Analysis

Push for Syria Solution May Hasten Iranian Forces' Exit

By maintaining its status in Syria, Iran hopes to show endurance in the face of sanctions and diplomatic pressure. But the cost is high, and Tehran is looking toward Russia to break its shackles

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

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.

>> Analysis: Putin's interests in Syria and Lebanon are limiting Israel's military options

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.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Abbas Araghchi accused Europe this week of being incapable of setting up this mechanism and said European states were cooperating with the American administration, despite their objection to America's withdrawal from the nuclear agreement.

The main way around the heavy burden of the sanctions now passes through Russia and China, as well as eight other countries, including Turkey and India, which received a 180-day exemption from the sanctions. These states are expected to find alternative sources for their oil and Saudi Arabia is supposed to increase its oil production to overcome the shortage created by the ban on Iranian oil.

This course, however, not only reduces the amount of oil that Iran could sell by about a million barrels a day, it also increases Tehran's dependency on Russia and China. Such dependency could have strategic significance, if for example Russia decides to demand Iranian concessions in Syria.

Senior Iranian officials, such as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani and President Hassan Rohani, continue to declare that Iran can overcome the sanctions and that the administration is already prepared to deal with the economic difficulties. But so far, no plan reflecting a serious strategy has been put in place. Workers of the sugar factory in the city of Shush have been demonstrating over unpaid wages and work conditions for the past two weeks. The unrest has spread to several factories in other cities and police forces dispersed protests by force and arrested activists.

The banks in Dubai, where some 200,000 Iranians reside, refuse to open business and private accounts for Iranian citizens without a partner from the United Arab Emirates. Money transfers are being delayed, the trade between the United Arab Emirates and Iran has shrunk to about $1.75 billion a month compared to some $2.5 billion last December, and hundreds of Iranian business owners were forced to shut down their shops due to credit crunch. About 29 percent of the overall Iranian imports, estimated at some $70 billion, pass through the Gulf state, and this scope is likely to be significantly reduced in the coming months.

The Iranian leadership's nerve-racking state is causing internal confrontations between Rohani's government and the Conservatives in the Parliament. This week, one of the Conservative parliament members sponsored a petition demanding to impeach Foreign Affairs Minister Javad Zarif. According to Iranian law, the signatures of 10 parliament members are enough to open an impeachment process. Zarif is accused of offending state institutions by announcing that "those who make billions from money laundering are investing millions to prevent passing transparency laws, as President Rohani demands."

Zarif didn't mention the names of those bodies or individuals, but presumably he was referring mainly to the Revolutionary Guards and the welfare institutions whose budgets are not supervised by the government. Such a direct charge is not new. Rohani himself raised the wrath of the Guards' commanders by speaking out against their control of the state's coffers and important projects. Rohani said this prevents free competition and fair bids, which could reduce state expenses. But when the administration is struggling against workers' demonstrations and declaring it intends to impose economic decrees, a public statement calling the administration corrupt and its cronies money launderers' tenders evokes an extraordinary response.

A few days later, Iranian Ambassador to the U.K. Hamid Baeidinejad said that the merchandise and oil smuggling to and from Iran has reached some $12 billion a year and some 40 million liters of oil a day, in addition to $3 billion of drug smuggling. Zarif's deputy said that about $10 to 15 billion are being laundered daily.

It is doubtful whether the demand to impeach Zarif will be acted upon, as he is the head of the negotiating team with the European Union. But it's clear that the Conservative leadership is planning to blame Rohani and his government for the economic crisis created by the sanctions. In contrast, the government still has Khamenei's backing, also because Rohani's impeachment or dispersing his government could be seen as stemming from weakness under the American pressure. Such moves could be seen as displays of panic in the regime and proof that the sanctions are jeopardizing its stability.

The necessity to display endurance in the face of the sanctions and diplomatic pressures make it all the more important for Iran to maintain its status in Syria and Yemen, even if the effort impoverishes the state.

To free itself of these shackles, Iran hopes Russia will be able to accelerate the peace process in Syria. This would enable Iran to withdraw its forces from the position of a partner to the solution, rather than due to economic pressure. 

Next week, the leaders of Iran, Russia and Turkey are scheduled to meet for the 11th time in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, to discuss the continuation of the diplomatic process. Perhaps at this gathering, which will be held in the new international circumstances, it will be possible to see buds of an agreed solution to the eight-year war.