Tens of thousands of Syrian civilians have fled Aleppo province toward the Turkish border as soldiers loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russian airstrikes, threaten to encircle Aleppo city. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that up to 70,000 Syrians were heading toward his country. Pro-government forces, backed by Russian air support, cut off a major supply route connecting Aleppo city with the Turkish border on Wednesday. Hassan Haj Ali, a leader of the Free Syrian Army, said that the Russians had carried out more than 250 airstrikes in the area in one day alone. Haj Ali also said that most of the pro-government soldiers taking part in the offensive are “Iranian and from Hezbollah, or Afghan,” and a senior security force close to the Assad regime told Reuters Thursday that the offensive was being overseen by Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force. An IRGC general, as well as six members of the Iranian Basij militia, were killed in the fighting. Secretary of State John Kerry called for a halt to the bombardment, saying it “clearly signaled the intention to seek a military solution rather than enable a political one.” Members of the opposition have accused the Obama administration of urging its regional allies to limit their supplies in order to pressure them to come to the negotiating table in Geneva, making them vulnerable to the offensive. On Wednesday, the UN’s special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, called for a halt to the talks in Geneva. Rebel commanders initially did not want to attend the talks unless the Assad regime stopped its systematic starvation and bombardment of civilians.
Aleppo had a pre-war population of two million and is Syria’s most populous city. Analysts fear that the regime will besiege the city, causing a humanitarian catastrophe. Firas Abi Ali, the head of Middle East and North Africa forecasting at IHS Country Risk in London, said that the regime is “going to go with starvation and bombardment tactics,” as they have done consistently throughout the country, including at Madaya, where dozens of civilians have starved to death. The fall of Aleppo to the regime would likely be disastrous for the opposition. Aron Lund, a Syria analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, assessed, “If the government manages to retake and secure eastern Aleppo…I think the rebels are pretty much out of the game…[It] would presumably have a devastating effect on international and Syrian confidence in the rebels’ ability to win the war or even wring real concessions from Assad.”
The Obama administration’s Middle East policy effectively serves as “legitimization of Iranian spheres of influence throughout the region, especially in Iraq and Syria,” Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies wrote in an analysis for Tablet on Thursday.
Badran observed that President Barack Obama has stated that he intended to break with the “old order” of American alliances in the Middle East, which he viewed as “unsustainable.” “I think there was a comfort with a United States that was comfortable with an existing order and the existing alignments, and was an implacable foe of Iran,” he said in a 2014 interview. If America’s existing allies were scared of an American rapprochement to Iran, Obama added, they would have to “adapt to change.”
Obama’s approach, Badran wrote, has been activelyas looking for Iranian cooperation on regional issues. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the nuclear deal with Iran is known, was a means to achieving this end. Secretary of State John Kerry seemed to say as much in an interview last August. “If we can get this deal done, then we’re ready to sit down and talk about the regional issues, and we may be able to work things in different places,” he said.
But where Obama sees a confluence of interests, Badran explained, Iran sees that it has leverage in the region allowing it “to advance its own regional interests,” meaning that it seeks “to overturn the existing order and replace it with Iranian hegemony.”
Badran described the new dynamic:
Iranian impunity is not a function of Iran’s actual military power vis-à-vis the United States. Rather, it emanates from the Iranian understanding that Obama wants to extricate the United States from the region, has no interest in maintaining the old American order, and is therefore willing to recognize Iran’s position at the head of the regional table. Hence, the administration has found itself repeatedly acting as Iran’s lawyer, excusing and justifying its behavior, legitimizing its ambitions, and instead lashing out at old regional allies. These dynamics, which the administration set up in order to cooperate with Iran, were codified in the JCPOA and give Iran substantial leverage to determine the terms of the U.S.-Iranian relationship. Insofar as Obama has made the nuclear deal and cooperation with Iran his signature, legacy-setting policy, the United States must act as Iran’s advocate in the region, lest the deal and the promise of cooperation collapse. Sustaining the deal with Iran and gaining its cooperation in the region therefore requires the United States to downgrade traditional allies like Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, which are in direct conflict with Iran throughout the region, in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen.
In order to make this new arrangement palatable to Americans who still view Iran with suspicion, Obama has packaged it as part of the fight against extremism, and specifically against ISIS. Badran conceded that if Iran helps defeat ISIS and restores stability to the region, then Obama’s bet will have paid off. But Badran cautioned that relying on Iran is more likely a bad gamble, because there is “no evidence” that Iran will act in a constructive way. Specifically, Badran observed, “One is hard pressed to find any precedent for a forced integration of a revolutionary power with hegemonic ambitions in an existing structure, with which it is in direct conflict, and which it explicitly seeks to overturn.”
Last year, Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, presented a history of Obama’s outreach to Iran. Doran observed that the administration believed that the common interests of the United States and Iran “would provide a foundation for building a concert system of states—a club of stable powers that could work together to contain the worst pathologies of the Middle East and lead the way to a sunnier future.”
The New York Times reported in August that members of the administration harbored “grander ambitions for a deal they hope could open up relations with Tehran and be part of a transformation in the Middle East.” (via TheTower.org)