When the Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered direct military intervention in Syria last September, his declared intention was to achieve a quick “get-in-get-out” victory that would push his other problems, notably land-grabbing ventures in Georgia and Ukraine into oblivion.
Eight months later, having achieved almost nothing as far as the balance of power in this strange war is concerned, he is looking for a way out.
Last weekend, Moscow circulated news that Russia had reached an unspecified agreement with the Obama administration to find a way to end the war. At the same time Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu flew to Damascus, presumably to prepare the beleaguered President Bashar Al-Assad for swallowing an as yet unspecified bitter pill.
A congenial opportunist, Putin is acting in character; if a policy doesn’t work he is ready to modify or even abandon it. A year ago he might have dreamed of total military victory in Syria. Today, he knows that it is not going to happen.
But what about the other participant in this tragic power game: the Islamic Republic in Iran? Because the Khomeinist elite are more concerned about losing face than almost anything else, Tehran is never prepared to abandon a losing policy until the very last moment.
The late Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini persisted with his losing strategy in the war against Iraq for eight years until he was forced, in his own words, to “drink the poison chalice” and accept a ceasefire that he could have accepted seven years earlier.
As for his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the jury is still out regarding the degree to which he is still in contact with reality. Some in Tehran believe that as he has advanced in age he has become more radical, not to say reckless in chasing ideological mirages. According to that analysis, today he is only interested in entering history as a revolutionary leader who never threw in the towel. His aim is to shun the “poison chalice” from which Khomeini was forced to drink. This is why he is still talking about “total victory” in Syria and continues repeating that he would keep President Assad in power at least until the end of his seven-year term.
I don’t quite agree with that analysis of Khamenei’s bend of mind on this issue. To be sure a leader who has developed a highly inflated view of himself and who is praised day-in-day out as a great genius, not to say a gift to mankind, by all those who encounter him, including numerous foreign dignitaries, is bound to develop a gargantuan ego, ending up as a prisoner of his fantasies.
Nevertheless, I think Khamenei is not as reckless a gambler as Khomeini was. He is prepared to push the knife as far as possible only if it encounters no serious hurdle. Several episodes may support the view of Khamenei as a more cautious player than Khomeini.
In 1980 when American diplomats were held hostage in the US Embassy in Tehran, Khamenei visited the occupied compound and tried to negotiate the purchase of American arms once the crisis was over. The idea was to send a signal that he would be the man the Americans could do business with.
In the 1990s when the Taliban, then masters of Afghanistan, killed six Iranian diplomats and dozens of Afghan Shiites working for Iran, the military chiefs in Tehran suggested “teaching Taliban a lesson,” according to General Mohsen Rezai.
One idea was to simply bomb the residences of the Taliban chiefs, including Mullah Omar, killing as many of them as possible. Khamenei vetoed the plan and, instead, opened a dialogue with the Taliban which, with some ups and downs, continues to this day. And when in 1996 the French Foreign Minister Herve de Charette negotiated a deal with his Iranian counterpart Ali-Akbar Velayati to help Tehran beat some sanctions in exchange for keeping Hezbollah in check, Khamenei endorsed it. The Lebanese branch of Hezbollah was ordered to refrain from any anti-Israeli move for several years.
A more recent example is Khamenei’s position regarding the so-called nuclear deal concocted by the Obama administration. The “Supreme Guide” must have known that the whole thing was a scam and, yet, he adopted a rejectionist position on it in public while allowing his minions to help cook the witches’ brew behind the scenes.
For the past several months he has been telling anyone who would listen that sanctions had had no effect on Iran and that the nuke “deal” committed Iran to nothing.
And, yet, he also says that if the next US President “violates” the non-existent deal, Iran would “burn it.” Accepting the humiliation of having Iran spend its own money with permission from the White House, Khamenei has shown a degree of flexibility that no Iranian politician would dare imagine in our contemporary history.
But, let us return to Syria. Will Khamenei continue talking tough while caving in behind the scenes? The answer to that question isn’t easy.
One reason is that change of policy on Syria cannot be easily camouflaged. Either you drop Assad to the wolves or you continue betting on him while knowing he is a dead horse.
Another reason is that the Islamic Republic is not the key player in the Syrian imbroglio. Others, notably Russia, the United States and Turkey are also deeply involved, not to mention the Arab states.
Yet another reason is that Assad’s support base isn’t as keen on taking orders from Tehran as Hassan Nasrallah and his cohorts are in Lebanon.
More importantly, perhaps, as far as domestic support is concerned, Khamenei’s options on Syria are narrowing. There is virtually no sympathy for Assad among the Iranian public, and Tehran is finding it difficult to persuade more “volunteers” to go to Syria.
It is quite possible that a group of self-styled enthusiasts sold Khamenei a bill of goods on Syria. The Quds Corps chief General Qassem Soleimani, a master of self-marketing, may have been one with his repeated promises of “impending victory in Syria.” Five years later, what we see is unfurling disaster as Iranian losses mount and corpses of Iranian officers are left strewn behind in the streets of Khan-Touman.
Though not officially declared, Khamenei’s decision to elbow Soleimani out of the Syrian dossier was a good move. The bombastic general has been asked to go and take his “selfies” in Iraq where he is seconded to the Iraqi government as an “advisor”, and even promote the idea of becoming a presidential candidate next year.
Instead, Khamenei has asked Gen. Rezai, the retired chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, to come up with “new ideas” about the disaster in Syria. Rezai may not be a military genius but he is at least a grown-up compared to the childish Soleimani.
Earleir this week, Khamenei also fired Deputy Foreign Minister Hussein Amir-Abdullahiyan, the diplomat coordinating Syria policy. By all accounts Abdullahiyan is a competent diplomat and could certainly not be scapegoated for the mess in Syria. However, his eviction is a signal that the “Supreme Guide” knows that present policy on Syria isn’t working.
That may not be enough, but it is still a positive sign that Tehran may rethink its Syrian fantasies.