Iranʹs dilemma

Securing a slice of post-war Syria

Contrary to international hopes for a peaceful solution following the fall of Islamic State, Syria has become a military polygon for global and regional powers, increasing the risk of inter-state war. This is especially true in southern Syria, where Assad troops and forces controlled by Iran operate in close proximity to Israeli lines. By Stasa Salacanin

While Iran tries to cement its presence in Syria, having invested significant resources to save the Assad regime and achieve its strategic goals in the region, Israel, various Gulf countries and the U.S. are trying to neutralise Iranian influence. Meanwhile, Russia, the most powerful player in Syria, has stepped in with a diplomatic compromise to prevent things from spiralling out of control. There have also been signs that Russia is trying to limit Iranʹs military activity in Syria.

According to the Washington Post, an agreement has been reached between Russia and Israel to keep Iran away from the Golan Heights, in exchange for allowing the Syrian regime to regain control over the opposition-held territories in the southwest of the country. Consequently, the Iranians have become increasingly wary of Russian policy in Syria and elsewhere and many Iranian analysts have even accused Russia of betraying Iran.

Until last year, Israel had not interfered much in the Syrian civil war, more or less tolerating the presence of Iran in the war-torn country. Iranʹs primary objective was defence of the Assad regime. It has become increasingly clear however that Iran is seeking to establish a permanent military presence in Syria through paramilitary forces loyal to Tehran, similar to those of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel perceives this development as a direct threat to its interests and security.

Israeli rockets over Damascus target Iranian positions (photo: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Syrian Central Military Media)
Quelling a perceived threat: accusing Iranian forces in Syria of firing 20 rockets at Israeli front-line military positions in the Golan Heights, Israel launched a large-scale rocket attack on several Iranian infrastructure targets in Syria in May. According to Israel's Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, rockets struck "nearly all the Iranian infrastructure in Syria." Targets reportedly included weapons storage facilities, logistics sites and intelligence centres used by Iranian forces in Syria

Syrian game of chess

Since the United Statesʹ withdrawal from the JCPOA, Iran has been under additional pressure from the Trump administration. It is believed that Iran will have to make some concessions to Moscow, further strengthening Russiaʹs position in Syria, bringing the latter even closer to the West and Gulf countries, notably Saudi Arabia and UAE. In recent years, Russia and the Saudis have forged close ties. Riyadh will seek to take to take advantage of this rapprochement and its extensive investments in Russia as leverage against Tehran by consolidating its economic relations with Moscow.

Despite the fact that Iran and Russia appear to share two key principles – preserving the Assad state and the collapse of the current U.S.-led security system – there is therefore potential for a gulf to develop between the two states. Senior U.S. diplomat and former ambassador James F. Jeffrey, distinguished fellow at The Washington Institute where he focusses on U.S. diplomatic and military strategy in the Middle East, with emphasis on Turkey, Iraq, and Iran explained to that Russia is seeking a replacement "great powers" model centred on its alliance with Syria, while Iran wants a security system based on its hegemony. The latter would essentially look something like the current system, with Iran in place of the USA.  

On the other hand, according to Jeffrey, the reluctance expressed by both Obama and Trump to aggressively defend Americaʹs own system in a post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan Middle East, not to mention Israelʹs awareness of said reluctance, has led to Putinʹs interests being accommodated. Both the USA and Israel essentially agree with the Russian vision of a security order, at least in Syria, in return for Russia acting to eliminate, if not Iranʹs presence and influence in Syria, then its "power projection capabilities" (PPC), which include Iranian advisors and militias on/near Golan Heights, long-range drones, long-range missiles, rocket and air defence systems. 

Iran unlikely to pull out from Syria

Iran, however, is hardly likely to accept such a scenario, which begs the question whether Russia has the capacity to force Iran out of Syria.

Over the past seven years, Iran has invested heavily in Syria. Depending on the source, Iranian aid to the Syrian government ranges from $6 billion, (according to the U.N. Envoy Staffan de Mistura) to $14-15 billion (according to Nadim Shehadi, Director of the Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies at Tufts University). The Islamic Republic has high hopes of securing a large slice of Syriaʹs post-war reconstruction pie. It has also been funding thousands of Hezbollah fighters deployed in Syria, as well as the militias it maintains.

That Iran will simply give up its Syrian assets seems a long shot. Whatʹs more, Russia does not have the authority to "order" Iran to leave Syria: only Assad can do that. Understandably, the Iranians would do everything in their power to counter such a move.

Iran is risking alienation from Russia, the only close ally it currently has, while raising the possibility of a major clash with Israel and the U.S. which, led by Donald Trump, is intent on putting pressure on Iran at every opportunity. The Israelis, in turn, cannot credibly threaten what Putin most fears – effective Israeli strikes against Assadʹs limited military power – as long as Trump refuses to back Israel against Russian retaliation. So, Israel is desperately hoping for Russian "gifts" that reduce Iranian PPC without leveraging Putin.

Yet, even were Russia to succeed in persuading Iran to withdraw forces under its control to 60 km from the ceasefire line in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, there is no guarantee that Russia would be able to enforce compliance with such an Iranian withdrawal.

Iranian presence: the latent threat

Since the Helsinki summit between Trump and Putin failed to bring about any substantial agreement on Syria, the current situation is likely to continue. Iran and Putin will accomplish their primary goal of saving Assad, with Iran able to maintain or even increase its PPC against the Israeli and U.S. security system.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shake hands as they meet at the Moscow Kremlin on 11 July 2018 (photo: Imago/Itar-Tass)
Desperately hoping for Russian "gifts" that reduce Iranian PPC without leveraging Putin: the Israelis cannot credibly threaten what Putin most fears – effective Israeli strikes against Assadʹs limited military power – as long as Trump refuses to back Israel against Russian retaliation, writes Salacanin

According to Jeffrey, this signals how risky the situation is and how risky Trumpʹs indulgence of Putin is. He commented that, with a few historical exceptions (Bismarck and Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm after Koenigsgraetz), victorious powers donʹt settle for their gains but tend to become more aggressive. 

If Iran as a victorious power dramatically increases its PPC in Syria and either threatens to or actually uses them against Israel (or Turkey in Idlib), then those American allies, existentially threatened, might strike out at the Syrian regime. This would provoke a Russian response and force the U.S. to either support its allies or retreat ignominiously, echoing the Sarajevo 1914 scenario.

Under these circumstances, continues Jeffrey, Russia could be forced to avoid conflict (since Russian forces in Syria are vastly outgunned by any of other three – U.S., Israel, or Turkey) by leaning hard on Iran.

That would likely force Iran to pull out its PPC, but "burrow in" to the Syrian state and military, using Hezbollah-like militias, thus essentially challenging Russia to quietly maintain Tehranʹs options. Any further decisions by Iran would also depend on offers and incentives made by other key powers.

Bearing in mind the above, it is clear that if nothing is offered to Iran in return for its co-operation, then tension in the region is only likely to increase.

Stasa Salacanin

© 2018

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