Russia’s diplomatic play in southern Syria
What is happening in and around southern Syria can serve as a good example to understand what Russian diplomacy is and what its capacities are.
The recent sequence of events has seen a declaration by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that all foreign forces should retreat from the south of Syria; the Syrian Air Force prohibiting Iran and Iran-backed militias from using its facilities; talks between Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his Russian counterpart Sergey Shoygu; and subsequent media rumors regarding a Russian-Israeli deal on the withdrawal of Iranian troops. These are all links in one chain. Amid these events and rumors there were deep concerns regarding a possible assault on the occupied Golan Heights by Shiite militias, which could spark a regional war with unpredictable consequences.
Who could pull matters back from the brink? The only country that has strong relations with all sides is Russia. Moscow has no interest in losing either Israel or Iran as a partner, so it cannot let the rivalry between the two spoil the Syrian settlement. Instead it is making great efforts to move Iran and Israel away from a direct clash and a serious regional escalation.
The withdrawal of all foreign forces is a must for de-escalation of the tense situation in southern Syria, particularly in the context of the de-escalation zone in the area that is operated by Russia, Jordan and the US. Furthermore, the expected Assad offensive in Daraa is opposed by both by the US and Israel due to serious concerns over the presence of Iran-backed Shiite militias. To solve this issue, Russia has to persuade Israel that the Daraa operation is vitally needed for the further stabilization of the situation in Syria and will not in any way pose a threat to its security, while also persuading the Iran-backed militias to retreat from the area. Iranian officials have already expressed their support for de-escalation, while Hezbollah will retreat from the area upon Russia’s request.
Tehran is in a very fragile position, having a limited number of countries with which it succeeds in keeping stable political and economic ties
Russia is continuing intense talks with Israel through all channels regarding the settlement of existing disagreements, hoping to ease Tel Aviv’s concerns. Moscow is also making an effort to exert pressure on Iran to take it away from the brink of a confrontation, though this will fracture Iran’s regional presence, to the great discontent of Tehran.
However, in the current circumstances, Iran has little room for maneuver. As the US under Donald Trump has changed its policy toward Iran, Tehran is in a very fragile position, having a limited number of countries with which it succeeds in keeping stable political and economic ties. Furthermore, it has certain long-term political goals in Syria and in the region in general.
The agreements already reached and the trilateral efforts by Russia, Turkey and Iran are vital for Tehran’s own geopolitical interests. Thus, to spoil relations with Russia is not in its interests. However, Russia’s position and friendship with Israel seriously irritates Iran, fueling historical mistrust.
Israel is winning so far in the indirect Tel Aviv-Tehran clash over Syria, as its bombings of the Syrian bases to which the Iranian and Shiite militias had access made the Assad regime think twice about the “hospitality” it offered and has made them pay dearly. Iran is unhappy but can do nothing about this. Tehran wants a long-term presence in Syria and is ready to suffer all inconveniences on the way to its overall goal.
It must be admitted that there is no unanimity between Russia and any of the regional players, including Turkey, Iran and Israel. Contradictions are numerous, but Russian policy is likely to concentrate on the common points and to involve all the players and not isolate any of them.
The foreign forces in the south of Syria might be replaced by redeployed Syrian Army contingencies or by Russian military police. Both variants are acceptable for the Israeli side as they guarantee the retreat of Iranian forces from its border areas. The US, in this case, will go along with the Israeli stance.
Russia is trying to arrange a compromise that suits all sides. Talking to Israel does not betray Iran but, in the long run, the Iranian problem in Syria will not be solved and the prospect of a conflict between Israel and Iran still remains. But the current diplomatic steps being taken by Moscow are aimed at easing the rising tensions and solving the issues that cloud the south of Syria.
- Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub). Twitter: @politblogme