Analysis

To Get Iran Out of Syria, Israel and the U.S. Must Cooperate With Putin

Russia's strategy is now the main guarantee to prevent war between Iran and Israel. The question is if Tehran will keep seeing eye to eye with Moscow

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar Assad during their meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, May 17, 2018.
Mikhail Klimentyev/AP

The Russian president raised a slight commotion last week when he said “in light of the fact that a more active political process has begun, foreign armed forces will start leaving Syrian territory.” The show was well planned. On May 9 Putin met with Benjamin Netanyahu, five days later Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif met with his counterpart Sergey Lavrov, and on May 17, Bashar Assad was summoned to Sochi to hear what Putin had agreed on.

Presumably everyone agreed that foreign forces would leave Syria. But Assad came mainly to receive instructions, as well as assignments he must carry out to advance Russia’s moves. One assignment is to amend the Syrian constitution to ensure more rights and political representation for ethnic groups. Thus a delegation of Russian jurists is expected in Damascus soon to “help” Assad draft the amendments.

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The second pertains to the increasing Russian investment in rebuilding Syria and giving priority to Russian companies in running projects. The third, which is important to Israel, is to lower Iran’s profile in Syria.

Speaking to Haaretz, diplomatic sources said Putin made clear to Assad that he must lower the risk of war between Israel and Iran in Syria. But it’s not clear if Putin forbade Assad to set up Iranian missile bases in Syria. Putin’s measured words could be seen as a signal to Iran to prepare to withdraw its forces. But Putin’s spokesman said the reference was to “countries whose military presence in Syria is against international law.”

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In other words, the United States and Turkey, not Iran and Russia. An Iranian diplomat added that “no one can force Iran to do anything against its will.”

The Russian plan isn’t demanding an immediate withdrawal of foreign forces — Iranian, Turkish and American — but refers to a process beginning with resuming the talks between the rebels, opposition and the regime. The sides will agree on terms of reconciliation, or rather surrender. If this stage is successful, a caretaker government will be formed to prepare for elections, and after the elections the foreign forces’ withdrawal will be discussed.

If Israel and the United States expect Iran to withdraw its forces from Syria, as Donald Trump has demanded, they’ll have to support the Russian plan and hope Putin succeeds in forcing his will on the militias, which have so far rejected most of Russia’s reconciliation proposals.

Israel, the United States, Russia and Iran no longer disagree on Assad’s remaining in power. They all agree that there’s no realistic alternative to the president responsible for murdering half a million people. And they all recognize that there’s no alternative to Russia’s diplomatic moves, whose results they’ll eventually have to support at the United Nations.

Real estate deals for Russia, Iran

Russia’s current demand is to carry out these moves without hindrance, with Israel and the United States not launching a campaign against Iran in Syria, which could seriously disrupt Russia’s initiative.

In recent weeks Russia achieved a victory for Assad in the East Ghouta region, and last week it helped the regime take over the Yarmouk refugee camp in south Damascus, or what was left of it. Islamic State forces that remained in the camp signed a retreat agreement and were exiled to the desert near Homs, while the few remaining Palestinian and Syrian civilians headed north in convoys. The camp’s destruction was completed almost entirely and footage shows that not a single house was left standing in the place that had been home to hundreds of thousands of people.

Syrian soldiers swooped in on furniture and other items left in the ruins, as they did in Aleppo and Ghouta. These items have become an added source of income for the regime’s soldiers and militias. Yarmouk will join the list of real estate assets whose renovation will be offered to Russian or Iranian companies as part of the compensation for their economic aid to Syria.

Damascus will give Russian companies projects consisting of tens of thousands of housing units and complexes in several cities such as Daraa and Douma, near which Assad’s army attacked civilians with chemical weapons.

These cities’ residents, who fled and want to come back, are in for a nasty surprise. The regime has passed a law stipulating that, within a month of the law’s publication, property owners must submit documents proving they’re the owners if they’re to rebuild their homes or get their land back. But the residents aren’t allowed to return to the cities, so they can’t submit any documents. If they fail to prove ownership, the regime can confiscate their property.

Engineering a new demography

It’s feared that the regime and Iran will populate the cities with Shi’ites from Iraq. These demographic changes aren’t new to Syria. Arab residents moved to former Kurdish areas, some 300 Iraqi families settled in Syria in 2016, and now thousands more are expected to take the place of the original residents.

In recent days, social media in Syria reported the possibility that the Arab forces who are partners to the Kurdish militia cooperating with the Americans will return to the Syrian army. This move is part of the Russian drive to destroy the rebel militias via local agreements, thus eliminating their objection to the diplomatic process.

Two and a half years have passed since Russia’s massive involvement in the war in Syria, a relatively short period for Russia’s success so far. It got the United States out of the Syrian arena, revived the Assad regime, which has regained most of the country, and pushed Iran out of the strategic-move business. Russia also achieved a monopoly in running the diplomacy. All this requires it to speed up the diplomatic process and set faits accomplis to complete it.

Moscow’s strategy is now the most important guarantee to prevent a war between Iran and Israel in Syria that could develop into a clash between Iran and the United States. The question is whether Iran will continue to see eye to eye with Russia — which would require Tehran to withdraw its forces from Syria. If Iran decides to retreat, how could it show that this is part of coordination with Russia rather than a surrender to the American ultimatum? How can it protect its interests in Syria and Lebanon without maintaining a military force in Syria?

It seems that Israel, Iran and the United States will have to cooperate with Russia and lower their expectations of Tehran in the short term to get it out of Syria in the medium term.