Reading through the New York Times this morning, there is a lengthy story by Anne Barnard about a deal brokered and now executed to allow Syrian rebels to withdraw from Homs. It’s a very good piece of reporting, but it misses two very important things which add a great deal of context to the story.
First of all, Homs is not simply “a bellwether for a nation slowly, brutally, unraveling,” and “a diverse community increasingly split among sectarian lines as populations fled, neighborhoods were destroyed and rebels held out in the Old City.” Rather, Homs is perhaps strategically the most important city in Syria. Damascus, the capital, is geographically peripheral. A quick look at a roadmap of Syria reveals that anyone who wants to control Syria has to control Homs.
Barnard is right that displacement and murder have changed the face of Syria: The violence witnessed in that country has not been random, but has been as directed as it was in the former Yugoslavia. No matter who wins in Syria, what they inherit will be a country of cantons, and the commerce and communication between them will be controlled by whomever the power is in Homs. That the rebels have now left Homs is the most indisputable evidence so far that the regime is winning.
More interesting is Barnard’s cursory reference to Iran’s role in the deal. “The Homs deal, worked out between security officials and rebel representatives in the presence of Iran’s ambassador to Syria, also calls for insurgents in Aleppo Province, to the north, to lift their longstanding blockade of two villages….” She later notes, “The deal was the broadest and most ambitious yet, and in a sign of its importance to the government, it included the first visible foray by Iran, Mr. Assad’s most crucial ally, into such talks.” What Barnard omits is that the Iranian ambassador to Syria, Mohammad Reza Ra’ouf Sheibani, comes not from Iran’s diplomatic corps (where, admittedly, he previously served as a deputy foreign minister and as ambassador to Lebanon), but rather from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). It’s common for the Iranians to send IRGC and, more specifically, Qods Force operatives to act as ambassadors to countries they see as key: Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. What Barnard fails to mention is that the Homs agreement was effectively brokered by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Then, again, to suggest that under Obama’s watch the IRGC is supervising and confirming the defeat of Syrian rebels probably isn’t a narrative The New York Times wants to acknowledge.