In Helsinki, Finland, where he was attending a summit with United States President Donald Trump, on July 16, Russian President Vladimir Putin remarked that restoring peace and harmony to Syria could become an effective example of Russo-US cooperation. And he added that both states have all the “requisite elements” for that cooperation thanks, at least in part, to their military coordination in Syria (The Kremlin, July 16). These comments suggest not only that, during their meeting, the two heads of state did, in fact, discuss at length Syria and Iran’s role there, but that also, at least for Putin, a deal seems attainable. As such, his remarks seemingly provide at least partial confirmation of a flood of rumors from the Israeli and US press that Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have offered a deal to Putin, and that the United States itself expressed interest in it. The purported deal would see Russia restrict Iran’s presence in Syria—or even evict Iran from Syria—to forestall an Israeli-Iranian war that Moscow surely does not want. In return, the other parties would guarantee Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power, and Ukraine-related sanctions on Russia would be reduced, allowing US forces to evacuate Syria, as per President Trump’s stated desire (Haaretz, July 11).
Yet, there is so far no sign that Russia has begun to use its influence to restrain Iran from occupying certain areas of Syria close to Israel. Quite the contrary, Iranian and Russian forces are currently fighting side-by-side in southern Syria on al-Assad’s behalf. Nevertheless, Russia has called for foreign troops to leave Syria, and there have been recorded (though not in the Russian press) cases of friction between Russian and Iranian forces (Mid.ru, July 14). Russia’s demand that Iranian troops leave Syria after the war ends, together with rumors of a deal between Israel and the Sunni forces represented by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, has clearly rattled Iran, whose media has published numerous stories either decrying Russian infidelity or denying that there is a problem (PressTV, July 13, 14). At the same time, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has walked back the call for non-Syrian forces to leave Syria, although that is the ultimate objective (Mid.ru, July 4).
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has also continued to reiterate that Iran was legally invited by the Syrian government into Syria, therefore its presence there is legal (Mid.ru, June 29). Moreover, despite rumors that Moscow will throw Tehran under the bus in Syria for the sake of its hoped-for ties with Washington and clear concern about an Iranian-Israeli war, Russia’s present actions do not seem to presage a radical shift in its stance toward the Islamic Republic. Indeed, Russia recently announced a $50 billion energy deal with Iran, on top of almost $30 billion in such contracts announced late in 2017 (RT, April 4). Moreover, the Russian government has insisted that Iran must be a part of any process leading to the resolution of the Syrian civil war.
So while Russia may seek to restrict Iran’s presence inside Syria, it is by no means clear that it will pressure Iran to leave Syria entirely. In any case, such a move would not likely succeed. For both Tehran and Bashar al-Assad, a large Iranian presence inside Syria remains a vital interest. For Iran, it is imperative to maintain the ground link for Shiite forces that runs all the way to Lebanon, despite Israeli attacks. Iran intends to continue to uphold Shiism in Iraq and Lebanon as well as champion Hezbollah as its proxy in Lebanon so that it has a direct line to the Mediterranean. For al-Assad, meanwhile, the calculation is probably much simpler. If Iran leaves Syria, he will fall because there will be no cohesive ground force to protect him since it is clear that Moscow is loath to commit land forces to the theater.
These developments underscore the potential risks that would stem from the US dialing back sanctions on Russia to achieve a brittle modus vivendi in Syria of uncertain duration and viability. The idea that Iran is in such bad shape domestically that pressure will either destroy the regime or force it to yield to Washington echo the types of assumptions made 15 years ago about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Nor is it clear to anyone that Moscow really wants to or can force Iran out of Syria. Considering its reliance on Iranian or Iranian-backed ground forces in the Syrian war, the opposite seems more likely, at least as long as large-scale armed hostilities persist (see EDM, February 4, 2016; February 22, 2018). So while a deal along the lines suggested above may well be under discussion, there is no reason to assume a priori that it will benefit Israel, the Gulf’s Sunni powers or the US. And it might even rebound on Russia.