Assad’s survival is conditional on Iran’s departure
Iran’s Ali Khamenei and Syria's Bashar Assad are trying to achieve two goals simultaneously: The survival of the Damascus regime, and maintaining Iran’s military, intelligence and militia presence in Syria. The recent US proposal, however, offers the opposite, with the survival of the Assad regime conditional on the end of Iran’s presence in Syria.
Visits and statements have reduced expectations surrounding the concession by Iran and its militias to not take part in fighting in Deraa province in southwest Syria (near the borders with Israel and Jordan) in return for the withdrawal of the pro-US, Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from the town of Manbij — a demand of both the Assad regime and Turkey.
Indeed, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem recently said a US withdrawal from Manbij is essential before any commitment to preventing an Iranian presence in Deraa. It is also possible that Damascus, Iran’s mouthpiece, would negotiate and accept an American presence east of the Euphrates River in exchange for maintaining the presence of Iranian forces outside Deraa, 20 km from the border with Israel.
In this way, Damascus "legitimizes" Iran’s presence through international consent, not only as its "sovereign" decision. Thus the status of Iranian forces would become similar to Syrian forces in Lebanon in the 1970s — an occupation legitimized by the Arab League, with the approval of the Lebanese government.
Therefore, the fear is that negotiations may deviate from their original proposal: That the Assad regime must choose either its survival or an Iranian presence. Some may wonder who has the right to impose such a condition, and why.
The Assad regime’s current situation does not allow it to dictate terms, despite recent "victories" — achieved with the help of its allies — that turned into major losses due to Israeli attacks. The rejection of this proposal means international rejection of the regime, which brings it back into the danger zone.
Demanding Iran’s departure tests Assad regime’s ability to make its own decisions without complying with diktats from Tehran.
The US wants to give Assad a chance to stay, provided he officially asks the Iranians to leave; noting that one of the 12 demands made by Washington after it abandoned the nuclear deal was that Tehran should withdraw militarily from Syria.
But its exit will not be easy because it will terminate a long-term project — one of Tehran’s most important foreign policy goals — to impose its hegemony on Syria and maximize its influence by threatening the region from there.
Demanding Iran’s departure also tests the Assad regime’s ability to make its own decisions without complying with diktats from Tehran. Thus Damascus is between a rock and a hard place: If the Iranians, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and other militias leave, it will weaken the Assad regime to the extent of collapse, but if they stay it will become their puppet.
Damascus is well aware of what might happen if Iran and its militias remain. Tehran will turn Syria into a theater for its conflict with Israel, the same way Assad — and before him his father — handled Lebanon in the past. Like Lebanon, Syria will become a country without power except through Iran, and will be used in Tehran’s indirect battles against the US, Israel, and perhaps Turkey and others.
Regardless of the intentions of Tehran and Damascus, allowing Iran and its militias to be militarily present in Syria, even in a small space, may cause tension and future wars. Partial solutions, such as allowing Iran to keep a military presence in certain areas, would make this presence indefinite.
• 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.