Russia's Interests and the Iranian Project in the Region

Russia appears as a mighty pioneering power today as it alone brokers the future of Syria, with new partnerships forged on new foundations, dictating its terms. But appearances can be deceiving. In reality, President Putin has put himself in a corner and his schemes might find strong opposition, not just by European and Arab players in Syria, but by 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 part 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 is a temporary marriage of convenience between two parties, one of which - Turkey - is fundamentally in a precarious position: following the failed coup attempt in Turkey, President Erdogan led an all encompassing security crackdown, and made about faces on relations with NATO and Gulf allies as well as Syrian Rebels. The second party, Russia, is not as brittle but it is taking big risks and acting with excessive confidence over its own abilities as well as with regard to the relations with the coming Trump administration. Russia also faces a challenge at the United Nations, where many in the international community do not want to stand idly by as the carnage in Syria continues. In short, Russia's handling of the Syrian issue faces key obstacles. For the Western and Gulf states, Russia is seen as circumventing the principles agreed by the international community for a political solution in Syria, instead working to keep Bashar al-Assad in power away from any transitional process. And for Iran, Russia's military and strategic partner in Syria, Russia's request for full withdrawal of foreign forces including Hezbollah is anathema. This complicates their alliance but does not necessarily put them at risk of divorce. Meanwhile, the Russian presidency is wagering on Donald Trump to influence all stakeholders, including Iran, given the latter's need for Russia vis-à-vis the United States in the sanctions and nuclear issue. Yet Russia is increasingly clashing with Iranian determination to safeguard gains in Syria, even if the price is parting ways with Russia. But vital interests along the Mediterranean for both Iran and Russia will have to be protected most likely by means of mutual compromises, as the two countries' shared interests on the ground remain indispensable for both sides. Yet the issue of the Syrian deployment of Hezbollah and Iraqi and Afghan militias operated by the Revolutionary Guards under the command of Qassem Soleimani is a crucial one, and not at all secondary. Logically speaking, the continued presence of foreign forces in Syria disrupts the political solution sought by Russia and Turkey as the guarantors of the current ceasefire and the final solution of the conflict in the country.

Ali Akbar Vilayati, advisor to supreme leader Kahemeni, denied that agreements reached over a ceasefire included the withdrawal of these forces, dismissing reports on Hezbollah's demobilization from Syria as 'enemy propaganda'. Vilayati insisted that these forces had entered Syria at the request of the government there, stressing that Iran had fixed positions namely the support of the resistance axis, of which Syria is part, and 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 to be too concerned by the remarks made by the Iranian official. Some believe Israel's non objection is because of 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 George W. bush and his neocons. Others still cite the strong Russian-Israeli ties and argue Israel is wagering on Russia 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 Ban Ki-moon had insisted on bringing in Tehran as a key party and element of the solution, casting aside all reservations and ignoring the clear Iranian agenda in Syria. The US and European powers followed suit, agreeing to giving Iran a fundamental seat at the table at the insistence of Russia. 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 with Iran. In truth, this made Obama an implicit partner in the Syrian arena in favor of Bashar al-Assad.

Why did the US, Europe, Russia, and China decide to turn a blind eye to Tehran's ambitions, even as the Iranian leadership was publicly boasting of 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, one question is: who has the upper hand in Syria, Russia or Iran? A military confrontation between the two is an impossibility. But in the event winning this battle requires it, can Iran disrupt Russia's plans by sabotaging the ceasefire without accountability? Will Russia's have to back down before Iran'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 both to be in a weaker position. Putin 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 ISIS and similar groups do not have the upper hand over Erdogan. By the same token, Erdogan cannot be forced to play a high price for his deal with Putin in Aleppo, and must appear able to deal with the Kurdish challenge in Syria. Indeed, Putin needs Erdogan as a Sunni cover for his alliance with Shiite Iran, but Putin is also seeking Sunni cover from Sisi's Egypt as backup to Turkey. Sisi has so far obliged, and Egypt today is nearly the only Arab country that has backed the Russian formula for a solution in Syria, where Russia is unilaterally sponsoring talks in the Kazakh capital, in complete divergence from Gulf positions opposed to the 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 once backed by Erdogan in Egypt and Syria. He is also taking advantage of Turkish-Iranian differences that have a sectarian flavor too.

The Russian president believes the time is right to turn his military achievements in Aleppo into political ammunition on the eve of the inauguration of his friend Donald Trump. He wants to settle the battle against ISIS and Nusra Front in Syria by concluding political solutions and he 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 the supreme leader in Tehran and Qassem Soleimani in Syria.

Bashar al-Assad is anxiously monitoring how Russia and Iran will agree or disagree on Syria. He is confident that he remains vital and indispensable for 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 confident about Russia despite it being one of his top international backers, but if Assad fails Russia, Russia will fail him. Indeed, Russia controls international cards that Iran doesn't have, with regard to plans being drafted by the European powers in the 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, the Russian president will consider himself a mighty pioneer with or without the US as a partner; until then, however, it will be difficult for Russia to tackle regional and international opposition to its unilateral sidestepping of agreements, and its meddling with sectarian and ideologically fault lines will not be a picnic.

Translated by Karim Traboulsi