Damascus hosted a tripartite meeting between key Syrian, Iranian and Iraqi military leaders 18 March.
Attended by Iranian Defence Minister Amir Hatami, Syrian counterpart Ali Abdullah Ayoub and Iraqi Chief of Staffs Lieutenant General Othman Al-Ghanimi, the meeting concluded with a reaffirmation of the Syrian army’s determination to reassert its control over the whole of Syrian territory and the decision to reopen the Qaim-Bu Kamal border crossing between Iraq and Syria.
The strategic crossing had been closed for more than four years. In the context of the reassertion of Syrian sovereignty over the whole of Syria, the participants conveyed a direct message to the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that control northeast Syria and an indirect message to Turkey in connection with the northwest province of Idlib that is controlled by Turkish backed Syrian rebel groups, most notably Al-Qaeda affiliated Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham.
The official Iraqi presence alongside Iran and Syria is a precedent, although it was predictable in view of the close Iraqi-Iranian relationship and the high-level security coordination between Baghdad and Damascus since 2014 when the Islamic State (IS) group overran the borders between the two countries.
At the level of regional and international power balances in the Middle East, the tripartite alignment works in favour of Russia which has now acquired another ally, Iraq, which has been growing closer to Moscow by the same distances that it has been moving away from the US.
Washington responded with sanctions against portions of the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), more commonly known as Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi.
The tripartite alignment, which Hatami described as “the consolidation of the axis of resistance”, boosts Iran’s influence in Syria and enhances the prospects of its regional project in the post-IS period.
It simultaneously hampers the influence of rival local and/or regional forces especially now that Iraq is ready to fill the vacuum at the border following the SDF’s announcement last week that it had eliminated the last remaining IS pocket in Al-Baghuz.
With this final defeat of IS, Damascus and its allies are now upping the pressure on the SDF which has called for a dialogue with the government in Damascus in the framework of its drive to secure recognition for the Autonomous Administration of North and Eastern Syria (NES).
The Syrian-Iranian-Iraqi axis is also intended to assert pressure on the US, which now intends to keep 400 troops in northeast Syria in order to support the Kurdish forces there, while, to the west, it ups the pressure on Turkey which has been overseeing the implementation of the demilitarisation agreement in Idlib but has so far failed to fulfil its obligations under that agreement.
It now remains to be seen how the parties of this alliance reposition themselves on the ground in order to follow through on their objectives.
Meanwhile, the reactions of other parties have begun to unfold starting with the US which, as noted above, has focused on Iraq in the form of sanctions against the predominantly Shia PMU.
Tensions between the US and Iraq, which Washington wants to keep as a bulwark against Iran, have been escalating for several weeks since US President Donald Trump announced plans to keep some US forces in Iraq in order to “keep an eye on Iran”.
The announcement sparked widespread anger in Iraq where Qais Al-Khazali, leader of the Asayib Ahl Al-Haqq (League of the Righteous) Party vowed to attack US forces if they stayed in Iraq.
He subsequently announced that the US led international coalition bombarded a 30-member PMU force near Lake Tharthar in Al-Anbar region in western Iraq. As tensions heightened, the Iraqi parliament weighed drafting legislation to terminate the US military presence in Iraq.
Russia stands to benefit from the inclusion of Iraq among its allies in Syria at several levels. The addition of an ally that shares a similar vision for the future of Syria works in favour of the shift of US allies towards Russia. In fact, there had already been indications that Baghdad was moving in this direction.
The Iraqi foreign minister’s first visit abroad was to Moscow and, according to the latest SIPRI report, Iraq has increased its imports of Russian arms by an unprecedented rate during the last four years.
On the other hand, Russia continues to face the Turkish challenge in Syria which subject loomed to the fore with Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu’s visit to Damascus where he met with President Bashar Al-Assad the day after the meeting of key Syrian, Iranian and Iraqi military officials in the Syrian capital. Top among the issues Shoygu and Al-Assad discussed was the situation in Idlib.
This northwest governorate is where time is running out for Turkey in Syria. Idlib, controlled by Turkish backed jihadist groups, was one of the four de-escalation zones created in accordance with the framework established between Russia, Iran and Turkey in Astana.
It is the only one of these areas that has not yet been restored to Syrian control and, in last week’s meetings in Damascus, Syria made it clear that its patience was running thin.
Russia supports Syria in this, arguing that the current situation in Idlib cannot continue indefinitely. On the other hand, Turkey stands to benefit from Syrian, Iranian and Iraqi resolve concerning the region east of the Euphrates under the control of the SDF, which Ankara regards as a terrorist organisation.
It may therefore try to use Idlib as a bartering chip in order obtain a Turkish controlled 30-kilometre wide “safe zone” on the Syrian side of the Turkish-Syrian border in northern Syria.
The SDF, for its part, will draw on the defeat of IS east of the Euphrates and the international coalition’s recognition for the central role it played in this campaign in its attempt to negotiate an agreement with the regime.
Following its recent victory in Al-Baghuz, the SDF reiterated its call for dialogue with the regime in Damascus. However, Syrian Defence Minister Ayoub took the opposite tack, which was to send the SDF an ultimatum.
During the tripartite meeting he said that there could only be one military force in Syria — Al-Assad government’s forces — and that the American backed SDF would be dealt with in one of two ways: through “national reconciliation or force”.
The Autonomous Administration of North and Eastern Syria (NES), commonly referred to as Rojava, responded that Ayoub’s remarks ran counter to Syrian national interests and expressed a “continuation of the sterile racist policy that led to the catastrophic situation in Syria”.
The Rojava administration’s statement added: “The regime insists on reproducing itself through the military and security solution” whereas Rojava “prefers the political solution in principle, although it will never slacken in the legitimate defence of its rights should the situation demand.”
If the formation of the tripartite alignment could be anticipated, there remains the crucial question as to how it takes shape on the ground in political and security arrangements in both Syria and Iraq, especially now that the latter is moving to restructure its relationship with the US. Washington, for its part, is facing a new challenge.
Its regional adversary, Iran, has gained greater leverage while Russia has acquired additional cards to play in its efforts to reduce US influence in the region.
Will this development induce Washington to revise its decision to pull out its troops from Syria? The situation in Iraq, where large segments of the population oppose the continuing US military presence there, adds another complicating dimension to this question.
As for the implications of all this on the Arab region as a whole, they are manifold.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 March, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Balance of power in the Middle East