Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has ordered his forces to start withdrawing from Syria, on the basis that the Islamic State group (ISIS) has been defeated in Syria, and that the time has now come for a political settlement that would allow reaping the economic spoils of the war.
One outstanding issue however is the fate of Iran-backed paramilitaries in Syria, especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), whose presence is increasingly causing resentment among the Syrian regime forces.
In conjunction with Putin’s move, Iraq’s prime minister Haider al-Abadi has declared Iraq’s liberation from and the defeat of ISIS, launching an internal battle over the fate and function of the Popular Mobilization Forces after the destruction of ISIS.
All eyes are now on the leading Shia religious authority Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a fatwa by whom had established the PMF. For his part, Abadi’s entire political future now hinges on his ability to resolve the thorny issue of the PMF and the prospects of disbanding the militias or integrating them into the regular Iraqi army.
But Iran is not in a hurry to settle matters in Syria or Iraq. Iran needs time to consolidate its gains achieved through the IRGC intervention in Syria and Iraq.
The United States does not appear enthused by Moscow’s announcement of the end of military operations in Syria on the basis of ‘mission accomplished’. "The Russians have declared operations over with, it is hard for me to understand how they would reach that conclusion,” said General Joseph Votel, who has been US Central Command commander since March 2016. He also said that there are still things that have to be done in Syria to liberate the areas that ISIS has taken control of, stressing that the US-led coalition’s focus is on defeating ISIS.
But what does it mean to defeat this group? Does it mean completely crushing them on the ground? Or does it mean pushing them into the desert, which is already happening?
The desert here is not exclusively the areas far from Syria and Iraq’s urban centers, but also include Egypt’s Sinai and the North African Sahara, beginning with Libya which has become a magnet for the assimilation of ISIS.
There is a lot of concern in North African nations. According to a source well versed with the affairs of the Maghreb region, a disaster is in the making in the region as ISIS fighters flock there from Syria and Iraq. He says the new arena does not seem to be on the radar of Russian and American priorities, revealing that Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia are watching Libya with panic as this North African state has become a staging ground for ISIS in the region and beyond.
Another official source familiar with Syria said Turkey can hardly contain its glee because ISIS is heading to Sinai, while the Turkish government is being credited for participating in the wars to purge Syria of the same group in partnership with Russia and Iran. Indeed, the bad blood between Turkey and Egypt remains there despite the convergence of Egyptian-Russian and Egyptian-Syrian relations with Turkey’s own entanglements in Syria. Turkey will be involved in determining the fate of ISIS and other terrorist groups in Syria, given that it holds the keys to important border crossings in Syria.
According to this official, the most important player in Syria, i.e. Russia, wants to quickly turn the page on the military chapter, which is why it wants to launch the political process as soon as possible. This however does not mean that Putin is willing to endorse the Geneva Communique’s perspective for political transition in Syria or interpret it to mean the necessity of forming a transitional governing body with full executive powers, as the communique requires.
In the Russian perspective, this view should be consigned to the past, because the Russians believe Bashar al-Assad’s survival in power is a foregone conclusion at least until the presidential elections scheduled for 2021 or slightly earlier, if the efforts of the UN Syria envoy Staffan De Mistura manage to bring the date forward. Meanwhile, Moscow wants the political process to provide the cover needed to withdraw Russian forces, and wants this to begin as soon as possible regardless of how long it is going to take to complete it.
Russia is well aware that the Iranian agenda conflicts with its own agenda in Syria, especially in terms of the deployment of the IRGC and its affiliates in Syria, in parallel with the Syrian army. Moscow wants the regime’s Syrian Arab Army (SAA) to be the sole army in Syria without an Iranian auxiliary, and wants the SAA to be closer to Moscow’s priorities than to the priorities of other actors.
Yet Russia will not take it upon itself to confront its strategic ally in Syria. However, it is already coordinating on the ground with the SAA, whose forces it is helping to build up, and with the US-led international coalition, to effectively contain the grand ambitions of the IRGC in Syria. The issue is a question of time, and the differences between the two sides here are not superficial or marginal.
Concerning the IRGC and its role alongside the PMF, one political official in the militias says the collaboration in security and intelligence was part of the integration with all sides fighting terror in Iraq, who include Iran and the United States, “both of which are allies of Iraq”. Even when integrating the PMF into the Iraqi regular army, he says, the PMFs must retain its designations “for morale purposes”.
But The issue of the fate of the PMF will prove difficult for Haider al-Abadi, who is trying to establish warm relations with his Arab neighbors, not just Iran. Iraq will hold elections in May, and all sides are gearing up for a fierce contest in which the fate of the PMF has emerged as a key issue.
Ayatollah Sistani remains the most important Iraqi figure when it comes to determining the future of the PMF. If Sistani, whose 2014 jihad fatwa led to the creation of the PMF, blesses the continuation of these militias’ role and refuses their dissolution and integration into the army and policy, this will preclude a promising future for Haider al-Abadi, who prefers the Iraqi army to have the ultimate authority and not a faction loyal to the IRGC in Tehran.
If Sistani issues a fatwa requiring the PMFs to disband, this will have huge implications for Iraq. According to the source in the PMF, it is likely that the bulk of the 140,000 strong militias would be dissolved, while their main factions would survive without abandoning their designations or independence within the country’s security structure. In the source’s view – or perhaps wishes – this will be the main feature of Sistani’s position.
Putin’s unannounced visit to the Russian Hemimim base in Syria’s Latakia province then carries many connotations, especially in the context of his order for a partial withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria issued from the base. Since Russia will no doubt maintain a presence in Syria through its bases there, Putin’s orders are in fact a declaration of Russian victory in Syria.
Moscow may want to expedite the start of reconstruction in Syria. However, this is something neither Iran or nor the regime wants yet. Indeed, despite the declaration of ISIS’ defeat or the victory of Russia or Iraq, the war in Syria is not finished yet. Damascus and Tehran want to buy time for now.
And in Iraq, the end of ISIS may have been declared, but the internal battle in Iraq is only beginning.