Are Rus­sia and Iran part­ing ways over Syria?

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - OPINION - FRED­ERIC C. HOF

Re­cent re­port­ing gives the im­pres­sion that Moscow and Tehran are part­ing ways in Syria. The Krem­lin has called on all for­eign mil­i­tary forces – ex­cept for its own – to leave the coun­try. Tehran has loudly and in­dig­nantly re­jected the Rus­sian in­vi­ta­tion.

Amer­i­can of­fi­cials might be tempted to feel en­cour­aged: A temp­ta­tion that should, for the time be­ing, be re­sisted.

Moscow knows that with­out Iran and its Shi­ite mili­tias the As­sad regime is bereft of ground com­bat forces. The point of this sup­posed con­tretemps may be to lull Wash­ing­ton into com­pla­cency; to con­sign Syria to Rus­sia, to im­ple­ment U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s stated de­sire to leave quickly, and to se­cure Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad in his place in­def­i­nitely.

It is un­der­stand­able that Amer­i­can of­fi­cials want Moscow to play a pos­i­tive role in end­ing Syria’s internal vi­o­lence, en­cour­ag­ing Tehran to with­draw its Quds Force per­son­nel and for­eign mer­ce­nar­ies, and some­how putting the coun­try on the path to a post-As­sad fu­ture. The Krem­lin has ev­ery rea­son to en­cour­age Amer­i­can hopes and Amer­i­can credulity.

For years it has told Wash­ing­ton coun­ter­parts it is not wed to As­sad, its Syr­i­are­lated in­ter­ests dif­fer from those of Iran, and it is se­ri­ously com­mit­ted to peace talks, de-es­ca­la­tion, and con­sti­tu­tional re­form. This has been mu­sic to the ears of U.S. of­fi­cials try­ing to ac­com­mo­date one com­man­der-in-chief de­ter­mined not to up­set Iran over Syria, and another who has sig­naled his will­ing­ness to aban­don east­ern Syria just as soon as Daesh (ISIS) is de­feated.

In re­cent months, how­ever, Moscow’s non-stop men­dac­ity over As­sad regime chem­i­cal weapons use and its vi­o­lent dis­re­gard of de-es­ca­la­tion zones it helped cre­ate; has un­der­mined its Wash­ing­ton be­liev­ers. In­deed, Rus­sia’s in­abil­ity or re­fusal to de­liver its client to Geneva peace talks has not been lost on Amer­i­can of­fi­cials who are ev­ery bit as hope­ful for Krem­lin good deeds as were their Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion pre­de­ces­sors. Get­ting the U.S. back on board with a “let Moscow han­dle it” agenda is es­sen­tial for Rus­sia, es­pe­cially given the threat posed by the po­ten­tial post-Daesh sta­bi­liza­tion of east­ern Syria.

Moscow and Tehran both un­der­stand a prop­erly re­sourced and ex­e­cuted postDaesh sta­bi­liza­tion of Syria east of the Euphrates River would be a real threat to the one thing they agree on com­pletely: the in­def­i­nite preser­va­tion of As­sad as the tit­u­lar pres­i­dent of Syria.

An Amer­i­can ef­fort with strong re­gional and Euro­pean sup­port could, with the key in­gre­di­ent of lo­cal Syr­ian lead­er­ship, re­verse the great­est fail­ure of the Syr­ian rev­o­lu­tion by pro­duc­ing an at­trac­tive al­ter­na­tive to the vi­o­lently klep­to­cratic rule of a fam­ily and its en­tourage. It is man­i­festly in the in­ter­ests of Iran, Rus­sia, and the regime to stop sta­bi­liza­tion cold.

In Fe­bru­ary, armed Rus­sians crossed the Euphrates River and tried, un­suc­cess­fully, to cap­ture an oil field lib­er­ated from Daesh by coalition air and Kur­dish-led ground forces. Ira­nian-led mili­ti­a­men have seized, but failed to hold ter­ri­tory east of the Euphrates. Now As­sad is threat­en­ing to take east­ern Syria mil­i­tar­ily, as he tries to re­cast sec­tar­ian fam­ily rule as Syr­ian na­tion­al­ism. No doubt Tehran and Moscow dif­fer sharply on as­pects of Syr­ian pol­icy.

Rus­sia has no in­ter­est in help­ing Iran and its Le­banese fran­chise (Hezbol­lah) es­tab­lish an anti-Is­rael “re­sis­tance front” along the east­ern base of the Golan Heights. Nei­ther is Rus­sia well-dis­posed to­ward Iran’s ef­forts to repli­cate in Syria what it’s done in Le­banon, by cre­at­ing a heav­ily armed par­al­lel state to do its bid­ding. But these are de­tails to be worked out in the con­text of a com­mon Ira­nian-Rus­sian ob­jec­tive: the po­lit­i­cal preser­va­tion of As­sad.

For Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, As­sad is Ex­hibit A in Rus­sia’s sup­posed re­turn to great power sta­tus af­ter decades of hu­mil­i­a­tion: a pow­er­ful do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal tool for Putin and his oli­garchs.

For Ira­nian Supreme Leader Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei, As­sad may lit­er­ally be the only Syr­ian willing to subor­di­nate his coun­try to the needs of Le­banon’s Hezbol­lah: the jewel in the crown of Iran’s re­gional ex­pan­sion­ist pol­icy. These pow­er­ful do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal im­per­a­tives over­shadow myr­iad dif­fer­ences in ob­jec­tives, strat­egy and tac­tics. They man­date co­op­er­a­tion for the one thing they agree is es­sen­tial: the preser­va­tion of As­sad.

Whether the re­cent sharp ex­change be­tween Moscow and Tehran was re­hearsed and staged is not known here.

Per­haps Moscow is try­ing to do two things at once: reac­quire and re­in­force Wash­ing­ton’s credulity to­ward Rus­sia’s in­ten­tions and ca­pa­bil­i­ties, tap­ping into the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s anti-Ira­nian sen­ti­ment; and sig­nal Tehran it is im­per­il­ing their joint client by pro­vok­ing Is­rael dan­ger­ously with the “re­sis­tance front” agenda in Syria’s south­west

In the end, how­ever, Moscow knows Iran’s de­par­ture from Syria would leave As­sad with a ground mil­i­tary force more adept at loot­ing from United Na­tions hu­man­i­tar­ian con­voys than fir­ing and ma­neu­ver­ing pro­fes­sion­ally. It hopes to man­age both Wash­ing­ton and Tehran in Syria. It hopes to kill off the sta­bi­liza­tion of north­east­ern Syria and the “re­sis­tance front” in the south­west.

Rus­sia get­ting Wash­ing­ton to be­lieve again in the Krem­lin’s ca­pac­ity for do­ing good in Syria is vi­tal for (a) keep­ing in place a fam­ily whose pol­icy of state ter­ror has helped to un­der­mine Amer­i­can re­la­tion­ships in the re­gion and far be­yond, while (b) boost­ing Putin po­lit­i­cally at home. An ad­min­is­tra­tion ea­ger to wash its hands of Syria will ea­gerly ac­cept as re­al­ity press re­ports of Tehran-Moscow con­flict. If such ea­ger­ness does not ex­ist, cau­tion is very much in or­der.

Rus­sia want to keep in place a fam­ily whose pol­icy of state ter­ror has un­der­mined the U.S.

Fred­eric C. Hof is a non­res­i­dent se­nior fel­low at the Rafik Hariri Cen­ter for the Mid­dle East. This com­men­tary is pub­lished by per­mis­sion from the At­lantic Coun­cil and can be ac­cessed at: http://www.at­lantic­coun­cil.org/blogs/syr­i­a­source/rus sia-and-iran-split­ting-over-syria.

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