Iran focuses on political solution while keeping military option open in Syria

While Iran’s plan to overcome the current challenges in Syria focuses on diplomatic and political measures, Tehran is preparing for all scenarios, including military escalation.

al-monitor Iranian Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri meets with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, Syria, Jan. 29, 2019.  Photo by SANA/Handout via REUTERS.

Jun 10, 2019

The Israeli military conducted a strike against a Syrian air base in Homs province on June 3, targeting an alleged Iranian "drone facility." It came less than 24 hours after a separate round of airstrikes against Syrian military positions in the southwestern region of Quneitra, close to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Israel again claimed its targets included positions and facilities belonging to Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah.

The intensification of Israeli strikes against the positions of Iran and its allies in Syria suggests that Tel Aviv is doubling down on its efforts to contain Iran’s influence in the Arab country. However, those efforts are not limited to the military sphere, as Israeli leaders are trying to pressure the Islamic Republic on the diplomatic front as well.

The White House declared in a May 30 statement that the top security officials of the United States, Russia and Israel will meet in Jerusalem in June to discuss “regional security issues.” Later reports suggested that “the future of Iran’s presence in Syria” would be at the top of the meeting’s agenda, with Washington and Tel Aviv trying to compel Moscow to take concrete steps to contain Iran’s role in Syria in exchange for certain “incentives,” like recognizing Bashar al-Assad’s legitimacy and ascertaining Washington’s contribution to the process of Syria’s reconstruction.

The United States has reportedly denied any deal with Russia on legitimizing Assad, and Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov called reports suggesting otherwise “fake news.” However, Iran's being the main topic of discussion between its partner, Russia, and its archenemies, Israel and the United States, is enough to worry Iran. As such, Tehran's main challenge in Syria — apart from facing a new wave of aggressive Israeli policies — is the possibility that Russia could change course regarding Iran's presence in Syria.

Another challenge comes from Syria’s north and northeast, where American and Turkish officials are discussing the possible establishment of a “safe zone” along the Turkish-Syrian border. Due to the recent unease in American-Turkish relations, Ankara’s long-desired plan of a safe zone is yet to be realized. Yet US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on May 31 that efforts are underway to create such a zone in northern Syria.

Reports suggest that Washington could be trying to initiate a compromise between Ankara and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which consists mostly of Syrian Kurdish groups. From the Iranian perspective, a Turkish-American deal on northern Syria could drag Ankara away from the Astana format with Tehran and Moscow, and in turn strengthen the US position in Syria. Both outcomes would have negative implications for Iran’s role in Syria.

Mindful of the above-mentioned challenges, Tehran is expected to take steps to preserve its interests and influence in Syria.

First, Iran will try to accelerate the formation of the Syrian Constitutional Committee. Tehran has already dedicated unprecedented efforts toward the realization of this goal, from attending the UN-supported talks on the issue to trying to find common ground between Ankara and Damascus regarding the committee's composition and tasks.

As possible US deals with Russia and Turkey could gradually limit Iran’s influence in Syria, Tehran wants to form the constitutional committee sooner rather than later. That way, Iran can make sure its interests and considerations are taken into account in the process of devising a new constitution for Syria. In other words, Iran wants the process of forming the committee to be concluded within the Astana format and without US influence.

Meanwhile, Iran will step up its efforts to lead the Assad government and the Syrian Kurds toward a compromise. Iran will emphasize that the Kurdish-controlled territories east of the Euphrates River should be handed over to the Syrian government, while also stating its belief in “the necessity of preserving Kurdish rights.” However, as both sides show no sign of softening their stances, Iran’s mediating efforts have so far been unsuccessful. Nonetheless, Iran may now redouble its efforts to convince Assad to offer the Kurds some concessions to win their loyalty. This would be a blow not only to the US position in Syria, but also to the Turkish plan to create the northern safe zone under the pretext of containing the Kurdish threat.

Tehran is also expected to move toward “institutionalizing” its relations with Syria by casting them within a wider regional framework. Iran’s plan to establish a rail connection from its western borders to the Mediterranean coast of Syria via Iraq can be seen as an effort to connect the economic and transportation infrastructures of the three countries. This would make it harder for third-party actors to reduce Iran’s influence in Syria, as the interests of neighboring Iraq would also be at stake.

In the security sphere, high-level contacts are in place between the Iranian military and security officials and their Syrian and Iraqi counterparts. In other words, Tehran is moving toward the formation of a comprehensive partnership framework with Baghdad and Damascus.

In the worst-case scenario, i.e., if a kind of a “grand bargain” is really made between Russia and the US-Israeli axis on containing Iran’s role in Syria, Iran may consider pushing Assad toward opening the Golan front against Israel. The main reason behind Tehran’s silence toward frequent Israeli strikes in Syria has been the concern that any escalation with Israel would mean alienating Iran’s main partner, Russia, and endangering the Tehran-Moscow partnership.

Yet, with recent Israeli moves in and around Golan, from conducting two rounds of strikes in Quneitra in just one week to violating the 1974 disengagement agreement with Syria by deploying tanks to the so-called buffer zone, the Syrian government now has every incentive to respond. Some conservative Iranian media outlets are already speculating that a Syrian military operation in Golan could be on the horizon.

As such, although Iran’s plan to overcome the current challenges in Syria contains mostly diplomatic and political measures, Tehran is preparing to face a range of probable scenarios and is determining how to react to the new challenges.

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