Make no mistake about it; Russia is the most influential great power in the Middle East and the Gulf. The US has enabled this role over time through a continuing disengagement from those countries that once relied on us as the final arbiter and guarantor of their security and economic development. You can blame the Obama Administration all you want, but the Trump Administration, aside from putting even more weapons and intelligence in their hands, has not been able to assert US leadership as deftly and broadly as the Russians.
And now, a real test of Russian leadership is rising out of the faltering resistance to President Assad. Israel recently made a serious demarche to Moscow regarding the encroachment of Iranian and allied militias towards its northern border and the Golan. The trade-off: get them out of the area, let us target forces that violate our sense of security, and we won’t attack Russian targets in Syria. The US, with a Trump-Putin summit coming up, is also being enticed by Putin’s words that Syrian forces will not interfere with US advisors closing in on one of the last holdouts of Islamic militants, and then the US can leave.
Similarly, Putin has engaged Turkey on its role along its border with Syria and with Iran on its residual presence in Syria after Assad reclaims most of the country. As an article in Al-Monitor points out, “Putin’s leverage in Syria is unmatched, as he has managed complicated relations with all of the key parties — the Syrian government, Iran, Turkey, and Israel — while keeping up regular contacts with Arab Gulf leaders.” This is no accident. Putin has sensed US reluctance over the past decade to reaffirm is regional leadership and has gradually expanded his sphere of influence as evident by the many leaders who have made the pilgrimage to Moscow.
The US about face on the JCPOA with Iran, its inability to ease the GCC crisis over Qatar, and the lack of a strong diplomacy while the State Department floundered under Tillerson, have only eased Moscow’s rise to prominence. So the arrangement with Israel, if it holds, will be a strong indication of Russia’s influence with Iran, which is loath to leave Syria after investing so many resources and prestige in its efforts to save the Assad regime.
As Maxim Suchkov noted, “Despite all the complexities, the situation in southern Syria doesn’t look hopeless at this point. A far bigger challenge in this conundrum is Iran’s long-term presence in the rest of Syria. There’s an understanding in Moscow that Hezbollah may always find a reason to stay in Syria as long as its leadership feels it needs to ensure Lebanon’s security. There’s no way for Russia or any other external power to guarantee an Iran-free Syria, as there are no means of verifying Iran’s presence or its influence.”
And what about Iran’s objectives?
An article in Foreign Policy takes the view that Iran has little to show for its efforts if it agrees at this point to withdraw its forces and limit its presence in Syria. “But Iranian officials and other experts say the country has invested too much blood and treasure — upwards of $30 billion to date — to fold to international demands, regardless of Israeli airstrikes, or even Moscow’s pressure. Having already made such a massive investment, Iran is determined to reap the potential long-term strategic rewards Syria has to offer — even if it comes at the expense of more lives and money in the short term.”
As with its goals in Iraq, Iran has a much broader goal than Syria per se, seeing regional hegemony as the prize, especially upping pressure on Saudi Arabia and the UAE to acknowledge Iran’s dominance and simultaneously increasing its pressure on Israel. This latter point cannot be overlooked as a means of attracting Sunni support for Iran’s combative position vis-à-vis Israel. So a visible presence in Syria is essential in that “It gives Iran good leverage against Israel. The ground is very important, and Iran is very skillful at managing the ground — the one area where even Russians are weak. The one who has control of the ground doesn’t take seriously those who don’t,” according to an Iranian source quoted in the post on Foreign Policy.com.
According to Nawar Oliver, a researcher at a Turkish think tank, “Iranian forces currently operate out of 11 bases around the country, as well as nine military bases for Iranian-backed Shiite militias in southern Aleppo, Homs, and Deir Ezzor provinces as well as about 15 Hezbollah bases and observation points mostly along the Lebanese border and in Aleppo.”
In addition, the challenge of funding so many investments in Iraq and Syria, among others, has to play into the rising discontent in Iran regarding the failing economy, devaluation of its currency, high inflation, and other problems. Yet the leadership persists in its strategy. As the post concludes “But Iran’s involvement in Syria goes beyond a conventional military presence, and it has already begun to plant there the seeds of its unique financial and ideological institutions. Along with about a dozen other Iran-linked organizations, the Iran-backed Jihad al-Binaa, the Islamic charitable foundation that financed and organized the reconstruction of southern Beirut after the 2006 summer war, is already working on large projects to rebuild schools, roads, and other infrastructure in Aleppo and other towns, as well as providing aid for the families of slain Iran-backed Syrian militiamen.”
The balancing act is underscored in a recent Carnegie Middle East Center post, “In the end, Russia can’t allow Israel to initiate a direct military confrontation with Iran, as this would negatively affect Moscow’s calculations in Syria, while Israel can’t accept the unlimited growth of Iranian influence in Syria, as this threatens its own national security. Moscow has to take into account both Israel’s and Iran’s security concerns, and these are mutually exclusive.”
With no restraints on Iran’s leadership and the erosion of sanctions that might otherwise continue to hobble Iran’s finances, it is a dilemma as to how Russia will constrain Iran’s behavior. One avenue is Russian pressure paired with trade-offs for development assistance, which would even be trying for Moscow, given its own weakened economy. The other is for Iran to miscalculate and feed the beast of another war in the region, one that would be devastating for Iran and its allies, and one in which Lebanon would suffer enormously.