The radio footage from the evening of 19 January, which is available to SPIEGEL, document a new stage of escalation in the Syrian war . Last Saturday, Syrian units of the two major Assad allies – Russia and Iran – launched their assault on tanks, grenade launchers and heavy machine guns. Now that the insurgents have been largely defeated, the battle for prey is intensifying: Who controls Syria ?
In this specific case, who controls the strategically important plane of al-Ghab in the northwest of Hama province? The long valley lies between the home province of the Assad clan in the west and the province of Idlib in the east, the last stronghold of the rebels .
What Assad wants does not matter
Tehran wants to control the area and has fourth-division soldiers, officially commanded by presidential brother Maher al-Assad but de facto controlled by Iran, occupy several villages in the Ghab Valley in recent weeks.
Moscow also wants to control the terrain and sent massive reinforcements for the Russian-equipped and trained 5th Army Corps, commanded by Syrian Brigadier General Suhail al-Hassan to the city of Shatha on the western edge of the plain.
What dictator Bashar al-Assad wants in Damascus is unclear, but did not play a big role either.
On the morning of January 19, both sides opened the fire. The Russian-Syrian Corps quickly proved itself superior to the Iranian-Syrian division, intervening village by village, destroying an armored troop transport of the Fourth Division in the hamlet of Qaber Fidda and reaching the small town of Hwaiz on the eastern edge of the plain by evening. The place where the sparkling soldiers of the Fourth Division saw them still moving in the rapidly approaching darkness, but could no longer be attacked for lack of illumination. Since then, the situation has calmed down a bit. Sporadically continue to shoot each other, it is said, but only with light weapons.
How many men died on both sides is unclear. Estimates range from several dozen to 200. None of the parties involved has any interest in publicizing battles among allies. Only witnesses from the villages, relatives of fighters and the reconnaissance of the rebels from Idlib, which continue to listen to the radio traffic of the other side, have delivered the puzzle pieces to the overall picture in recent days.
Iran and Russia are losing the common enemy
The conflict between Russia and Iran in Syria is not new. On several occasions, the hired or taken over units of the two powers have clashed: in mid-October there were days of fighting between the Assad-loyal Sunni Mafia clan Berris, who wanted to establish themselves as new lords of East Aleppo after defeating the rebels, and Iranian-Syrian militia who had the same goal. Officially, the Russian military police moved here from East Aleppo, but at the same time the Berris are said to have received weapons, ammunition and logistical help from the Russians.
Already in June, the Russian military and the Lebanese Hezbollah were ready to fire when the Russians wanted to take over the Lebanese-Syrian border claimed by Hezbollah, Iran’s oldest and most important foreign militia.
The catalyst for such struggles among Assad’s allies is often the disputes of local militants over who can control and plunder which terrain. But the reasons for the Russian-Iranian dissent go deeper. Since almost all the major rebel areas have been reconquered – Aleppo, the suburbs of Damascus, the province of Dara in the south – the unequal ally of the common enemy has been lost.
Instead, the different goals are all the clearer: Moscow wants to bring Syria to rest, to score internationally with it and not to interfere in the highly explosive questions of faith. Iran, on the other hand, has far more ambitious goals and has been trying hard to turn the ruling Alawi minority into “right” Shiite Muslims. Following the example of Hezbollah in Lebanon, a Shiite state in the state should also control Syria in the future.
Nothing will change in Assad’s victory
Thus, the Iranians have made extremely unpopular even with Assad’s supporters. Damascus wants to control his vassals, play off against each other, and not be controlled by them in reverse. In addition, the Alawites, who have a lax relationship to Islamic alcohol prohibition and their wives are rarely veiled, do not like the imposition of Iranian abstinence and veil on them.
And as little as Iran’s power in Syria is appreciated, the verdict in Teheran is so harsh: “Assad and Putin will sacrifice us,” complained the deputy Behrouz Bonyadi in the Iranian parliament at the end of June. Despite what Iran has sacrificed in terms of money and people for Assad’s hold on power, the Russia-Damascus axis will soon abandon Tehran, in return for Israeli and American favors.
But it’s unlikely that anything will change in Syria’s power relations and Assad’s victory, predicts Mohanad Hage Ali of Beirut’s Carnegie Middle East Center. The longtime observer of the Russian-Iranian relationship in the neighboring country judges soberly: “Iran is particularly dependent on Russia in Syria, but both are interdependent there, and no side will allow the conflict to escalate.”
In short: in the Syrian province of Hama, dictator Bashar al-Assad’s rival allies have shot each other in the past few days: the Iran-controlled Fourth Army Division and the Russian-equipped Fifth Army Corps. Both sides argue about power, influence and who may plunder which area.
Video analysis: “Northern Syria is in limbo”