What if the Russians left Syria?
The irony is that the Russian intervention had a negative effect, allowing the Assad regime and Iran to restore control, after their initial failure in defeating the revolutionary forces and the terrorist groups. Now the Russians have a “positive” role in balancing the opposing forces, and more specifically in limiting the activities of Iran and its militias on the ground. Russian President Vladimir Putin declared clearly: “I have decided that a significant part of the Russian military contingent in the Syrian Arab Republic is returning home to Russia.”
If the Russians leave or reduce their presence in Syria, their influence in Syria would also dwindle, which would most probably be in the interest of the Iranians. Khamenei’s regime has been fighting for almost total domination of Syria, except for the Kurdish areas on the border with Turkey. Its presence can be traced through the deployment centers of its militias on Syria’s borders with Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan, and of course in Damascus.
The motives behind the Russian declaration of a partial withdrawal from Syria are not clear. Is it due to disagreements with the Iranians about areas of control and management of the situation on the ground? Or is it part of calming things down with the US, which also has smaller forces on the ground in Syria?
It is natural for the allies of Assad to disagree about the postwar period. The Iranians seek control and domination in the context of their challenge to the US, and pressurizing it. As for the Russians, they also want to create a balance with the US in many conflict regions in the world. However, these calculations by the Russians and the Iranians can only align temporarily, as was the case during the war. Both countries entered Syria on the pretext of fighting terrorism, but the battles their forces fought were directed against the armed Syrian opposition forces as well. The US-led coalition was the only party to concentrate on fighting Daesh.
Moscow has no interest in protecting and supporting the Iranian forces, which are made up of tens of thousands of multinational militias that Iran brought from different countries. What would Iran give the Russians in return for this military service? Practically, nothing.
If there is a sense of danger from Iranian expansion, and a will to confront it, Syria would be suitable quicksand to become a trap for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
But reducing Russia’s military presence would weaken the Syrian regime and the Iranian militias, so is it possible that the Kremlin wants to abandon its Syrian ally and sacrifice everything it did for it?
It all depends on a regional and American plan, if there is one, to confront the Iranian influence in Syria. If there is a sense of danger from Iranian expansion, and a will to confront it, Syria would be suitable quicksand to become a trap for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The Iranian militias would not be able to settle in a hostile environment, especially if the peace negotiations fail; and these negotiations will never succeed as long as Assad, supported by Iran, impedes any solution that combines both the opposition and the regime in one government. The partial Russian withdrawal and the failure of the recent Geneva talks can be developed into pressure factors on the Assad regime and Iran to reconsider their positions and offer realistic compromises.
• Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is a veteran columnist. He is the former general manager of Al Arabiya news channel, and former editor in chief of Asharq Al-Awsat. Twitter: @aalrashed
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