Recent months have witnessed a schism between the short term strategies of Russia and its partner Iran regarding the final stages of the military campaign in Syria and the first steps towards pushing for a constitutional revision in Syria which itself is intended to pave the way towards the penultimate negotiated settlement of the conflict which has raged for seven years. The current disagreements between Iran and Russia revolve around the following matters:
Withdrawal of troops/protecting Israel
Russia has insisted on an immediate withdrawal of Iranian forces from areas surrounding the purple line which de-facto separates Syria from the Israeli occupied territory in the Golan Heights. Furthermore, Russian officials have also called for a full withdrawal of all foreign forces from Syria, including those legally present – namely Iranian advisers and Lebanese Hezbollah troops. Last month, Iranian military leaders indicated that they do not intend to withdraw but that they instead intend to liberate the Golan Heights and indeed go deeper into Israel as part of a conflated operation to liberate both Syrian and Palestinian territory.
On the 10th of July, a day prior to Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow to meet with the Russian President, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps General Hossein Salami stated,
“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”.
This clearly went against both the letter and spirit of the Russo-Israeli deal that guarantees Russia’s supervision of a withdrawal of Iranian and pro-Iran forces from western Syria while in exchange Tel Aviv will de-facto recognise Bashar al-Assad as Syria’s legitimate leader.
The penultimate goal of the war
Russia has long insisted that its goal in Syria is to neutralise Takfiri terror groups before working towards a political settlement which guarantees the political and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic. What Russia has also made clear however is that it discourages any attempts by Syria and its other partners to directly engage US or Israeli troops on Syrian soil in spite of the fact that Russia like the rest of the world, views the Israeli occupied Golan was an illegally occupied territory. Likewise, Russia has also condemned the unlawful presence of US troops in the country’s northeastern regions in the relatively recent past. Finally as both Iran and Russia work with their Turkish partner in the Astana peace format, Moscow has clearly discouraged any Syrian attacks on Turkish assets in Idlib Governorate and parts of northern Aleppo Governorate.
While Iran has remained rather quiet regarding any Syrian operations against Turkish assets in the country in order to show solidarity with its Syrian partner, as Iran objectively needs its Turkish partnership more than its Syrian partnership both for security reasons and as an economic lifeline in a post-JCPOA world, it can be readily inferred that Iran may already be quietly aligning with the Russian position regarding Idlib and Aleppo. That being said, Iranian officials still take a strong line against the US and Israeli occupation of parts of Syria while Russia does not intend to directly address these issues in a military context. Instead, Russia prefers to negotiate with the US on a future de-escalation/withdrawal while having no plans to alter the status quo of the occupied Golan.
A new constitution and negotiated settlement
While Russia seeks the drafting of a compromise constitution for Syria that will preserve the country’s fundamental political structures while incorporating some of the demands of various so-called “opposition” groups, Iran has long appeared to encourage Syria to ignore calls for constitutional reform in order to concentrate on liberating further occupied territories, including and especially the areas that Russia believes cannot be secured through military means – the US and Israeli occupied portions of the country.
A change of tone from Iran?
Iranian officials are fully aware that along with China, Russia will be its most important partner if as predicted, the US will successfully coerce Europe into ceasing its commerce with Iran once the US applies new sanctions to Iran in November following from Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA (the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal). Because of this and because realistically, Iranian and its Syrian partners cannot win a war against Israel nor the United States on Syrian territory, Iran may be walking back some of its more grandiose rhetoric while adopting a more Russian perceptive on future events in Syria.
On the 4th of August, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi stated,
“As soon as we see that Syria is close to certain stability, and the fight against terrorism is close to its end, and significant results have been reached, of course, we might decrease the presence of our advisors in Syria or even withdraw from the country”.
While Qassemi also said that Iran would retain a presence in Syria so long as the Syrian government requested it, the overarching sentiment of his statement is one that appears to be more in line with that of Russia than the statement uttered last month by Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps General Hossein Salami which spoke of a full scale war with Israel.
Russia has every intention to work with Iran as an economic partner irrespective of what the European Union does when faced with the threat of US sanctions as a result of perpetuating its business dealings with Iran. However, in order to retain Russia’s good will, Tehran’s leaders appear to have realised that arguing over the minutiae of a Syrian conflict in which both Russia and Iran are on the winning side in any case, is counterproductive in terms of achieving Iran’s long term goals of economic independence in the face of severe sanctions from Washington. The same is the case in respect of Turkey which has consistently refused to cease its business partnerships with Iran in spite of the prolonged US threat of sanctions. In this sense, Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA may have helped to strengthen the Astana partnership between Russia, Turkey and Iran in Syria as a united front regarding a post-JCPOA business environment has trumped various schisms regarding perspectives on the final stages of the Syria conflict in the eyes of top policy makers in Tehran, Ankara and Moscow.
Taken in totality, because Iran’s post-JCPOA economy requires both Russia and Turkey as indelible partners, Iran’s Foreign Ministry may well have decided to issue a compromise statement regarding Syria in order to show that it ultimately prioritises its economic partnerships with Turkey, Russia and also China over creating division regarding a Syrian war that has already been won by Iran’s Syrian partner.
While Iranian officials have publicly rebuked the statements Russian officials have made in recent months (though carefully without naming Russia as a party to any disagreement) Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi’s recent words indicate that Iran might be willing to compromise with Russia over Syria in order to secure trust in the name of a long term economic partnership.