Analysis Push for Syria Solution May Hasten Iranian Forces’ Exit

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shakes hands with Iranian President Hassan Rohani, Tehran, Iran, September 7, 2018.

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is having difficulty finding a gap in Vladimir Putin’s schedule, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met his Russian counterpart no less than three times this month. Their last meeting was on Monday, when the two inaugurated the underwater section of a gas pipe connecting Russia and Turkey that increases Turkey’s import of Russian gas by more than 50 percent.

But the strategic link between Russia and Turkey isn’t only based on gas export. The two states concur on a solution to the crisis in Syria and, together with Iran, manage the war-torn country’s safe zones. In addition, Turkey and Russia both strongly disagree with the United States on Syria’s future, the withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, and Iran’s status in Syria.

Moscow’s position was publicly established last August, when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared that all foreign forces that weren’t invited by the Assad regime must withdraw from the country after victory is declared over the Islamic State. Iran and Russia are “invited” states, the U.S. and Turkey are not. But while Russia demands the departure of American forces, it displays considerable flexibility toward Turkey’s presence, despite the fact that Turkish troops conquered part of the Kurdish enclave in western Syria, in effect tearing off a part of the country.

The United States doesn’t have an alternative strategy to solve the war in Syria or deal with the Iranian presence there. According to the new American envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, the U.S. “understands the Russian interests in Syria,” which include military bases and a friendly government in Damascus. But as for the Iranian forces, the story is more complicated.

In April, U.S. President Donald Trump stated that he aspires to bring the American troops operating in Syria home after the triumph over the Islamic State. He no longer demanded removing Assad from power, but insisted he order the Iranian forces to leave Syria. Since then the American policy changed. In September, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton said, “We’re not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders, and that includes Iranian proxies and militias.”

If until April the American administration had used the war on terror as the main pretext for the legitimacy of the American military involvement in Syria, now the administration is talking about the need for stability, a peaceful solution and the departure of Iranian forces as a prerequisite to pulling out American forces.  It’s not clear if Congress will accept Trump’s analysis that stability in Syria is an inseparable part of the war on terror, but meanwhile, the president has garnered enough political backing to continue the military involvement there.

Could the U.S. Army clash with Iranian forces to drive them out of Syria? Jeffrey has said that removing Iranian troops will be done by diplomatic means and pressure, while Netanyahu stated this week that the U.S. alone is incapable of compelling them to leave.

In light of the Russian pressure on Israel and the suspension of the two country’s military cooperation, it is doubtful whether Israel will be able to take military measures to accelerate the exit of Iranian troops. Instead of resorting to a military act, the American administration hopes the economic sanctions will force Iran to slash military expenses and pull some of its forces out of Syria. But if there’s one strategic goal Iran is committed to, it’s the presence of its troops in Syria and its influence in Lebanon by means of Hezbollah.

The other source of potential pressure to get the Iranian forces to quit Syria is the Kremlin, which alone can demand of Assad to revoke his invitation to the Iranians. But the Kremlin is in no hurry to pressure Iran, which Russia is using as a bargaining chip against America. Besides, there is no certainly that Iran would comply with such a demand.

Iran’s leadership is preoccupied with finding ways around the sanctions, as well as with internal disagreements, and has moved the Syrian issue to the back burner. The European Union’s promises to operate a financial mechanism to bypass the American sanctions – U.K. Foreign Affairs Secretary Jeremy Hunt visited Tehran this week – haven’t exactly been kept. The plan is to rely on barters that don’t require the use of dollars and on deals paid in euros or calculated in Iranian currency. But European banks aren’t rushing to respond to their governments’ calls for fear of sanctions by the U.S. administration.