The fifth and latest round of international peace talks on the Syrian Civil War concluded on Wednesday in the Kazakh capital of Astana. The main foreign players in the talks remain Russia and Iran, which support the Assad government, and Turkey, which supports some of the rebels. The two-day talks reportedly ended without an agreement on the “deconfliction zones” that these and other parties, including the US and a coalition of moderate rebels, are striving to establish.
Different media give different impressions of the productivity of the talks. While the Daily Mail simply states that the multi-party dialogue failed to yield and agreement, the Tehran Times describes the outcome as a “partial agreement.” Both sources agree, however, that the participants in the peace talks still hope to hammer out a complete consensus by the end of August. But there is some question as to how feasible this goal is, as long as the Islamic Republic of Iran continues to wield its current levels of influence over Syria.
An article in the Syrian Observer went into significant detail regarding the nature of the diplomatic failure at the Astana talks. It emphasized that Tehran objects to a southern deconfliction zone that is among a total of four. The Observer indicates that Russia, out of deference to its ally, is helping to keep discussion open about the southern zone, which is currently slated to be enforced by Russia without an Iranian presence, and which would cut off Iran from the development of a planned land route linking Tehran to the Beirut headquarters of Hezbollah, by way of Iraq and Syria.
These Iranian designs are generally understood to be a major reason for the increased US presence in Syria, which is at odds with President Donald Trump’s previous statements suggesting that he would keep the US out of such foreign entanglements while focusing on domestic issues. Present American involvement is still not direct, however, being instead focused on the support and promotion of moderate rebel groups that have lost ground to the Assad regime as a result of its Iranian and Russian support. But the US military has shot down one Syrian warplane and at least two drones in recent weeks, as well as launching strikes against Iran-backed forces, all with the intention of safeguarding the southern rebel stronghold of al-Tanf.
The US has already succeeded in cutting off the Iranians from their original planned northern route to link Tehran, Damascus, and the Mediterranean. And if the southern route remains cut off as a result of further peace talks, the only alternative left to Iran will be a central route focused on the area of Deir el-Zour, which is one of the last areas of serious ISIL activity. Tehran’s unwillingness to accept this constraint appears to be the central reason for the delay in achieving a multilateral agreement at Astana.
In the wake of past Syria peace talks, the Islamic Republic has been blamed for the failure of ceasefires that were supposed to halt fighting between pro and anti-Assad forces, in order to allow the international community to focus attention on the fight against ISIL. For instance, following the siege of Aleppo, Iran-backed militants reportedly violated an internationally brokered ceasefire by firing on rebels and stopping civilians from fleeing to rebel-held territory. Additionally, Iran and its proxies demanded the release of prisoners from other rebel territories as a condition for allowing people to pass checkpoints leaving Aleppo. Analysts were quick to explain these moves in the context of an ongoing Iranian project of shifting sectarian populations in order to have better defined Shiite corridors under the control of Iran’s Shiite theocracy.
This promotion of sectarian conflict against the backdrop of the Syrian Civil War is paralleled by Iran’s apparent exploitation of a similar crisis in Iraq. The Iranian regime has long been blamed for encouraging a purge of Sunnis in the Iraqi government under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and it has also contributed to the proliferation of Shiite militant groups in Iraq as well as in Syria.
But Iran’s strategic preoccupations in those areas are not just limited to a clash or religious ideologies. Iranian strategies in Iraq have also allegedly taken aim at ethnic groups that boast separatist groups in both countries, which are apparently regarded as existential threats to the Iranian regime.
On Wednesday, Voice of America News quoted Kurdish officials in Iraq as saying that Iran had launched a cross-border artillery strike, which, though allegedly targeting militant separatist groups, forced hundreds of civilians to flee their homes over the course of several hours of shelling. The Kurdish groups in the Haji Omaran region denied responsibility for recent border clashes that were cited by Iran as the reason for the strike. And one official with the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan suggested that the violent Iranian reprisals would only further galvanize Kurdish opposition to Iran’s regional imperialism.
But meanwhile, Iranian officials and particularly the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps are making similar claims about the ability of public displays of military might to solidify “Islamic unity” behind the banner of the Islamic Republic of Iran. These were the words used by IRGC Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, according to an article in Jokpeme. Jafari asserted that the IRGC had contributed to collective security in the region and used this to advocate for “superior power” to be wielded throughout the region by the Islamic Republic.
Though Jafari’s speech claimed the IRGC was interested in peace, it also justified the continuance of belligerent actions and rhetoric by saying, in reference the US and its allies, “We are faced with an enemy that only understands the language of force. So we cannot speak with them in a tongue they do not understand, and expect to achieve result.”
Last month, Iran carried out its first missile strike on foreign territory in 30 years. Although initially portrayed as retaliation against ISIL targets in eastern Syria following a dual terror attack in Tehran, the ballistic missile launch was also described by one IRGC commander as a message intended for the US and Saudi Arabia. Jafari’s speech endorsing more such actions coincided with the announcement that he had been re-appointed as head of the IRGC for an additional three years. The previous three years of IRGC action had largely been characterized by provocative gestures toward traditional Iranian adversaries. These moves included ballistic missile launches that allegedly violate UN Security Council Resolution 2231 and close encounters between Iranian fast attack vessels and American warships, some of which involved the IRGC’s refusal to disengage until warning shots had been fired by the US Navy.
Other IRGC officials have joined Jafari this week in boasting of the potential effects of an escalating region-wide Iranian military presence. Al Waght reported that Brigadier General Mohammad Pakpour had declared the IRGC would target “counter-revolutionary forces, outlaws, and terrorists” in any place, without regard for national boundaries. Although Tehran purports to play a leading role in fighting terrorists across the region, the international community generally agrees on the designation of the Iranian regime as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. Iranian state media tends to use the “terrorist” label to describe any of its own non-state enemies, like the Syrian rebels, while denying that label to all of its non-state allies, like Lebanon’s Hezbollah paramilitary and the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
In another example of IRGC justification of Iran’s imperialism, Iran’s own Tasnim News Agency quoted Brigadier General Hossein Salami as saying the growing strength of the IRGC Ground Forces makes the borders of Iran “immune from infiltration of foreign agents.” The specter of foreign infiltration has been commonly cited by Iranian hardliners particularly in the wake of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, which those hardliners feared would lead to expectations of general rapprochement between the Islamic Republic and its traditional Western adversaries.
Salami’s remarks were delivered at a ceremony for the inauguration of a new IRGC airbase, which could have the effect of bolstering Iranian force-projection across the broader Middle East and even beyond. In time, such bases could be relevant to the issue of Iran’s potential nuclear weapons capability, which was ostensibly shunted to the side by the 2015 nuclear agreement, but which many critics of the Islamic Republic fear was ineffectual at actually preventing Iran from obtaining the most destructive weapons and possibly channeling them into the hands of terrorist groups.
In a recent interview with Breitbart News, former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton advised policymakers to always think of Iran alongside North Korea as much of US foreign policy remains focused on the latter nation’s pursuit of long-range delivery systems for the nuclear warheads it already possesses. The interview called renewed attention to the ways in which Iran and North Korea have worked together in the past, and Bolton speculated that the Islamic Republic might even have looked to the Asian dictatorship as a means of concealing nuclear activity beyond Iran’s own borders.
Such claims have the potential to bolster the sorts of talking points advanced by President Trump while visiting Poland on Thursday. In a speech in the capital of Warsaw, Trump suggested that “hostile regimes, including Syria and Iran” should be considered “common enemies” by “the community of responsible nations.” The Independent Journal Review quoted Trump as saying that fighting these regimes would serve the “defense of civilization itself.” The US President thus urged Russia, as a party to the Syria peace talks, to halt its current defense of Iran and Syria and move the diplomatic discussions in the direction of a resolution that can only be achieved in the absence of Iran’s bid for ever greater shares of regional power.