After President Donald Trump’s announcement of a unilateral US military withdrawal from Syria, many viewpoints on the matter have surfaced. In Iran, there are many different perceptions of the announcement and its implications for Iran's national interests and strategy in Syria. As some analysts have pointed out, Iranian experts have offered three explanations for the withdrawal: a stunt for the 2020 US presidential elections; a move to prolong the war in Syria in order to create a gap between Iran, Turkey and Russia; and an opportunity for Arab allies of the United States to assume a greater role in Syria.
In addressing the likelihood of a potential Iran-US compromise on Syria, one must consider the key drivers and obstacles to such a scenario. With respect to drivers of a compromise, there are four main elements.
Iran's preservation of Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power: From the beginning of the war in Syria, Iran’s main goal has been to maintain the rule of Assad, which guarantees the Syrian government’s support of Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement. Hezbollah has been of great strategic value for the Islamic Republic because of its military and security conflict with Israel, Iran’s main rival in the region. After seven years of war, Iran’s strategic goal in Syria has been achieved.
Cautious approach among Iranian public opinion: The Islamic Republic has justified its presence in Syria to the Iranian public on the basis of two considerations. First, there is the ideational aspect, which seeks to explain the Iranian presence on the basis of sacred defense of the holy shrines in the Arab country, including that of Zainab bint Ali in southern Damascus, which has long been a major Shiite pilgrimage site. Second, there is a strategic logic that argues that Iran’s internal security depends heavily on the fight against radical Wahhabism and the Islamic State abroad, in places such as Iraq and Syria. These two explanations will likely continue to hold up as long as there is an imminent threat in Syria toward the holy shrines, or indeed Iran’s own borders.
The negative Iranian approach to the strengthening of military ties with Russia: A continuation or further expansion of Iran’s presence in Syria means that Tehran will have to expand its ties with Russia in order to balance Turkey and the Arab states. The previous close military cooperation between Iran and Russia has shown that from the viewpoint of political circles in Iran and some parts of Iranian public opinion, Russia is not considered as a reliable partner. Therefore, further cooperation with Russia to fill the power vacuum in Syria amid a US withdrawal will likely carry some political costs in Iranian domestic politics.
The possibility of a Turkey-Iran clash in Syria: Although Iran,Turkey and Russia are considered close partners in Syria, a US withdrawal could ignite some gaps in this triangle. Turkey has compromised on its previous insistence on Assad’s immediate removal. However, it is still very important for Turkey to have an influential role in the future political system in Syria. For this reason, Turkey may use its military presence in the north and east of Syria as leverage for bargaining over the political process as the war winds down. Meanwhile, there are other challenges to consider in this equation. For instance, as the Syrian military returns to some Kurdish areas, including Manbij, such maneuvers will be problematic for Turkey. Here, there is also the factor of Iran’s attempts to play a mediator role between the Syrian Kurds and Assad.
There are also a number of obstacles to a potential compromise between Iran and the United States on Syria.
A lack of trust between Iran and the United States: Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has left no room for trust-building between the two countries. Putting aside the tough rhetoric of some members of his administration, Trump's long-term objective with reference to Iran appears to be to reach a comprehensive deal with maximum benefits for the Untied States. At the same time, Iran's long-term objective is to expand its influence in the region at the expense of the United States, in a zero-sum game. Against this backdrop, Trump’s rhetorical position that the United States is not going to be the world’s policeman can be considered in Iran’s interest, at least in the near future.
While Iran and the United States are already working indirectly on issues such as Yemen and Syria, any mutual compromise on such regional issues will require direct contact that is hard to envision given the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal.
The negative role of some European countries: European countries, and especially France and Germany, are skeptical of a US withdrawal from Syria. They believe that a decrease in Western military commitment will lead to potential chaos near its southern frontier, including a prospect for more complicated problems in Syria that may threaten the stability of other countries, too. Mindful of these concerns and anxieties, it appears that any compromise between Iran and the United States without the participation or coordination of the European Union would be doomed to fail.
Increasing US military activity on the Iraq-Syria border: Iran’s secondary objective in Syria is to gain access to Lebanon. A full land bridge from Iran will not be possible unless it runs through western Iraq. Against this backdrop, Trump's recent surprise visit to Iraq shows a US policy of not allowing Iran to use its huge influence in Iraq to consolidate its power in Syria. One sign of the latter are the signs of an increasing US military presence on the Iraqi-Syrian border.
In sum, a US withdrawal from Syria — regardless of its quality and quantity — would have significant political and security implications for the region. It is a signal of the beginning of plan B for the United States and its Arab allies to have greater influence in the political process, and more importantly, in the reconstruction phase in Syria. Against this backdrop, the main feasible scenario would be the return of Assad’s government to the Arab League on the condition that it moves away from Iran. As part of the latter, it is not improbable that Saudi Arabia, for instance, could offer to provide the Syrian government with financial aid for reconstruction in return for an official Syrian request of Iran to pull out.
As such, it seems that the main underlying objective of the United States and its allies is to deprive Iran of its political, military and economic influence in the future Syria. Therefore, it seems that the best option for Iran would be to bargain over a regional compromise or detente aimed at establishing limited policy cooperation in Syria with all influential actors, in a manner that can gradually lead to more security and prosperity in the region, and more importantly, easing sanctions pressure on Iran. However, for that scenario to be realized, it is necessary for the barriers to a compromise with actors such as the United States to be removed.
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