Iran is exploiting the lack of a regional or international vision for the situation in Syria as well as the dwindling presence of anti-Iranian international players there following the announced gradual withdrawal of US forces from the country.
In Deir ez-Zor, Iran is deploying its militias west of the Euphrates and has exerted control over the border areas with Iraq.
With ISIS losing all the areas it controlled in the Al-Bukamal countryside and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) taking over control from ISIS, America and the SDF have removed one of Iran’s enemies from the stage.
For the Kurds – the US’s main allies in the fight against ISIS – the US withdrawal leaves them with no alternative but to turn to the Syrian regime so that Turkey does not become a beneficiary of the American departure. Practically speaking, this also means the Kurds could not be a pawn to counter Iran, a powerful ally of the Syrian government, even though the Kurds had offered themselves to the Gulf states as the Sunni arm in the region to oppose Iranian influence.
The end of ISIS will serve only to strengthen Iranian influence. Although Saudi Arabia’s announcement last August of $100 million in aid to the eastern Euphrates regions provided a glimmer of hope for Riyadh’s future role – at least economically – this move was not followed by other steps on the ground.
The SDF leadership emphasizes that their forces are defensive rather than offensive forces and thus they will not declare a confrontation with any party on the ground unless they are attacked. This means that the SDF will not confront Iran following the US withdrawal.
There are common Gulf, American, Russian, local and even Israeli interests in eliminating Iranian influence, but the difficulty is bringing these parties together to strike a decisive or crucial blow against Iran. None of these countries wants to be alone in confronting Iran, and a pushback requires understandings among the aforementioned nations and shared interests on the ground in Syria.
Last September, during his meeting in New York with the foreign ministers of the GCC countries, Jordan and Egypt, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that Washington was working to establish a regional coalition to counter Iranian influence in the region. The Warsaw Conference was held to follow through on plans to counter Iran in the Middle East.
As the countries concerned by the expansion of Iranian influence have considered beginning a confrontation with Iran in Syria, Deir ez-Zor is the most acceptable region in which to confront Iran and prevent it from linking Syria with Iraq through the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq and the Revolutionary Guards in Al-Bukamal.
Iran’s most vulnerable arena in the overall Middle East is in Deir ez-Zor and its countryside in eastern Syria. Iran has not gained popular support due to the bad reputation of sectarian militias in Syria, as Sunni civilians in the eastern Euphrates are connected with the Iraqi Sunnis in Anbar who rejected the Iranian Shia presence. Therefore, Iran’s continued presence and its possible expansion in the countryside of Deir ez-Zor is not a result of Iranian political and military power as much as the absence of a rival in this region, as well as the absence of international will to remove Iran from Deir ez-Zor.
On the other hand, Iran is aware of the magnitude of the challenges in this region, and it has sought to build social relationships with the clans in Al-Bukamal. West of the Euphrates – a strategic area on the Iraqi border – Iran began to court the Akidat clan through certain political figures, among them the family of Mujahem al-Dandal, who are distinguished by their clan affiliations as among the most prominent sheikhs of the Akidat.
In addition, some military figures from this clan are working with the Syrian government. Iran is working through the clans to control key elements of society and to establish relationships in Al-Bukamal and its countryside that parallel the relationships of the Syrian state. Likewise, Iran has been active in relief work and construction, is building hussainiyas (Iranian educational mosques), and has formed clan factions with Iranian financial support (reportedly $200 per fighter).
With its historical ties with the Akidat and most of the clans in Deir ez-Zor, Saudi Arabia was the country best positioned to exert its influence in Deir ez-Zor; however, Saudi Arabia stopped working on the clan issue after Saudi Minister of State for Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sabhan visited in October 2017. This situation alerted Iran, which moved in force into Deir ez-Zor. Since al-Sabhan’s sole visit, there has been no noticeable Saudi activity in Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa or the eastern Euphrates in general. Thus, Saudi Arabia missed a golden opportunity to win the eastern Euphrates.
In contrast, Russia has no clear role in Deir ez-Zor (either west or east of the Euphrates) except for a formal military presence in western Euphrates. Russia enjoys no special influence in this area except through the Syrian state, and, throughout the preceding period, it has tried to avoid a collision with Washington in the eastern Euphrates, as well as a long war of attrition with ISIS. As a result, Iran remains the largest influence there.