In Syria, a moment to turn back Iranian aggression
By Josh Block
New York Daily News
February 22, 2018
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The last thing Syria needs is more war, but when pro-regime forces entered the Kurdish enclave of Afrin this week to end Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria, that’s exactly what it got. As the civilian death toll ticks upward, one actor in the brutal civil war is taking advantage of the bloodshed: the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Iran has been directly implicated in mass-murder in Syria, where the mullahs have propped up the repressive regime of Bashar Assad with the help of their leading terror proxy, Hezbollah, as part of their campaign to export the Islamic revolution and increase their influence in the region.
By 2016, it was estimated that between 6,500 and 9,200 Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) troops and Iranian paramilitary personnel were stationed in Syria. In cooperation with local, Iranian-backed Shia militia groups, the regime in Tehran played an essential role in the survival of the Assad regime. One area in Syria, however, has so far been immune to the growing Iranian presence in the country. U.S.-backed Kurdish forces kept northern Syria “Iran-free.”
The balance of power shifted in late January, when the Turkish military launched a ground incursion into the Kurdish enclave in Syria known as Afrin, alongside secular and Islamist Syrian rebel groups under Ankara’s tutelage.
The Turkish government has stressed time and again that it will not tolerate a permanent Kurdish presence on the border and has previously targeted YPG positions with intense aerial bombardment. The YPG is a Syrian-based Kurdish militia, which Turkey classifies as a partner organization of the international-designated terror organization PKK.
Concerned by Turkey’s expanding Syria offensive, the regime in Damascus announced a week ago that it would provide reinforcement to Kurdish militia. Pro-regime fighters entered the contested region on Wednesday and were reportedly fired on by Turkish forces, risking further military escalation.
For Assad, the battle of Afrin is an opportunity to go face to face with Turkey, a country that has actively supported the Syrian opposition with cash and weapons since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011.
Kurdish forces, meanwhile, feel uneasy about the support of pro-regime troops. Having fought the Assad regime in other parts of the country, the YPG is now left with the choice of risking slaughter at the hands of the Turkish military or accept a deal with the devil.
For Turkey, the latest development has also shifted the calculus of risk. Taking on Assad also means taking on the Syrian regime’s patrons, Russia and Iran. While Russia has tried to de-escalate the situation through diplomatic efforts, Iran has chosen the path of war.
Determined to expand its influence in the region, specifically in Syria, the regime in Tehran has instructed Iranian-backed Shia militia forces to march on Afrin together with other pro-regime forces.
Iran now has a golden opportunity, for the first time, to penetrate the Kurdish-operated “no-go-zone” in the north of the country. The Kurdish minority, which is spread across four different countries and faces brutal oppression in Iran, has so far been a reliable counter-force to Iranian influence.
The consequences are dire. Just last week, we saw the inherent danger of an unchecked permanent and ever-growing Iranian presence in Syria. Last weekend, an Iranian drone entered Israeli airspace, triggering a series of military escalations.
Where is the U.S. in all of this? Still weighing its options.
The Trump administration doesn’t want to endanger America’s partnership with Kurdish forces, but at the same time wants to respect Turkey’s concerns regarding the YPG. But the situation on the ground has changed. The conflict has morphed from a local confrontation between Turkish and Kurdish forces into a crisis that threatens regional stability, spearheaded by Assad and Iran.
If the U.S. is serious about confronting Iranian aggression, Afrin would be a good place to start.
Block is CEO and president of The Israel Project.