The United States now aims to reduce Iranian influence in the Levant (Sham)- wrote former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford in an exclusive column to Al-Sharq Al-Awsat. American media reports still say that Washington hopes Russia will compel Iran to evacuate its forces from Syria. One informed American journalist said this was an important part of the strategy the Americans explained to an Israeli military/intelligence delegation visiting Washington August 17.
Israeli Prime Minister Natanyahu took a military/intelligence delegation on August 23 to see Putin in Russia to convince Russia to use its influence to push Iranian forces out of Syria eventually. Natanyahu even threatened to bomb Bashar al-Assad’s palace if Iranian forces stay in Syria.
Moscow answered directly. On August 30 Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, who is not famous for being subtle, told reporters that Israel should not attack Iranian forces in Syria. He also said that cooperation between Iran and Syria that does not violate international law is not subject to question
To make Russian policy extremely clear, the Russian ambassador in Tel Aviv on August 23 told Israeli television that while Russia would like all foreign forces out of Syria, including Iranian forces, but the priority “at this stage” is to support the Syrian Government and fight terrorists. The Russian ambassador to the United Nations on August 23 also said that Iran plays a “constructive role” in Syria.
Iran’s “constructive role,” in addition to helping Assad, is helping Russia reduce American influence in Syria and the Middle East. For seventy years Russia has resented the American encirclement of Russia with bases and alliances. Helping Washington reduce Iranian influence now is not consistent with the true Russian goal which is about decreasing American influence in the region.
Russia has a new airbase in Syria near Homs and an expanded naval base in Tartous. It has long-term agreements with Damascus to keep these bases. Moscow speaks with more authority about Syria, Libya and even perhaps mediation in the Gulf. Iranian-mobilized militias fighting for Assad indirectly helped Russia achieve this strategic advance.
Russia would have to risk its interests to confront Iran in Syria. Russia and Iran both compete and cooperate in regions like the Caucuses and Central Asia. What does it gain to increase Iranian hostility in those regions? And Russia is beginning to profit commercially from Iran. It has deals to build nuclear plants in Bushehr and develop an Iranian gasfield; it sells arms like missiles and helicopters to Iran and equipment for infrastructure such as railroads. Trade between Russia and Iran increased to almost $2 billion in 2016.
Russia will not, therefore, just turn around and confront Iran because Washington and Tel Aviv make a request without any sweet compensation. Lavrov on August 30 said that Russia sees no intention in the region to attack Israel now; for Russia, there is space to accommodate Iran in Syria. The Russians have sent a few military police to southwestern Syria to ensure respect for the ceasefire there and to keep “non-Syrian” fighters away from the Israeli and Jordanian borders. In July the Russians, Americans and Jordanians agreed in principle that non-Syrian forces should stay 20 miles back from the Jordanian border. In August, the Russians changed and suggested instead 10 miles, and in some locations only about 5 miles.
Now the Israelis, Americans and Jordanians hope that Russia will honor its word about compelling Iran to respect even the smaller separation distance and avoid the Syrian opposition-controlled zones. The small opposition-controlled zones, however, pose a dangerous question to Damascus: how can Baathist rule be one hundred percent legitimate if some freely elected councils manage local affairs and ignore Damascus? Assad and Iranian general Qassim Suleimani know how to wait patiently for tactical advantage.
The Russians have said that their military police are not fighting units so what will they do when Syrian and Iranian forces drive past them to attack the opposition towns in the southwestern “de-escalation zone”? Unless Russia’s air forces attack the Syrian and Iranian forces it cannot stop them.
It is important to note that Russia has never done this in the “de-escalation zone” violations in Aleppo in 2016 and in eastern Ghouta and northern Homs in 2017. It is especially important to remember that Russia always defends the principle that sovereign governments legally may take any military action inside their own borders.
Assad and Suleimani may ruin the Russian plan for decentralization and a fast peace deal in Syria. But when Putin faces the Iranian damage to this Russian plan for Syria, he will be thinking not just about Quneitra and Daraa and Ain Terma or local councils or international law, but also about Russian business and factories and workers, and Azerbaijan and Tajikistan and Kyrgzstan and also the constant rivalry with America. Putin will be analyzing, not hoping.