Putin Arbitrates Iran’s Presence in Syria

As the smoke clears in blood-soaked Syria, there is no doubt that Russian President Vladimir Putin has emerged as the undisputed arbiter of Syria’s future. His victory—if one can call it that—was the product of many factors, including the decisive role that Russian military forces played in the June 2018 assaults on the last remaining bastions of armed opposition to Assad’s regime in the south. Emphasizing Russia’s preeminence, Putin pointedly minimized the role of Iranian forces in that assault. Moreover, prior to these events, he emphasized his expectation that “foreign armed forces will be withdrawn from the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic.” This remark invited intense speculation that a rift had emerged between Moscow and Tehran. One Iranian foreign ministry spokesman stated that Iran’s presence in Syria is at “the invitation of the Syrian government to fight against terrorism and defend the territorial integrity of Syria,” suggesting an increasingly fraught Russian-Iranian relationship.

Still, rumors of a rocky Russian-Iranian alliance have been greatly exaggerated. Putin has enormous diplomatic leverage in the region, the likes of which no other country enjoys. A transactional player to the core, he has shown that the leaders of Syria, Iran, and Israel are keen to work with him. What is more, US President Donald Trump appears very much inclined to follow rather than confront Putin, as the July 16 Helsinki press conference with the Russian president demonstrated. This is good news for Iran, providing that Tehran and Moscow can forge a deal that defends their most vital interests.

Tehran saw the intervention of Iranian and pro-Iranian military forces in Syria as part of a long-standing master plan to dominate the entire region.

Securing Iran’s ascent will require Iranian leaders to give up some of the gains scored on the Syrian battlefield. This may include moving Iranian and pro-Iranian forces away from the Golan Heights border or even removing some of these troops from Syria. But given the many trade-offs Tehran and Moscow must now manage, this will be a small price for them to pay given that both have achieved their two fundamental goals, i.e., ensuring Assad’s survival and forcing the so-called Islamic State (IS) out of its strongholds. For both Iran and Russia, the Syrian battle is ultimately about protecting their respective regimes. This is why the White House’s economic war against Iran is likely to encourage Iran’s leaders to seek an arrangement with Moscow, one that will demonstrate Tehran’s capacity to adapt despite growing social and economic challenges on the home front.

Iran’s Evolving Syria Gambit

The view that Moscow and Tehran are on a collision course is rooted in the assumption that Iran’s Syria gambit was motivated by a strategic vision far grander and more ambitious than that which compelled Moscow to enter the Syrian battlefield. Both countries viewed the survival of Assad as crucial to their geostrategic interests. In contrast to the Kremlin, however, it is argued that Tehran saw the intervention of Iranian and pro-Iranian military forces as part of a long-standing master plan to dominate the entire region and thus guarantee Iranian hegemony. Tehran’s alliance with Moscow made it possible for Iran to realize this grand objective. Having come this far, Iran must now resist any bid by Russia to secure a post-conflict arrangement that could undermine Tehran’s expansionist mission. Thus, it is further argued, even the slightest hint from Moscow that Iran would have to diminish the presence of its forces in Syria portends the emergence of a strategic divide between the two countries.

The problem with this “expansionist” thesis is that it conflates the consequences of battlefield escalation with the fundamental motives that drew Iran (and Russia) into Syria in the first place. Iran’s intervention unfolded not as a consequence of some grand plan, but rather through improvised steps whose strategic logic was defensive rather than offensive. In 2013, Iran’s military deployment in Syria was fairly limited; the rise of IS and its expansion into Syria, however, magnified the stakes for both Moscow and Tehran. Thus, in mid-2015 they forged an unprecedented plan for political and military cooperation, a main architect of which was General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

The net effect of this escalatory move appears to transform the Syrian battlefield into an epic arena of a Sunni-Shia struggle. Backed by thousands of Shia forces from Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan—and buoyed by Washington’s evident desire to avoid inserting itself into the battle between Assad and his opponents—Iran and Russia prevailed. Indeed, Tehran has now established a significant economic and military foothold in Syria. But if this unexpected outcome created new opportunities, it also produced unanticipated dilemmas that the leaders of Iran and Russia must now sort out.

Dilemmas and Trade-Offs for Tehran

The first question was how to consolidate Iranian gains without jeopardizing the economic benefits that Tehran expected to reap after signing the July 2015 nuclear deal with the P5+1. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif bet their respective political futures on the possibility that the deal would attract western investment in Iran’s oil industry and, more ambitiously, that it would open the door for wider political and diplomatic engagement with Western Europe, one that would also rebound to the benefit of Iran’s reformist camp. To be sure, such aspirations could be quickly dashed by an escalation of hostilities with Israel. From the increasingly precarious vantage point of Iran’s reformists, it was essential to reach a post-conflict settlement that reduced the Syrian arena’s chances of becoming a launching pad for cross-border attacks that would drag Lebanon, Israel, and perhaps Iran itself into an uncontainable war.

It is unlikely that a war would benefit Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and their hardline political allies.

Apart from the reformists’ particular concerns, it is unlikely that such a war would benefit Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and their hardline political allies. Israel’s shooting down of an armed Iranian drone in February 2018 underscored the potential dangers that could ensue from any overreach by the IRGC. The fact that Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, insisted that “the claim by the Zionists (that they have carried out sorties) to damage Iranian bases in Syria is a lie,” and that Iran has a strictly “advisory, not military presence” in Syria, suggested that hardliners were worried about the costs of escalation. Tehran’s rhetoric heated up in the ensuing months. But Israel and Iran did not engage in military hostilities until May 10, when Israeli warplanes attacked Iranian military targets in Syria in response to an Iranian rocket attack.

It is probably no coincidence that these dangerous events occurred two days after Trump’s May 8 declaration that the United States was abandoning the Iran nuclear agreement. From Tehran’s vantage point, the president’s decision signaled that one possible reason for Iranian restraint in Syria—namely Tehran’s desire to sustain international support for the nuclear agreement—was no longer relevant. The implications of Trump’s decision were equally important for Israel. With the United States gearing up for conflict with Iran, Israel also had less cause for restraint. It is worth nothing that Iran’s attack followed an Israeli missile strike on a village in the Syrian Golan Heights. Indeed, as two New York Times reporters suggest, the ferocity of Israel’s assaults on IRGC positions suggests that Iran might have fallen into a “trap.”

Such a possibility was effectively raised in the Iranian press, which in the wake of the May events featured sharp debates regarding the potential opportunities and dangers created by the new situation in Syria. These dangers were underscored on July 11 and 13, when Israel shot down two more drones, the second of which reportedly crossed into Israeli airspace. Israel asserted that the drones were Syrian and attacked Syrian positions following the July 13 incident. Still, Israel’s response was relatively restrained, as its planes only hit three Syrian army positions, reportedly “causing material damage.” Moreover, the fact that Israel blamed Syria suggested that the former was trying to de-escalate by shifting responsibility for the border from Tehran to Damascus.

Moscow is demonstrating that the violent fate of other Middle Eastern leaders will not be visited on its number one regional ally.

Although the Revolutionary Guards were surely keen to both test Israel and demonstrate Iran’s military prowess in Syria, Israel’s apparent bid to shift the focus to Damascus was not necessarily harmful to Iran’s basic security interests. The July drone events presented a key challenge for Iran: how to consolidate its gains without gutting its overall strategic goal, which, since 2013, was to assure Assad’s victory over his opponents (including IS) and thus the survival of his regime.

Russian Dilemmas and Trade-offs

Moscow’s alliance with Tehran was animated by the same basic goal. By buttressing Assad’s rule in Damascus, Moscow is demonstrating that the violent fate of other Middle Eastern leaders—such as Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi—will not be visited on its number one regional ally. Russia is also protecting its key military assets in Syria, the most important of which is its port in Tartous. Indeed, Putin has asked Russia’s parliament to ratify a new deal that would extend Moscow’s presence in Tartous for another 50 years.

In addition to these key interests, Moscow’s role in Syria has been motivated by Putin’s bid to link his political power at home to his expanding quest to reposition Russia as a major global political force. This requires working with several states rather than depending on either Syria or Iran. These additional players include Iran’s arch nemesis Israel—as well as the United States and quite possibly Saudi Arabia. Moscow’s challenge is to push for a Syrian solution that is minimally acceptable to all of these states while consolidating its critical alliance with Iran.

Russia’s effort to walk this tricky line may have been signaled when, in the aftermath of Putin’s May 9 Kremlin meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Moscow announced that it would not follow through on its promise to provide Iran with S-300 advanced missiles in Syria. That decision prompted another debate in the Iranian press during which various experts argued that given Moscow’s own interests in Syria and beyond, Russia would lean toward the West rather than Iran.

The July 2018 drone events provided Moscow with additional impetus to clarify its strategy on Iran with various key players, including the United States. Indeed, the Putin-Trump summit took place just three days after the July 13 drone incident. If Trump’s statements during the ensuing press conference had little substance, Putin eagerly framed a diplomatic initiative by saying, “As far as Syria is concerned, the task of establishing peace and reconciliation in this country could be the first showcase example of successful joint work” between Moscow and Washington. While “crushing” the remaining “terrorists in the southwest of Syria” would be a key tactical objective, he continued, the shared strategic goal of US-Russia cooperation required bringing “to full compliance the 1974 treaty … about separation of forces of Israel and Syria.” Doing so, Putin added, will create “a more peaceful relationship between Syria and Israel.” As one analyst had noted, this remark might signal Moscow’s intent to make Israel a silent but crucial  partner in any international deal that would secure Assad’s continued rule and authority in as much of Syria as possible.

Whether this is Moscow’s ultimate goal remains to be seen. The good news for Moscow is that Trump raised no apparent objections to Putin’s proposal. Instead, he only insisted that the United States “will not allow Iran to benefit from our successful campaign against ISIS.” If his reference to “our” campaign may have rankled Iran, Tehran should have been reassured that Trump did not weigh in on the basic assumption that Assad would remain in power. Nor did previous military clashes between the United States, Iran, and the Assad regime suggest any basic change in the US stance. Although the United States fired missiles against Syrian positions following Assad’s use of chemical weapons on April 4, 2018 and while US forces downed a Syrian drone on June 20, it appears that neither event has shifted the White House’s basic  policy. Indeed, Trump’s previous call for removing US troops from Syria after the defeat of IS—coupled with his reticence in Helsinki—underscores the White House’s acceptance of Putin’s leadership regarding a post-conflict Syria.

Iran’s Probable Adjustment

It is worth noting that between mid-2016 and July 2018, Netanyahu and Putin have met on numerous occasions, the last of which was last July 11. These meetings may signal much more than a meeting of the minds of two savvy leaders. Under Netanyahu, Israel appears to be assuming a position in a global club of populist nationalist governments that includes Poland, Hungary, Saudi Arabia—and last but not least, the United States. Russia, which has attempted to sustain good relations with Riyadh despite Moscow’s alliance with Tehran, is the effective chair of this club.

Russia’s effort to sustain these alliances will be complicated by Washington’s decision to abandon the Iran nuclear deal. The August 6 reimposition of sanctions “on Iran’s automotive sector and on its trade in gold and precious metals” and the forthcoming resumption of oil-related sanctions in November underscore the White House’s intention to pursue an economic war with Iran.. Not surprisingly, and while asserting its “deep disappointment,” Moscow’s response to these events has been controlled and measured. It has other fish to fry.

As for Tehran, it correctly understands Washington’s war as an effort to produce regime change. But even as unrest over economic issues escalates, Iran’s response has been to double down. With the White House pointing an economic gun to Iran’s head, the Islamic Republic’s hardliners are now ascendant at home and abroad. Reports of Iran’s major military exercises in the Gulf underscore the fact that advocates of a “resistance strategy” are calling the shots.

Still, Iran has no interest in alienating its most crucial state ally. Therefore, the chances are good that Tehran will adjust to a “peace process” that might require it to shrink—but not eliminate—its economic and military footprint in Syria. Former Minister Ali Akbar Velayati has stated1 that “Russia can neither force nor intend to force Iran. We are cooperating with this country on defensive issues  in particular, and Russians have given us more or less everything we wanted so far.” The key word here is “defensive.” If Iran can gain a Syrian settlement that ensures its basic security interests—rather than one that subordinates those interests to an escalatory dynamic it cannot fully control—it will have secured a win-win for Moscow and Tehran.

1 Article is in Farsi.