With the heat developing on the question of Iran’s presence in Syria, a presence which is neither illegitimate nor an invasion of the sorts the US is known for doing, tension in the region is likely to rise. As we write, Israel has already rejected Russia’s more than reasonable offer to create a 60-mile buffer between the Israeli border and Iranian forces in Syria, letting the world know its intention that they wouldn’t be satisfied on anything less than a virtual Iranian withdrawal from a country where Iran backed forces played a critical role in alliance with Syrian and Russian forces to defeat the world’s richest and most brutal terror outfit, the Islamic State/Daesh. Obviously, this defeat did also mean a defeat for the regional, including Israel, and extra-regional actors’ plan to ‘send Assad home’ to pave the way for altering the Middle East’s balance of power to their advantage, and thus establish complete dominance over the world’s crucial land route and one of the richest energy region. With Iran now firmly established in Syria and the region, Iran’s primary enemies—Israel, the US and Saudia—are bent upon undoing it. Hence, the US withdrawal from the Iran-nuke deal, not because Iran was violating it but because Israel was able to ‘convince’ Donald Trump of the necessity of doing so.
But by thus raising heat, Israel and the US aren’t going to see an Iranian permanent exit from Syria. While Russia does value its relations with Israel—and that’s why Russia is trying to sort the issue out—Russia does see in Iran a potential long-term ally to prevent the recurrence of another Daesh in the region; for without Iran, Daesh would have easily spread far and wide across West and Central Asia. Iran, therefore, remains crucial in the fight against engineered religious terrorism, which has been defeated but is yet not dead either physically or as a policy. Indeed, many in Israel have been arguing to preserve Daesh, calling its elimination a strategic mistake, to use it as a tool against Iran.
Russia will not, therefore, simply hand over Iran to Israel and the US. And its reasons also include the fact that the US-Israel-Saudia nexus is waging an all out war on Iran, a war that would stop short of nothing but ‘regime change’ in Iran and that can yield disastrous consequences for the region stretching from Syria and Iran to Central Asia and even Russia itself.
And, if the intended disaster comes to prevail, it will put the US in a position to disrupt the New Silk Roads between China and Europe, a key territorial unit of which is Iran, and the Eurasian connectivity program as well. Iran, therefore, is the key for connectivity plans that have the potential to transform the entire Asian geo-economic landscape.
But Russia also doesn’t want a military confrontation or even escalation between Iran and Israel in Syria, something that, if it happens, will seriously complicate Syrian post-war reconstruction and might even keep Russia militarily engaged for a bit longer than anticipated.
Therefore, as far as Russian approach is concerned, it is more likely to focus on restoring peace in Syria’s south in a way that might not only allow for a buffer between Iran and Israel but also leave no room for Israel to engage Syria or Iran militarily as it currently continues to do every now and then. In fact, this is already happening to an extent.
According to this Russia-Syria-Iran coordinated strategy, Iran is staying away from the liberation of south. Lead operations are being done by the Syrian government troops supported by the Russian Aerospace Forces. While Iran’s absence has been seen in the West as a prelude to its possible ‘exit’ from Russia and a result of some Russia-Israel deal, these misconceptions were effectively set aside when Alexander Lavrentiev, President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy for Syria, traveled to Tehran on July 18 and assured the Iranians of long-term cooperation in Syria. In fact, the meeting also succeeded in highlighting that the latest arrangements and achievements in southern Syria were not part of any deal between Israel and Russia, but were much in line with political process and policy framework of Astana and Sochi talks, which involves Turkey as well.
There is as such plenty of evidence to show that the extent of cooperation between Russia and Iran has in no way shrunk. In fact, when we factor-in China in the grand geo-political chessboard, Iran’s position in the region becomes even stronger.
In spite of the US sanctions against Iran, China has no intention of quitting its trade with Tehran. In fact, Beijing has plans to increase oil imports from Iran—and it is allying with Iran out of similar reasons as Russia: Iran is important not just in terms of a crucial territorial link in the New Silk Roads but also in preventing the spread of Sunni Jihadi ideology beyond west Asia.
Both Russia and China understand what Persian detablisation can do in terms of destablising the whole region. Therefore, any offer that Russia may give to Israel (and Israel would reject) will be given factoring in the imperative of preventing the western destablising agenda.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.