President Donald Trump’s surprise decision Dec. 19 to pull US forces out of Syria has sparked different reactions, both inside and outside the United States. US allies France and Britain expressed their dissatisfaction over the move, emphasizing that the Western mission in Syria is still far from accomplished. Russia and Turkey, as two pillars of the Astana framework, welcomed the decision, seeing it as a positive step toward resolving the Syrian crisis. At the same time, American lawmakers from both ends of the US political spectrum interpreted the move as a mistake that would empower Iran and Russia in Syria.
Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic was largely silently, observing all these debates and not adopting an official position on the development. Iran’s first official reaction came three days after the US decision, on Dec. 22, when Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghassemi said, “From the start, the entry and presence of American forces in the region has been a mistake … and a main cause of instability and insecurity.” He stopped short of elaborating Tehran’s view on the implications of the US move on the political and military equations in Syria. Instead he reiterated the Islamic Republic’s general viewpoint toward the US presence in the Middle East.
In explaining Tehran's cautious approach, it could be said that Iran is not yet sure if the move will lead to any changes in the US strategy of minimizing Iran’s activities in the region, including in Syria. Just one day after Trump’s decision, Rodney Hunter, the political coordinator of the US mission to the United Nations, told the UN Security Council that Washington “will use all instruments of [its] national power to press for a withdrawal of Iranian-backed forces” from Syria. To Iranian officials, this statement is just a rephrasing of what US Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey said Nov. 15, that forcing Iran out of Syria is not a military goal of the United States, but should instead come as a result of a political process.
Mindful of this persistent element of US Syria policy, Iran has, in the past several weeks, been busy working on its own plans to preserve its interests in Syria. At the political level, we’ve witnessed increased Iranian efforts within the Astana framework to accelerate the formation of a Syrian Constitutional Committee, as was agreed to at the Syrian National Congress in the Russian city of Sochi in January 2018. On Dec. 17, Hossein Jaberi Ansari, senior assistant to Iran's foreign minister, visited Damascus to hold talks with senior Syrian officials, including President Bashar al-Assad. At the meeting, Assad hailed Iran’s efforts in forming the constitutional committee. Jaberi’s visit came just a day before a meeting between the foreign ministers of Iran, Russia and Turkey in Geneva, in which they reportedly reached an agreement on the makeup of the constitutional committee, as well as on setting the first meeting of the committee in early 2019.
The Geneva meeting was particularly important. Just two weeks before, on Dec. 5, Jeffrey had criticized Tehran, Moscow and Ankara for failing to form the constitutional committee, calling for an end to the work of the Astana format. “The US view is, let’s pull the plug on Astana,” said Jeffrey, suggesting that the UN-led Geneva talks should replace the Astana initiative. As such, it could be said that Jaberi’s meeting with Assad was aimed at persuading him to show more cooperation in forming the constitutional committee — or even to agree with giving some concessions in this regard — in order to deprive Washington of any excuse to justify its attempts to weaken the Astana format and thereby Iran’s role in the Syrian political process.
At the same time, Iran has so far been silent on Turkey’s persistent threats to conduct a military operation against the armed Kurdish groups in eastern Syria. Kurdish forces, which constitute the main part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, Washington’s main ally in fighting the Islamic State in Syria, are deemed terrorists by Turkey. While the Islamic Republic does not officially share this view with Ankara, it has been worried that close ties between the Syrian Kurds and Washington, as well as the existence of centrifugal tendencies among them, could become a danger for Syria’s territorial integrity. Tehran has been in favor of a compromise between Assad and the Kurds, whereby Damascus could regain control over the areas currently under Kurdish control east of the Euphrates.
Now it seems that, after the Kurds and Damascus have failed to reach a compromise, Tehran thinks Ankara putting real pressure on the Kurds would probably work. In other words, either the Kurds — under the pressure of Ankara’s threats of military intervention — will finally agree to a compromise with Assad, or Turkey will go ahead with the military option, which would once and for all deprive the United States of its most powerful asset in Syria. In return, Turkey has recently shown more openness toward accepting Assad in power in Syria. As such, Tehran assesses the current state of affairs in the eastern Euphrates as a win-win situation. However, as the US pullout would deprive the Kurds of their main protector in the face of an imminent Turkish invasion, the first scenario now appears more likely.
Iran, Russia, Syria and Iraq are working on developing their cooperation within the framework of their joint command center, according to reports. This means that Iran is also working on the ground to make sure that its interests in preserving a land connection between Iraq and Syria would remain intact in the face of any unfavorable development, such as the revival of the Islamic State in eastern Syria as a result of the US withdrawal. Therefore, it’s safe to argue that not only does Iran not see Trump’s decision as a total victory, but it is in fact trying to widen its space for maneuvering in Syria to not get hit by the negative implications of the US withdrawal.