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Why Iran won’t leave Syria just yet

While Iran and Russia certainly have points of divergence in Syria, their bottom lines will likely continue to intersect, compelling Moscow to manage tension between Iran and Israel.
Iranian flag flutters on a truck carrying humanitarian aid in Deir al-Zor, Syria September 20, 2017. Picture taken September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki - RC1AFCE7F550

Another layer in the battle for Syria has been evident for years yet has only now come to the world’s attention. To Iran and Israel, this battle lies at the core of all that has been taking place in Syria since March 2011, when the uprising to topple President Bashar al-Assad began. To the Iranians, Assad has mainly meant a reliable ally in any future confrontation with Israel, whether between the Islamic Republic’s closest partner — Lebanon’s Hezbollah — or a wider confrontation that could involve Iran itself. This is why Tehran anticipated a grave danger when Assad’s position was threatened and thus promptly stepped in to make sure that he stays in power. This may also explain why Iran has never tolerated any consideration of an alternative to Assad, as the Iranian leadership is convinced that he is the only one in Syria who has the courage to give the Islamic Republic a frontier position against Israel.

But Iran is not Assad’s only ally. Russia is also a staunch partner of the Syrian regime. Preserving Assad’s position has been a matter of consensus between Tehran and Moscow over the past years. Moreover, to this day, it is the only thing that Russia signed up for in its cooperation with Iran. As such, Tehran’s maneuvering to position itself against Israel in Syria is not anything that Russia is ready to provide cover for or sacrifice its relations with Israel for. At this point in time, Russia is keen not to shake up its status in Syria after having ended up as a strong player there, whether in a war or indeed any sort of confrontation between Iran and Israel that could change the status quo. Meanwhile, in Tehran, there’s still vagueness about what Moscow is really seeking in Syria, displayed in the variety of voices on what to think of Russia’s policies.

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