Apart from Russia, it is Iran that has a legitimate presence in Syria, and has fought directly to prevent the fall of Assad from power. Over the last six years of Syrian war, Iran’s role and character has expanded and changed from sending military advisers and fighters to becoming a new bone of contention between Russia and the US over its future presence and role. And despite the persistent demands made by both the US and Israel, Iran’s exit from Syria looks highly unlikely. On the contrary, as Iran sees it, as the Syrian end-game approaches, it’s about time for it to capitalize on its victory and deepen its presence in Syria, while forcing the US out. Iran, as such, is not going to exit. This intention was clearly expressed through a fresh military cooperation agreement signed between Iran and Syria at the end of August. The agreement was signed just a week after John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, demanded that Iran withdrew all of its forces from Syria. Iran responded by finalizing the agreement and further clarifying that it had no intention of withdrawal.
“The continued presence of Iranian (military) advisers in Syria was part of this military cooperation agreement between Tehran and Damascus,” said Tehran’s military attaché to Damascus, Abolqassem Alinejad.
And, it is not just strategic calculations i.e., the imperative of defeating US-Saudi agenda, that are currently guiding Iranian policy vis-à-vis Syria; Iran equally wants to benefit from Syria by investing money in its post-war reconstruction, which is just more than active participation in the massive reconstruction and, in fact, is yet another way of deepening its presence.
And, despite the western calculations and speculations about the “possible rift” between Assad and Iran, there is no gainsaying that Assad benefits heavily from Iranian presence. On the one hand, it helps an immediate purpose of regime maintenance, and on the other hand, it allows Assad to have diverse options at its disposal. In simple words, from Assad’s point of view, a consistent Iranian presence in Syria will help it not to become overly dependent on Russia.
And while Iran continues to deepen its presence in Syria, there’s challenges that it has to face going down this path, namely American boots on the ground and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). As long as Washington has the above mentioned figures on the board, as its officials have recently confirmed they have no intention of withdrawing American troops, Iran’s presence will remain subjected to controversy. Hence, the question for Iran: how to get rid of Washington in Syria?
Iran can certainly not directly attack either the US forces or SDF unless, of course, there is a direct provocation, which looks highly unlikely at this stage in the war. But Iran can try to use Russia to help it pressurize the US enough to force to withdraw. But how and will this happen is yet to be seen. For now, Iran’s manoeuvres against the US and US-backed forces include building a new narrative that shows the US forces as foreign occupants of Syria.
This narrative will gain strength as the Syrian regime recovers more and more of its territory from jihadi warlords. With Idlib now the last remaining stronghold of the jihadis, and with Turkey now taking responsibility for managing this area and clearing it off all the remaining groups, Syria’s territorial integrity will be reestablished again. The only areas that will continue to remain out of Damascus’ reach are going to be the ones managed by the US and SDF forces.
Therefore, once Syria gets control of Idlib, the Iranian narrative on the US and SDF being the last standing reasons for the irresolution of conflict will get stronger and a lot more convincing. In this, Iran will certainly be benefitted by the US narrative, according to which the cardinal purpose of their presence and involvement has been defeating ISIS. And since ISIS has already been defeated and since Syrian regime has re-established its writ, there remains no need for an un-authorized and illegitimate presence of US forces.
Iran is thus aiming to frame the situation as a US “occupation” which is preventing the area east of the Euphrates from joining the rest of the liberated Syrian territories, thus blocking Syrian re-unification.
It is perhaps for this reason that Iran agreed to Russia-Turkey deal on Idlib despite the fact that it had earlier hoped for a direct offensive and rapid clearance of the area. By agreeing to this deal, Iran has opened up the way for further cooperation between Russia, Turkey and Iran regarding clearing the SDF-controlled areas, where the interests of all of these countries converge deeply. And as Rouhani recently said that the final step to resolve the Syrian crisis would be “in eastern Euphrates [where] it is mainly America’s illegal interventions that are causing the problems … one of our demands are for American forces to get out of Syria immediately.”
And, as Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier in September that “the US is containable” and that Iran and Russia should continue close cooperation towards this goal.
Apart from building pressure on the US through a coordinated effort of Russia and Turkey, Iran can do other things as well. Not only can it exploit divisions among the Kurds, but also incite anti-American sentiments in the SDF-controlled areas and thus increase pressure on the US forces to leave the region, thus building an effective deterrent to the US plans of opening new fronts, particularly through Israel, against Iran in the Middle East.
For one thing, under these circumstance, the US strategy to either force Iran out of Syria or convince Russia of doing this are unlikely to work to the US advantage. For another, there is no gainsaying that the US doesn’t have enough power at its disposal to stop the ever increasing Iranian presence in Syria. Iran is fully aware of this fact; that is why it’s trying to out-maneuver Washington and roll back on the American presence in Syria.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.