Iranian Islands of Influence

By Tony Badran

At a Pentagon news conference on Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that Iran is building and training a militia to buttress the Assad regime in Syria. As the Syrian war drags on and the prospects of the country fragmenting increase, it's become clear that the Alawistan option-a consolidated Alawite enclave protected by an Iranian-sponsored sectarian militia-will be the main avenue for maintaining Tehran's influence.

However, alongside this primary option, Iran will also be on the lookout for other openings to maintain its foothold elsewhere in the country. The unleashing of Syria's centrifugal forces, and their problematic interactions with their surroundings, affords Iran the potential to exploit contradictions and cultivate another pocket of influence in the Kurdish areas.

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It's now been widely reported that, as the Assad regime moved to concentrate its forces in the two largest cities of Damascus and Aleppo, it withdrew from several other areas, including the Kurdish regions. In late July, a number of Kurdish cities, from Efrin in the northwest to Qamishli in the northeast, were declared free of any regime security presence.

Stepping in to fill the vacuum has been the Kurdish National Council (KNC) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The KNC is a coalition of the main Kurdish parties, formed under the aegis of Masoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan. The PYD, meanwhile, is the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK)-the militant group that once enjoyed the support of the Assad regime in its war against Turkey.

Relations between these two groups have been tense, and by June they had reached boiling levels. On July 11, Barzani managed to broker an agreement between these rival Syrian Kurdish parties. Among other things, the agreement established a joint Supreme Council to manage the Kurdish areas. But more generally, the agreement is meant to prevent-or at least postpone-infighting while the Kurds consolidate their gains as the Syrian regime retreats.

Over the last year, however, the Assad regime has deliberately allowed and facilitated the PYD's drive to strengthen its position in the Kurdish areas over and against other parties, especially those more amenable to working with Turkey. This was an opportunistic convergence of interests. For Assad, entrenching a staunch enemy of Turkey in the border region was a useful tactic. The PKK and its Syrian affiliate are not invested in the Assad regime, but they took advantage of the opening to attempt to solidify their primacy on the Syrian Kurdish scene.

In this context, Barzani's recent revelation that Syrian Kurdish fighters were being trained in Iraqi Kurdistan is, at one level, a flexing of muscles against the PKK and its Syrian branch. For Barzani, projecting power in Syrian Kurdistan is an important way to shore up his position as the preeminent figure in Kurdish politics around the region. Moreover, the Kurdish president has been pursuing a complex, strategic relationship with the Turks. He cannot allow for the PKK to threaten either objective.

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Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay. Originally published on NOW Lebanon, republished with permission.

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