Over the past few days, Syrian government forces, along with their Russian and Iranian allies, have been pounding rebel-held areas of Aleppo with the kind of destructive air power rarely seen since the bombing of Dresden. A third of the city has been held by a variety of Syrian opposition group since 2012, but they are rapidly losing ground under the onslaught, and now facing a humanitarian disaster that is shocking even by Syrian standards. On Wednesday, the UN Security Council held an emergency meeting to deal with what French Ambassador François Delattre called “one of the biggest massacres of a civilian population since World War II.”
This could be a turning point in the conflict. The fall of East Aleppo would give the regime control of the country’s five largest cities and the critical western part of Syria where the regime has its major popular support, now assisted by Russian air power and Iranian militias. Rebel groups would be reduced to a few strongholds in the north of the country and a few other remaining pockets—some around the capital Damascus.
The advance of regime forces comes at a time when US President-elect Donald Trump has said that he would seek agreement with Russia on an end to the five-year Syrian war that has claimed more than 400,000 lives. Any such US-Russia deal would leave President Bashar al-Assad in place and now much strengthened. It would mean an American abandonment of the Syrian opposition and would give Russia a permanent presence in the Middle East. (On December 1, The Financial Times reported that Russia, with Turkey mediating, was secretly negotiating with Syrian rebel groups to end the fighting in Aleppo. If these talks are successful they would be the first to bypass the US administration, which did not seem to be aware that they were even taking place.)
Yet one of the real victors in a post-Aleppo peace deal would also be Iran, which has been supporting the Syrian regime for the past five years and has been recruiting a series of militias from Lebanon, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other Arab states to fight alongside the Syrian army. In doing so, Iran has enforced a sectarian divide, with its Shia forces allying with Syria’s Alawite regime against the rebels, who are predominantly Sunni but also include other groups.
Iranian forces have become a critical element in Assad’s dramatic recent successes in the war. In late November, an Iranian official acknowledged that large numbers of Iranian fighters have been killed in Syria. “Now the number of Iran’s martyrs as defenders of [the] shrine has exceeded 1,000,” Mohammadali Shahidi Mahallati, head of Iran’s Foundation of Martyrs, which offers financial support to the relatives of those killed fighting in Syria, told an Iranian news agency.
Iran labels its Shia fighters in Syria “defenders of the shrine,” referring to Sayyida Zainab, a mosque near Damascus where a granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammad is said to be buried. The new Iranian death toll was much higher than the four hundred reported at the beginning of the summer—a clear sign of Iran’s stepped-up involvement and also that the Syrian regime is chronically short of manpower. And showing the extent to which Iran has created a broader Shia front in Syria, Mahallati also admitted that the largest number of foreign fighters killed in August were Afghan Shias whom Iran had enlisted—although he did not refer to any number.
A US-Russia deal on Syria would be seen by many Syrians and by the Arab countries in the region as a surrender to Tehran, allowing the Islamic Republic to consolidate its influence across the Levant. Still, Iran’s admission that its Syrian intervention has come with significant human costs comes as a boost to Arab rulers, who remain hopeful that the incoming US president will take a strong stand against what they see as Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East.
Tensions between Iran and the Arab powers have been heightened by other conflicts across the region. Militias that are pro-Iranian and backed by Iran are fighting in the wars in Yemen, while in Iraq Shia militias fighting on the side of the government have notched up a horrendous record of killing and abusing the Sunni minority. In Syria, Lebanon’s Hezbollah are also fighting for the regime, as are several hundred Pakistani Shias.
Tehran recruits, pays, and trains these fighters and offers their families residence in Iran. ”Iran is the direct sponsor of these foreign fighters and it could end their presence instantly if it wanted,” Bassma Kodmani, spokesperson for the moderate Syrian High Negotiations Committee, told me. ”Our greatest fear is that these militias will remain in Syria even after a settlement.”
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have supported Sunni extremists with weapons and money. According to Western intelligence, at least four hundred Pakistani nationals are fighting for the other side in Syria—for ISIS and other Sunni extremist groups.
A majority of Arab states are expecting Trump to deliver on his campaign pledge to tear up the nuclear agreement between Iran and the West, although he seems to be backtracking on that. In fact, though they opposed it at the time, Arab leaders now consider the nuclear agreement a done deal and fear new instability if it is unraveled. They see Iranian interference in Arab countries as a bigger threat, and are adamant that the new US administration confront Iran’s growing military clout in the Arab world—which they accuse President Obama of refusing to do. Senior Arab diplomats and other officials at a recent foreign policy forum hosted by the United Arab Emirates in Abu Dhabi told me that Trump must adopt a more aggressive stance against Iran’s interfering role in countries stretching from Lebanon to Yemen and Afghanistan.
However, Iran is already aware of possible US intentions and is fighting back. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has warned that Iran would retaliate if the US Congress extended sanctions on Iran for another ten years, as some on Trump’s team would like to do. US sanctions on Iran authorized in 1996 are set to expire at the end of this year. That will free up investment and trade and other benefits for Iran.
Trump must avoid taking steps that increase sectarianism in the region. He must also get a grip on Congress, which is now firmly in Republican control and could aggressively target Iran. Most important, the Arab states and Iran need to start a dialogue on the political dimensions of the crisis and on how to limit the spread of sectarianism. So far both sides have refused even to consider talks.
Ahmed Rashid is the author of Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan and several books on Afghanistan and Central Asia. He lives in Lahore. (November 2016)