Russia appears as a mighty pioneering power today as it brokers Syria’s future, with new partnerships forged on new foundations, dictating its terms. However, appearances can be deceptive. In reality, President Vladimir Putin has put himself in a corner and his schemes might find strong opposition, not just from European and Arab players in Syria, but from his own strategic ally Iran, albeit for different reasons.
The guarantors of the solution in Syria, Russia and Turkey, exclude Iran. The latter refused to be a part of it if the condition is the withdrawal of its forces and proxies from Syria, which include Hezbollah and various militias. Another problem for the so-called guarantors is that the convergence between Russia and Turkey is no honest alliance, but a temporary marriage of convenience between two parties.
Turkey is fundamentally in a precarious position: Following the failed coup attempt there, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan led an all-encompassing security crackdown and made about-faces on relations with NATO, Gulf allies and Syrian rebels. Russia is not as brittle, but is taking big risks and acting with excessive confidence over its own abilities and relations with the coming US administration of Donald Trump.
Russia also faces a challenge at the UN, where many in the international community do not want to stand idly by as the carnage in Syria continues. In short, Moscow’s handling of the Syrian issue faces key obstacles. Western and Gulf states see Russia as circumventing the principles agreed upon by the international community for a political solution in Syria, instead working to keep President Bashar Assad in power away from any transitional process.
For Iran, Russia’s request for a full withdrawal of foreign forces, including Hezbollah, is anathema. This complicates their alliance, but does not necessarily put them at risk of divorce. Meanwhile, Putin is wagering on Trump to influence all stakeholders, including Iran, given the latter’s need for Russia vis-à-vis the US over sanctions and the nuclear issue.
Yet Russia is increasingly clashing with Iran’s determination to safeguard gains in Syria, even if the price is parting ways with Moscow. However, vital interests along the Mediterranean for both Iran and Russia will have to be protected, most likely by mutual compromises, as their shared interests on the ground remain indispensable for both sides.
Yet the issue of the deployment in Syria of Hezbollah, as well as Iraqi and Afghan militias under Iranian command, is crucial. Logically speaking, the continued presence of foreign forces in Syria disrupts the political solution sought by Russia and Turkey as guarantors of the current cease-fire and a final solution to the conflict.
Ali Akbar Velayati, adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, denied that agreements reached over a cease-fire included the withdrawal of these forces, dismissing reports on Hezbollah’s demobilization from Syria as “enemy propaganda.” Velayati insisted that these forces had entered Syria at the request of the government there.
He stressed that Iran had fixed positions, namely supporting the “axis of resistance” — of which Syria is part — which extends from Iran to Lebanon and Palestine via Iraq. Others call this axis the Persian or Shiite crescent, linking Iran to Israel in a trucial rather than resistance configuration.
Either way, Israel does not seem too concerned by Velayati’s remarks. Some believe Israel’s no-objection is due to its fear of the axis built by Iran. Others believe the tacit truce between the two sides is the main reason, especially as the idea is American-conceived and dates back to the era of President George W. Bush and his neo-cons. Others cite strong Russian-Israeli ties, and say Israel is wagering on Moscow to neutralize any threats to it from Syria.
So is Iran now part of the solution or part of the problem in Syria? The UN, under former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, insisted on bringing in Tehran as a key party and element of the solution, casting aside all reservations and ignoring Iran’s clear agenda in Syria.
The US and European powers followed suit, agreeing to give Iran a fundamental seat at the table at Russia’s insistence. The Obama administration even strategically consented to Iranian military intervention, giving it legal cover by abolishing UN Security Council resolutions that prevented Iranian military foreign incursions for the sake of the nuclear deal. This made Obama an implicit partner in the Syrian arena in favor of Assad.
Why did the US, Europe, Russia and China decide to turn a blind eye to Iran’s ambitions, even as Tehran was publicly boasting about them? The answer goes beyond the requirements of the nuclear deal.
All sides were aware of the geography of Iran’s agenda, yet remained complacent. For this reason, the political confrontation over withdrawing Iranian forces from Syria is noteworthy: Either these are tactical differences, or Iran will be designated as part of the problem, despite having once been invited by the UN and these powers as part of the solution.
At the military level, who has the upper hand in Syria, Russia or Iran? A military confrontation between the two is impossible, but in the event winning this battle requires it, can Iran disrupt Russia’s plans by sabotaging the cease-fire without accountability? Will Moscow have to back down to Tehran’s insistence not to withdraw its militias and Hezbollah from Syria? What would a compromise look like in this context?
The overlap between Russian-Iranian and Russian-Turkish relations is significant. Putin needs both countries, but may want them to be in a weaker position. He knows well that Erdogan’s weakness, however, is a double-edged sword. While Putin relishes Erdogan’s need for him in his weak state, it is important for him that Daesh and similar groups do not have the upper hand over Erdogan.
By the same token, Erdogan cannot be forced to pay a high price for his deal with Putin over Aleppo, and must appear able to deal with the Kurdish challenge in Syria. Indeed, Putin needs him as Sunni cover for his alliance with Shiite Iran, but Putin is also seeking Sunni cover from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi as backup.
El-Sisi has so far obliged, and Egypt today is nearly the only Arab country that has backed Russia’s formula for a solution in Syria. Moscow is sponsoring talks in the Kazakh capital Astana, in complete divergence from Gulf positions opposed to Russia’s formula.
The religious and sectarian chords Putin is playing are dangerous. At the same time, he is exploiting Turkish-Egyptian differences over the Muslim Brotherhood, which was once backed by Erdogan in Egypt and Syria. Putin is also taking advantage of Turkish-Iranian differences that have a sectarian flavor too.
He believes the time is right to turn his military achievements in Aleppo into political ammunition on the eve of the inauguration of his friend Trump. Putin wants to settle the battle against Daesh and Al-Nusra Front in Syria by concluding political solutions, and is aware that the continued presence of Iran’s militias in Syria prevents him from declaring victory and closing the book on military operations.
Even the talks in Astana are on hold, pending a decision from Khamenei. Assad is anxiously monitoring how Russia and Iran will agree or disagree on Syria. He is confident that he remains indispensable to both sides, at least for the time being. However, he may be more confident about Iranian support for him as the cornerstone of its regional project, and less so about Russia, despite it being one of his top international backers.
However, if Assad fails Russia, Russia will fail him. Indeed, Moscow controls international cards that Tehran does not have, regarding plans being drafted by European powers in the UN Security Council for war crimes and chemical-weapons use in Syria.
Everyone is gearing up for what seems to be a coming grand bargain between Russia and the US. If Putin’s wager on himself and Trump pans out, Russia’s president will consider himself a mighty pioneer with or without the US as a partner. Until then, however, it will be difficult for Moscow to tackle regional and international opposition to its unilateral sidestepping of agreements. Its meddling with sectarian and ideological fault lines will be no picnic.
• Raghida Dergham is columnist, senior diplomatic correspondent, and New York bureau chief for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper since 1989.
Originally published in Al-Hayat