Middle East in Focus
While millions of Syrian refugees remain stranded outside the borders of their country, it is the fate of a different kind of “migrant” that has caught the region’s attention this week. An agreement between Hezbollah and ISIS-affiliated militants has seen fighters and their families offered safe passage to surviving ISIS strongholds in Syria. However, the United States has refused to recognize the agreement, blocking the migration of militants. Hezbollah’s continuing involvement in the conflict has raised serious questions about the ever-increasing influence of Iran and Russia in the region. This recent development provides further fodder for those who believe that regime change in Syria is unlikely in the short- to medium-term, especially if the West continues its current policies.
The Iranian official daily Tehran Times has, unsurprisingly, condemned last week’s siege of ISIS affiliated militants and their family members: “Iran believes that this is an attempt to undermine the victory of the Lebanese government and the resistance movement over the terrorists, the Foreign Ministry official added.... The Syrian government on August 27 agreed to a deal between Hezbollah and the Daesh terrorists, which allowed the transfer of the terrorists and their families from the strategic and mountainous region of Qalamoun, close to the border with Lebanon, to eastern Syria.... According to a statement released by Hezbollah, U.S.-led forces had left stranded most of the convoy’s 17 buses in the Syrian desert by destroying the road to Dayr al-Zawr. ‘They are also preventing anyone from reaching them even to provide humanitarian assistance to families, the sick and wounded, and the elderly’, said the statement. The Hezbollah resistance movement accuses the U.S. of hampering an evacuation deal with the Daesh terrorist group.”
Yedioth Ahronoth’s Smadar Perry addresses a different aspect of the stand-off, expressing particular concern regarding the signals that the Hezbollah-brokered deal sends in terms of Iran’s influence in the region: “Soon the presidential elections will take place in Iraq, and in three weeks the referendum on the independence of Kurdistan was be held. The pressures from the Turkish, Iraqi and Iranian sides will continue until the last minute, and the deal that returns 300 ISIS terrorists and their families to the area only adds more fuel to the fire. What is certain is that Nasrallah cleaned up the Lebanese arena for Iran's Revolutionary Guard and the ‘advisers’ from Tehran. More and more signs indicate that the Iranians, who are seeking a parallel regime in Lebanon and are aided by Hezbollah, are coming for a prolonged settlement there. Exactly according to the scenario of King Abdullah of Jordan, who insisted on the danger of the Shiite Crescent (Iran-Iraq-Syria-Lebanon) years ago in our neighborhood.”
Similarly, in a recent op-ed for Arab News, Baria Alamuddin accuses Western diplomats of having “lost interest in Syria” and for willingly turning over the country to Russia and Iran: “This deal casts a spotlight upon interactions between Daesh and Iranian proxy forces, particularly Hezbollah which brokered this deal, with its leader Hassan Nasrallah having traveled to Damascus to win Bashar Assad’s support.... Deals between Hezbollah, Daesh and others are being brokered under the noses of Western diplomats who have largely lost interest in Syria. In past peace negotiations, Iran was not permitted to participate. Now with the Astana rounds of talks driving the agenda, objectives are set by Iran and Russia before others even come to the table.... The international community is discreetly disengaging from Syria at the very moment at which there must be maximum diplomatic input to shape the endgame both there and in Iraq — and prevent Iran benefitting from the logic of winner-takes-all.”
No wonder then, that, as a Jordan Times op-ed points out, the prospects for regime change in Syria have faded away almost completely, with anti-government forces unlikely to force such changes either militarily or democratically: “Russia and Iran insist that Assad has to be involved in the transition, while Turkey and other countries that have sought his overthrow contend he has to stand down or be removed ahead of the transition. While Russia and Iran argue that Assad has to stay until Syria is stabilized, the regime change camp does not seem to care what will happen if he leaves power. There is no expatriate foreign-sponsored opposition figure that has support in Syria and can replace Assad, who commands the backing of the army, the intelligence services, the commercial class, the bureaucracy and millions of Syrians, some of whom may not like him but seek an end to war. The opposition camp also knows that if he remains through the transition, he will win any free and fair, UN-supervised election. This is why his antagonists want him out of the way before any transition begins.”
Gulf News’s Layelle Saad argues that such realizations have cast a long shadow over the prospects of a peaceful return of Syrian refugees back in the country, with many fearing being subject to Assad’s wrath should they return: “While the respite in heavy and brutal warfare against the Syrian civilian population is a welcoming development for a population that has been subject to what the United Nations terms ‘probable war crimes’ the story does not end here.... However, the crisis is far from over and the atrocities still lie in store for those Syrians who return home.... Any plan to return refugees should be carefully coordinated with international agencies, which would need the backing and political will of the global community and [fool-proof] mechanisms in place to ensure their safety.... The host countries should not have to bear the brunt of hosting these people alone and the powerful and wealthy nations of the world should step up to the plate and do their bit as well. While the global failure to protect civilians cannot be erased, a new opportunity is presenting itself now, to do the right thing.”