Russia, Israel and the United States issue similar statements on Iran
Russia’s official policy regarding the presence of foreign troops in Syria remains consistent. Now that Moscow believes its limited mandate to fight, neutralise and contain Takfiri terrorist elements has been fulfilled, key Russian officials have stated that all foreign troops, including those in Syria at the behest of the government in Damascus must also begin a withdrawal process from the country.
On the 30th of May, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated,
“As regards the confrontation between Israel and Iran in Syria, we have agreements on the southwestern de-escalation zone, these agreements have been reached between Russia, the United States and Jordan. Israel was informed about them as we were working on them. They [agreements] stipulate that this de-escalation zone should consolidate stability, while all non-Syrian forces must be withdrawn from this area. And I think that this should happen as soon as possible”.
Lavrov’s statement followed on from one issued by Moscow’s Special Envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev who in no uncertain terms said that Russia’s aim for a foreign troop withdrawal from Syria includes both Iranian and Hezbollah personnel.
This follows on from a phone call between Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu and his Israeli counterpart Avigdor Lieberman. According to an official press release from Russia, the following was discussed during the conversation,
“Lieberman and Shoigu have discussed the situation in Syria, in particular, the developments in the south of the country, as well as Iran’s attempts to establish a foothold on the Syrian territory”.
In adopting Washington and Tel Aviv’s language regarding Iranian “attempts to establish a foothold” in Syria, Moscow is clearly sending a message that its desire for an Iranian withdrawal is now as much of a priority as it is for the US and its Israeli ally.
At around the same time that that Shoigu and Lieberman discussed matters regarding an Iranian withdrawal, hawkish US National Security adviser John Bolton said the following after returning from a meeting in Moscow with the Russian President which itself solidified the forthcoming summit between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin to be held in Helsinki in a fortnight:
“We’ll see what happens when the two of them get together. There are possibilities for doing a larger negotiation on helping to get Iranian forces out of Syria and back into Iran, which would be a significant step forward – to have an agreement with Russia if that’s possible”.
When asked his views on regime change in Syria, Bolton appeared to grudgingly admit that this is no longer a feasible goal. He stated,
“Well I don’t think Assad is the strategic issue. I think Iran is the strategic issue”.
What these statements mean for Syria and foreign combatants in the country
Taken in totality, it now seems obvious that the US, Russia and Israel are all on the same page regarding a desire to achieve an Iranian and Hezbollah withdrawal from Syria while likewise, each side has in very different ways, arrived at a point where so long as Iran and Hezbollah withdraw, attempts to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power will be dropped so far as Washington and Tel Aviv are concerned. In this sense, while Washington and Tel Aviv have conceded defeat in their attempts to remove the Syrian President from power, Russia is now willing to work with Trump and Netanyahu with the aim of overseeing an orderly Iranian and Hezbollah withdrawal from Syria.
This means that Russia and Iran have clearly reached an impasse in respect of their short and medium term strategy for Syria. While Russia has tacitly supported Turkey’s anti-YPG/PKK Operation Olive Branch in northern Syria and with the US beginning to cooperate with Ankara over the disarming of the Syrian branch of the PKK in Manbij, the presence of Iranian personnel in Syria has become the biggest stumbling bloc towards a final settlement in the country between the major international parties to the conflict.
Seeing as Turkey and the US are in a sometimes hostile and more recently “friendly” game of cat and mouse over influence in northern Syria, it seems self-evident that if the US withdraws from northern Syria, Turkey would eventually follow in-line with its commitments in the Astana Format. In any case, the presence of Turkey and the US in northern Syria is realistically no longer a major concern for Russia and nor is it for Israel in spite of Tel Aviv’s worsening relations with Ankara.
While some reports have suggested that the US may offer to withdraw from northern Syria in exchange for Russian guarantees to work with Tel Aviv to foment an orderly Iranian and Hezbollah withdrawal, such reports are less indicative of a still unlikely rapid US withdrawal but are instead indicative of just how much unanimity there is between the US, Russia and Israel regarding the status of Iran and its non-Syrian allies in the conflict.
As for the option of Damascus itself, it is now a simple matter of choosing to work with its Russian partner over a long term peace strategy or say ‘no thanks’ to its strongest partner and instead opt for the adoption of Iran’s strategy.
Iran wasn’t isolated before but it is becoming isolated now
It should be made clear that nothing in this piece attempts to draw any moral or ethical conclusions on the situation in Syria, while international law makes it clear that any troops invited into Syria by the Syrian government or the UN are in Syria legally while those uninvited are not operating legally. That being said, it would be supremely naive to suggest that the Syrian conflict has ever had anything to do with upholding the rule of international law and because of this, realities must be analysed through the prism of what is happening rather than what international law dictates ought to happen.
The statements from officials from the US and Russian superpowers and the regional nuclear armed Israeli power make it clear that Iran is de-facto isolated in Syria in respect of gaining support for its presence in the country. Turkey has wisely stayed out of the discussions regarding Iran’s presence and will almost certainly continue to do so. That being said, the fact remains that while Ankara a crucial partner of Iran in spite of US pressure, in fitting with Turkey’s own eastward looking strategy, Ankara knows that it would prefer to work with Iran in the context of wider partnerships outside the Arab world rather than working with Iran in the Arab world (something which has only served to magnify schisms between the two neighbouring powers). As geopolitical expert Andrew Korybko wrote, it would in fact benefit Iran to adopt a policy that looks to central Asia, south Asia and northern Eurasia rather than to the Arab world for its inevitable post-JCPOA (aka Iran nuclear deal) partnerships. One can easily add Turkey to this list of potential post-JCPOA partners of Tehran outside of the Arab world.
As things stand though, Iran has yet to move with requisite urgency on intensifying partnerships to the east, but has instead offered thinly veiled criticisms of Russia’s OPEC+ partnership with Saudi Arabia even though OPEC+ helps to reduce US influence regarding international oil prices while also paving the way for alternatives to the Petrodollar. Both of this long-term goals work in Iran’s strategic favour.
Thus, at a time when Iran needs every eastern and northern economic partner it can get in order to counter Europe’s seemingly inevitable surrender to Washington in respect of the JCPOA, Iran is instead using its official statements to challenge Russia’s pragmatic OPEC+ arrangements while simultaneously defying its Russian partner over Iran’s presence in Syria.
Facing the facts
Iran clearly seeks to enhance its post-conflict role in Syria beyond that which the Astana format would dictate. Iran ostensibly seeks to establish a long-term presence in Syria to counter the threat from Tel Aviv while also seeking to enhance its status as a key ally of Damascus in peace time.
While these goals are perfectly reasonable in theory, the fact is that as a nuclear armed power with some of the most modern weapons of war that the United States can produce, Tel Aviv’s arsenal is more than capable of seeing off Iran’s presence in Syria. Making the prognosis even more grim, it would be Syrian territory that would be scarred by Israeli bombs in such a stand-off, rather than Iranian. In this sense, one could argue that at least partly, while Iran’s presence in Syria helped save the country from a Takfiri terrorist takeover, in 2018, Iran’s presence risks drawing Israel further into Syria at a time when Russia has struck a deal with Tel Aviv wherein Israel would cease its violence against Syria in exchange for the withdrawal of Iranian troops to be overseen by Iran’s Russian partner.
The Putin-Trump summit will be all about Syria
Recent announcements have confirmed that for all intents and purposes, the forthcoming Putin-Trump summit will be almost entirely about Syria, along the lines I recently described. The fact that it has been further confirmed that discussions over the Russian Federal Republic of Crimea will be off the table, means that rather than harping on an issue that is set in stone, the two Presidents will instead discuss Syria, an issue where now both sides are surprisingly well placed to reach an agreement based on the fact that Syria’s political stability has been insured (however much this might pain liberals and neocons) and likewise because both Moscow and Washington now have similar if not identical views about Iran’s presence in Syria (however much this might pain Iran and Hezbollah).
Iran is now faced with a very important decision. The Islamic Republic can either agree to work with Russia towards a dignified and heroic withdrawal in Syria which Russia would clearly exchange for further economic cooperation to an Iran that is about to once again receive the full wrath of US sanctions or otherwise, Iran can risk alienating Russia and facing the wrath of the United States and Israel alone.
The choice can be boiled down to one where Iran can live up to its rhetoric but lose an important partnership or otherwise maintain its Revolutionary zeal but in so doing, running the risk of losing economic viability and geopolitical influence.