The future of the Iranian presence in Syria is a point where public and non-public moves intersect, whether on the internal level, the region and the world. However, will this intersection lead to understandings that require Iran to withdraw its military presence in exchange for accepting its existence or its economic expansion?
Damascus built its policy on the “strategic alliance” with Tehran and requested its intervention as soon as the protests erupted at the beginning of 2011.
At first, it was a “soft” intervention, then it developed into an extreme military, economic and militia support, as of the end of 2012. In mid-2015, this intervention was not sufficient to “save the allied regime.”
Thus, Tehran sought the help of Moscow, which was waiting for the opportunity, and intervened at the end of that year to prevent the “recurrence of an Iraqi or Libyan scenario”, restore its influence in Syria, and use the country as a gateway to return to the warm waters of the Mediterranean and to the Middle East.
For reasons specific to this land and the Middle East region, the Russian-Iranian cooperation remained solid and integrated on the ground and in the air, in parallel with Russian-Turkish understandings in northern and northwestern Syria.
Tehran and Ankara strengthened their military presence with Moscow’s approval in different regions. In parallel, the US took control of Al-Tanf base in northeastern Syria and east of the Euphrates, to defeat ISIS and prevent its return, but, also, to cut off the road between Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut.
All this led to the establishment of three “spheres of influence” between four foreign armies, amid the escalation of Israel’s aerial bombardment of “Iranian sites.”
“Red lines” were defined: Preventing the Iranian positioning, averting the delivery of long-range missiles and advanced weapons to Hezbollah, and hindering the establishment of long-range missile factories.
As for Arab countries, concern about the Iranian role and its growth is a result of Tehran’s destabilizing policies in the region, especially in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and others.
Ten years following Iran’s intervention in Syria, reducing or containing its role has become the demand of most players.
Russia wants to “control Iranian influence” because it sees it as a competitor. The US has set “the exit of all foreign forces, except for the Russian army and the return to pre-2011,” a precondition for any normalization or contribution to reconstruction. This condition was also included on Israel’s list of requirements for “preventing positioning” in response to proposals to test peace negotiations, even though Damascus still adheres to its demand to regain the Golan.
The Arab countries, for their part, insist on the “withdrawal of sectarian militias” as a condition for the solution in Syria and its return to the Arab League.
The administration of former US President Donald Trump and its allies betted on the “maximum pressure” policy on Damascus and Tehran, whether by imposing sanctions and isolation or by abandoning the nuclear agreement.
But President Joe Biden’s administration has preferred other options. It is clear that the Vienna negotiations are putting the final touches on returning to the agreement, and that the US administration does not have the appetite for much involvement in the Middle East, with the exception of the Iranian and Yemeni issues.
Public and undeclared contacts in the region and abroad are underway to place the Iranian presence in Syria within the understandings as a thread that links several matters together.
During the nuclear deal negotiations under Obama’s tenure, the US team intended not to raise the Syrian issue, and “not to provoke Iran in Syria” to push it to sign the agreement.
Some observers say that one of the reasons for Obama’s backing down on military intervention at the end of 2013 was his fear that this would affect the nuclear talks, which culminated in an agreement at the end of 2015 in conjunction with the Russian intervention in the country.
Now, the opposite is happening. An understanding is made with Tehran to “curb its military role” in Syria, while distinguishing between the regular army and the militias, within the framework of the second phase of the US policy to the deal with Iran, which includes returning to the agreement and lifting the sanctions, then discussing ballistic missiles and the regional role.
Tehran’s declaration to make a change in its military role and the deployment of Hezbollah in Syria will open several diplomatic loopholes, especially if it comes in parallel with serious steps related to launching a settlement and implementing Resolution 2254: This will strengthen Biden’s position vis-à-vis the institutions pressuring him regarding Syria and Israel and encourage Arab countries to “normalize” with Damascus and test the Syrian and Iranian approach to contribute to the reconstruction of the county and solve its economic problems.
Such declaration will also come in favor of the “Russian Syria” at the expense of the “Iranian Syria”, and put pressure on Turkey to withdraw its forces or reduce its influence in the north of the country.
It will also remove a pretext for the continuation of the US military presence in eastern Syria, perhaps allow the gradual restoration of Damascus’ sovereignty by over the entire territory and contribute to changing regional balances and the birth of new arrangements in the Middle East.
This explains recent comments by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to his US counterpart Antony Blinken in their last meeting in preparation for the Biden summit with Vladimir Putin in mid-June: “We are not happy with Iran’s presence in Syria, but as long as there is no change in America’s approach to it, there is no solution to this presence.”
Therefore, will Syria open the door for a new approach to Iran’s role? Is it linked with Washington not issuing new sanctions under the Caesar Act and its intention to lift some sanctions for “humanitarian reasons”? Is it also connected with the Arab-Syrian signs of rapprochement? Do the different positions over the Syrian elections and the victory of President Bashar al-Assad fall within a new positioning of the next phase?