while the factions shot down one of these drones.
The previous violations were carried out with artillery shells or rockets on the opposition-held areas, but without causing no casualties due to their drop on the villages and towns emptied of its people as a result of the recent battles.
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