What Iran said
Iranian officials have responded to statements from Russian officials saying that now is the time to begin moves towards a phased withdrawal of all foreign troops from the Syrian Arab Republic. It remains Russia’s goal to shift from a military conflict which from Russia’s perspective is winding down and has already been effectively won by the anti-terror alliance centred around the legal Syrian government, to a political peace process. Iran has generally joined Damascus in rejecting this view, preferring instead to fight the war to its logical conclusion which for Syria and Iran is thought to mean liberating “every inch” of legal Syrian territory, including those areas illegally occupied by the United States and “Israel”.
Today, the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs released the following statement on the matter,
“No one can force Iran to do this. As long as there is terrorism and the government of Syria wants it, Iran will have a presence [in Syria]. Those who entered the country without the permission of the Syrian authorities must leave”.
What Iran Wants
At face value, the statement appears to imply an Iranian rejection of Russia’s desire for a phased and dignified withdrawal of foreign forces in order to shift the dynamics of the conflict from a military engagement to a political process, one which in any case Iran is involved in as both an ally of the Syrian Arab Republic and as a member of the Astana group which also includes Russia and Turkey.
But for many in Iran and in particular on vocal pro-Iranian social media (which has followers in not only Farsi but in Arabic and English), Russia’s goals have created a narrative that many have exploited in order to take advantage of a perceived schism between Iranian and Syrian goals.
While Russia’s views on how to end the conflict are largely shaped by a combination of an unemotional/objective reading of the facts on the ground with the added element of Russia seeking to balance actual and would-be rivalling factions in the region, Iran’s views are shaped by what superficially looks like an emotional reading of the situation but which in reality is Iran having different objectives to Russia.
Certain elements in the Iranian “deep state” seek to turn the virtually completed victory against Takfiri terrorist groups in Syria into a wider battle to accomplish the following:
1. Force the illegal American occupation force out of north-eastern Syria – by force if necessary
2. Liberate the Golan Heights which has been illegally occupied by “Israel” since 1967
3. Achieve a Turkish withdrawal whose optics make Iran look like the stronger of the two major non-Arab powers of the region – this in spite of Iran having generally healthy relations with Erdogan’s Turkey.
Looking at these goals, the third goal is by far the most ridiculous as Iran and Turkey are not only partners internationally, but they are partners in the Astana format for Syrian peace. Furthermore, as the JCPOA looks set to crumble in the face of Europe’s inability to resist the threat of US sanctions, Iran will require a strong Turkish economic partnership in a post JCPOA world, not least because unlike the EU, Turkey has shown that it has the ability to have both Eurasian and western partners without compromising its principles.
As for the goal of liberating the Golan Heights, this is undoubtedly not only a legal goal but a noble one. However, from Russia’s perspective it is also a possibly suicidal goal if executed in the near future. “Israel” has struck a deal with Russia whereby it will tacitly acknowledge the political legitimacy of their hated rival President Bashar Al-Assad on the condition that Russia “oversees” a withdrawal of Iranian troops and Hezbollah from Syria. Russia for its part is now working to convince Syria to execute the deal which would see “Israel” curtailing its aggressive attacks on Syria in exchange for a goal that would also help Russia to better “balance” the geopolitical dynamics of the region.
The alternative to Russia’s compromise is for Syria and Iran to continue their military operations in south-western Syria and risk a fully fledged “Israeli” assault which in spite of the upgrades to Syria’s missile defence systems in recent years, could see “Israel” end up fighting a large scale war “against Iran” on Syrian soil. This is a war that could potentially undo the achievements made by both Iran and Syria during the war, in addition to humiliating both countries just after their well deserved moment of victory.
Ultimately it is Syria’s choice whether or not to jointly take this course of action alongside Iran, but if things go disastrously, Russia will not be in a position to realistically change such a development.
In respect of forcing the US from Syrian soil, Russia shares Iran’s position that a US withdrawal is necessary, but because it would not be realistic for any nation to purposefully get into a direct military conflict with an aggressive and unpredictable America, the most realistic way to expedite a US departure is to wait for the genuine Arab rebellion against the US and radical Kudish terrorist occupation of north-east Syria to run its course. In any case, modern history has shown that the US is not readily able to effectively fight an indigenous guerrilla force and thus, allowing the ingenious fighters of northern Syria to make life intolerable for the USA and YPG/PKK would be beneficial from a purely strategic point of view as well as a pragmatic one.
What Iran Will Do
According to the Iranian statement rejecting withdrawal, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said that if the Syrian government asks Iran to withdraw its forces, it would do so. Thus, the entire matter comes to do which side has been able to convince the Syrian President that its course of action is in the best interests of the Syrian Arab Republic.
In recent months, Syria’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for elements of the so-called political process that Russia has been vying for indicated that Damascus was more inclined to favour the Iranian position. However, as geopolitical expert Andrew Korybko suggests, by overtly agreeing to the political process, including so-called “constitutional reforms” during his recent meeting with the Russian President in Sochi, the Syrian President may be now leaning towards Russia’s perspective as the only viable way to preserve the political integrity of Syria.
If this is the case, Iran’s statement while rhetorically defiant may actually be an indication that if and when Syria asks Iran to leave in-line with the Russian strategy, it will do so without much of an argument as it is clearly not in Iran’s interests to defy either its Syrian nor Russian partner if it came down to such a matter.
Long before the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran has sought to increase its influence in the Arab world. The Islamic Revolution has given Iran the theoretical possibility of doing so more than during the last two Iranian dynasties because Islam holds the potential of being a source of commonality between the Muslim majority Iranian state and the Muslim majority Arab world. But while Iran is an overwhelmingly Shi’a Muslim, most of the Arab world is Sunni Muslim. This schism has partly been successfully exploited by the United States and “Israel” in order to further isolate Iran in the Arab world.
Of course, Iran’s devotion to the cause of Palestine, an issue which unites all of the regions Muslim and Christian people (as opposed to regimes) has helped to increase Iran’s prestige in the eyes of a number of Arabs. It is beyond question that Iran’s assistance to Syria in her hour of need was unquestionably useful, ethical and legal. However, now that the war is over, the optics of a Shi’a majority Iranian state “digging in” to a Sunni majority Arab country in peace time, whose Alawite President has come under attack from the vicious Sunni supremacist propaganda machine from the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, could actually harm Iran’s image in the Arab world in the long term and even do damage to Syria’s image as an secular, progressive anti-sectarian Arab Republic. Such a reality would be a gift to countries like Saudi Arabia who would point to such a situation and talk of a “Shi’a/Iranian conspiracy” against Sunni Arabs. However absurd such a statement would be, in the information war, perception is not only as important but sometimes more important than the facts.
By contrast, a phased withdrawal would actually expose and shame the bigoted narrative regarding “Iranian imperialism” which was always false, but which could be bolstered by Iran’s continued presence in post-war Syria, in spite of the legality of such a presence.
For Iran itself, long-term “boots on the ground” involvement in the Arab world (with the possible exception of Iraq) will ultimately be an economic drain rather than an economic boost. Realistically, Iran’s most important trading partners, especially in a would-be post-JCPOA world are China, Russia, Turkey, parts of the Caucasus, parts of central Asia, Venezuela and perhaps most importantly, Pakistan.
If Iran follows Russia’s cues and opts for a phased withdrawal, it will allow Iran to focus on geographic regions where it stands to gain economically, all the while aiding Syria politically through the Astana format. All he while, Iran would be gaining more credibility among Sunni Arabs on the all important issue of Palestine by physically dispelling the myth of a “Shi’a/Iranian conspiracy”.
For some Iranians used to looking more towards the Arab world than to south, central and east Asia, this may be a bitter pill to swallow, but when the choice is between a possibly deadly war with “Israel” and opening up new economic horizons to the east, the choice ought to be a clear one for any Iranian economic patriot.