ISIS flocks to Russia as Iran Consolidates Its Foothold in Syria

Russia’s concerns about reprisals by the Islamic State group (ISIS) in the Russian homeland are nothing new, but they took on a public form this week after President Vladimir Putin called his US counterpart Donald Trump to thank him for an intelligence tip-off that helped thwart a terror attack targeting Kazansky Cathedral and other public places in St. Petersburg. Going public with these concerns is remarkable, given that Moscow likes to boast of its own absolute power and capacity to fight terrorists in Syria to avoid having to fight them on its soil. Now, however, a new equation is emerging with implications for what comes after Russia’s claims of victory against ISIS and the end of its mission in Syria. Intelligence estimates caution that ISIS will focus its reprisals on Russia, which has been in the vanguard in the war against the group in Syria. Putin is aware that the terror threat looming over Russia requires partnership with the Americans, to repeat the kind of tip-off received from the CIA that led to the arrest of an ISIS cell planning a major attack in Russia’s second-largest city. The American-Russian intelligence collaboration comes amid continued political bickering between the two countries and tensions resulting from Washington’s questioning of Moscow’s claims of victory against ISIS as well as accusations of Russian meddling in the US presidential elections – Chairman of the Defense and Security Committee of Russia's Federation Council Viktor Bondarev accused this week the US of helping terrorists and destabilizing Syria. It also comes amid a new national security strategy announced by Trump which described Russia and China as revisionist powers that undermine the international order – Russia through subversive actions in other states and China through economic ‘aggression’.

There are both contradictions and overlaps between the two powers’ strategic interests, both political and economic, and intelligence and security concerns. The polarization in the Russian-American political and strategic discourse also has strong implications for bid by Iran to consolidate its land corridor to the Mediterranean via Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Reports this week suggest Iran has already started using the Tehran-Damascus route, with the ability to sustain its military deployment in Syria guaranteed by the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, and the regime army in Syria, both backed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) supervising the corridor, also known as the Iranian arc or crescent.

Trump’s promised firmness with Iran will be tested on the ground in Syria, but also in Yemen. If Trump’s strategy will take on an economic, sanctions-based approach, the path to proving its seriousness lies in Washington persuading European capitals, especially Berlin and Paris, to be a full partner in new sanctions on Iran to prevent it from destabilizing the US’ allies in the region. If Trump’s promised firmness has a strategic objective, then Washington will have to confront on the ground Iran’s expansion, including its military supply lines to the Mediterranean. In turn, this requires Washington to adopt a firm policy with Iraq to rein in the PMF and insist on their genuine integration in the regular Iraqi army, without any ‘clever’ attempts to maintain the PMF’s autonomy and appease Iran’s IRGC, the arm of Tehran’s expansion in the Arab geography. It also requires firmness in Syria with regard to the Iranian supply lines, perhaps through military action by the US-led coalition operating there.

What the Trump administration will not do is attack Iran militarily on its home soil. This was made clear by US Defense Secretary James Mattis, who has given the impression that the first round of the US “showdown” with Iran would be diplomatic, yet without completely taking the military option off the table later to head off Iran in Syria and Yemen by empowering the international coalition and the Arab coalition respectively.

The signs of Trump’s diplomatic moves have begun to appear with Iran’s furious reactions to remarks by French President Emannuel Macron, who is speaking in terms of new sanctions over Iran’s ballistic missile program. Ali Akbar Velayati, senior advisor to the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, cautioned France and said Macron was behaving as if he were Trump’s “poodle”.

On Sunday, Macron declared that military operations against ISIS in Syria would continue through mid to late February. Macron’s remarks converge with the US official position which questions Russia’s rush to declare victory, and affirms US forces would remain in Syria. At the same time, Macron’s remarks contradict Russia’s insistence that Syria is now fully free of ISIS.

More interestingly, what’s implicit in Macron’s positions, which has infuriated Velayati, is the inference that the international coalition in Syria would be monitoring Tehran’s activities throughout the Iranian supply line. To be sure, this is the time for the Iranian harvest in Syria, and Tehran is determined to beat anyone trying to prevent it from consolidating its Mediterranean foothold via Syria. Iran needs the Assad regime to achieve this, and for this reason, will never abandon it, and fears US-Russian coordination and rapprochement may carry negative implications for its interests.

Indeed, despite competing Russian and American interests in Syria, there is a fine thread linking these interests together, namely, an agreement over the need to deny Iran the chance to control Syria. Moscow does not want Assad and Iran to join hands to undermine Russia’s monopoly over shaping Syria’s future, and its long-term strategic interests. For this reason, Moscow may be considering the benefits of a US move to contain Iran’s ‘victory’ in Syria and help it unshackle itself from Bashar al-Assad.

Macron has said interesting things about Bashar al-Assad . He said he was "an enemy of the Syrian people", though not France’s enemy, which is ISIS. He added: “Bashar al-Assad will be there…because he is protected by those who have won the war on the ground, whether it's Iran or Russia…We have to speak to Assad and his representatives." Despite this, Macron said that at some point, Assad "will have to respond to his crimes before his people, before the international courts,” in a subtle blow aimed at Russia and Iran.

These contradictions in the positions of France, Russia, and the US prove that the so-called Assad Knot has been replaced with the Iranian knot. At one time, Assad’s fate in power was the main obstacle, but at this stage, no one is talking about this. The focus is how to resolve the Iranian Knot after ‘victory’ against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, amid whispers in the international intelligence community that ISIS has not abruptly evaporated, and that it may instead respawn in an even fiercer iteration in the Russian neighborhood.

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