On the 11th of July, Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu will fly to Moscow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin regarding the situation in Syria. When discussing the aim of his visit, Netanyahu told reporters that he has two goals in respect of reaching an understanding with Russia regarding the situation in south-western Syria where Syrian and allied troops are currently fighting Takfiri terrorist groups in and around the city of Daraa. According to Netanyahu,
“First, we will not tolerate the establishment of a military presence by Iran and its proxies anywhere in Syria – not close to the border and far away from it. Second, we will demand that Syria, and the Syrian military, strictly uphold the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement”.
This effectively means that Netanyahu wants Russia to continue to work towards accomplishing the goals set out in previous agreements wherein Russia will act as a guarantor in order to make sure that the Syrian relief of Daraa is conducted only by Syrian Arab Army personnel in the immediate term and that moreover, Tel Aviv seeks Russia’s continued assurances that Moscow will work towards facilitating the orderly withdrawal of Iranian (and allied Hezbollah) troops from Syria. Furthermore, in respect of the south-west, Netanyahu seeks Putin’s assurances that no Syrian or allied troops will breach the 1967 Purple Line that was solidified in 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement as the de-facto border between the occupied territories of the Golan Heights and the rest of Syria.
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[agreements] stipulate that this de-escalation zone should consolidate stability, while all non-Syrian forces must be withdrawn from this area.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”.
Therefore the obvious conclusion is that Israel, Russia and increasingly the United States are on the same page regarding a goal of removing Iranian and Iranian allied troops from Syria. Likewise, this has accompanied both Tel Aviv and Washington dropping their erstwhile policies of supporting regime change in Syria. Because of Russia’s game changing intervention in the conflict, both Israel and the US have reduced their aims to making sure that a post-conflict Syria does not become a base of military operations for Iran and its partisan allies.
Russia’s agreement with Israel and the US on the matter of Iran in Syria is in no way meant to imply that Russia and Iran are not anything but partners. Russia, like China continues to back a preservation of the JCPOA (aka Iran nuclear deal) and unlike the EU, China and Russia have the ability to uphold the JCPOA in the aftermath of Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Obama era agreement without the need to coordinate such efforts externally.
Furthermore, Russia continues to welcome Iran’s participation in the Astana peace process for Syria even though at the moment, Astana partner Turkey has tended to take more of an active role in Astana vis-a-vis the Islamic Republic.
What the present friction between Russia and Iran’s military apparatus boils down to is a divergence in strategy regarding the late stages of the conflict in Syria. For Russia, it is essential that the military phase of the conflict winds down in order for the process of Syrians deciding on a new constitution to proceed without delay. Furthermore, once the constitutional questions that have arisen during the conflict are settled, Russia seeks to solidify a final negotiated peace agreement that preserves Syria’s political and territorial unity, but crucially one which does not imply an immediate military operation against the countries currently occupying Syrian soil against the rule of international law. This latter-most aspect of Russia’s strategy is motivated by the reality that Syria is simply not in a position to fight a war against both Israel and the US on either side of its territory combined with the fact that unlike Iran, Russia is a partner of Israel and a country that also unlike Iran has not given up on the prospect of some sort of partial reconciliation with the US in areas where such things remain possible. Even if Russia was not a partner of Israel and not a country attempting a reconciliation effort with the Trump administration, Russia has always been clear that its anti-terror mandate in Syria never implied helping Syria to fight any other battles which are technically outside to scope of its battle against Takfiri jihadists.
Rather than accept the realism which underscores the policy of Iran’s Russian partner, a prominent Iranian General has issued a defiant statement which challenges not only Israel’s demands which given the mired context of Levantine conflicts are actually not unreasonable, but more worryingly challenges Russia’s strategy which has been made abundantly clear by multiple Russian policy makers.
Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps General Hossein Salami has been quoted as saying,
“Today an international Islamic army has been formed in Syria, and the voices of the Muslims are heard near the Golan. Orders are awaited, so that… the eradication of the evil regime will land and the life of this regime will be ended for good. The life of the Zionist regime was never in danger as it is now”.
To put it bluntly, hours after the Israeli leader stated that he will not accept Iranian participation in military operations near its border and that crossing into Israeli occupied territories will trigger a response, an Iranian General announced that Iranian and allied troops (aka an international Islamic army) are in the region and that they plan to wage war on Israel.
It is true that Israel’s occupation and annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights is totally illegal and every nation in the world other than Israel acknowledges this. But pragmatic realities and legal realities are often divergent, especially during the course of such a bloody conflict such as the one in Syria.
It is for these reason that Russia seeks to balance out interests between rival parties in the region, rather than inflame tensions and spark new conflicts over matters that in spite of their illegality, are largely settled issues (aka frozen issues), at least for the time being.
In openly challenging Russia’s clear strategy, General Salami who was speaking in an official capacity has clearly put an unneeded stress on Russia’s relationship with its Iranian partner. While such a grandiose statement could not be easily retracted by any Iranian official in public, privately the leadership in Tehran must convey to Russia that such statements are symptomatic more of Iran’s infowar rather than of an intention to defy the wishes of a much more powerful partner. If this is not done, Iran will only drive its Russian partner further into a position of scepticism regarding the reliability of Tehran in the long term.