WASHINGTON — The U.S. national security adviser, John Bolton, has devoted the past week to discussions with Israel and Russia on the future of Syria. At the beginning of the week, just before he arrived in Israel, Bolton said Russia agreed with the United States that Iranian forces must leave Syria, but Moscow doesn’t think it has the ability to force them out. At the end of the week, as Bolton heads back to Washington, that statement still seems true.
On paper there seems to be a consensus among Israel, the United States, Russia and leading Arab countries that Iran must get out of Syria. “The military threat Iran poses in Syria is a big concern everywhere in the region,” a senior White House official told Haaretz. The sticking point, however, is the best way to deal with that military threat. Everyone wants Iran out, but does anyone have a credible plan to achieve this?
So far, Israel has laid the responsibility for pushing Iran out on Russia. The Moscow-Tehran alliance helped Syrian President Bashar Assad emerge victorious from seven years of civil war. Iran played an important role in Assad’s victory, but Russia’s role was decisive, and Israeli officials were hoping that President Vladimir Putin would use his influence to drive Iran out.
Russia, however, has told Israel a number of times that it doesn’t have this ability. At one point, Putin told Bolton that he also wants Iran to leave Syria, but that Russia alone can’t achieve this. So far, Russia has kept Iranian forces 85 kilometers (53 miles) from the Israeli border, with one notable exception: Iranians are still present in and around Damascus.
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The Trump administration, meanwhile, has included an Iranian withdrawal from Syria among the dozen conditions for any new agreement between Tehran and Washington that would replace the 2015 nuclear deal. U.S. policy is to tighten financial pressure on Iran through sanctions in the hope that Tehran either returns to the negotiating table and agrees to leave Syria, or its economic crisis worsens and the Islamic Republic is forced to minimize its investment in military interventions abroad.
Waiting for the reconstruction
Still, some analysts believe that the entire debate over “pushing Iran out of Syria” is unrealistic. Iran has thousands of soldiers and Shi’ite militia fighters on Syrian soil, and it’s anxiously waiting to reap the benefits of Syria’s reconstruction process. Getting all of its military and loyal militias out of Syria could hurt its plans to profit from the rebuilding at a time when the country desperately needs income because of the American pressure.
Tamara Cofman Wittes, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution, wrote last month on Twitter that “Iran and Syria have an alliance of 30+ years’ duration,” adding that the idea that the United States, even with Russia’s concurrence, could engineer Iran’s ouster from Syria was preposterous. She called this “yet another dishonest statement of U.S. policy toward this horrific war.”
Hussein Ibish, an expert at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told Haaretz that for Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, three of Iran’s main rivals in the Middle East, the key objective right now is to contain Iran’s presence in Syria. “They originally wanted to see Iran rolled out of Syria, but there is an understanding that right now, this will be very hard to achieve,” Ibish said. “A more realistic goal, for the time being, is to deny Iran any further victories and achievements in Syria.”
One concern for those countries and Israel is the possibility of Iran creating a “corridor” of military and political power stretching from Tehran to Iraq, Syria and into Lebanon. Israel considers that scenario a strategic threat and has shown that it won’t hesitate to take military action to stall the emergence of such a corridor. But there’s a big difference between blocking that scenario and completely kicking Iran out of Syria.
“Bolton’s assessment is sadly realistic. It would take a level of commitment by Russia that is not in the cards – essentially to fight Iran in Syria – to ensure Iran’s full departure,” said Dan Shapiro, the previous U.S. ambassador to Israel.
“So Israel and the U.S. should focus on ensuring that Israel continues to have the freedom of action necessary to strike Iranian targets in Syria as needed to keep the threat from reaching unacceptable proportions. And U.S. troops should remain in Syria, which helps impose limits on areas Iran can operate.”
One option that has been raised by some Israeli officials is that Assad could eventually become a partner for ensuring Iran’s ouster. The logic is that just like Russia, Assad has no use for an Iranian presence in his country once he ensures his victory in the civil war.
In fact, Iran can only become a source of danger for Assad because of Tehran’s possible confrontations with Israel. But Assad contradicted this thesis by saying last month that he wants Iran and Hezbollah to remain in Syria for a long time and help him ensure his country’s stability.
Also, some experts believe that trying to work with Assad will be inevitable for the United States and other players in the region as he deepens his control over his country. “Normalization of Assad” is how Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East adviser to Republican and Democratic administrations, described the emerging policy.
Assad is “the problem but will likely be part of a solution,” Miller wrote on Twitter, adding that this process “began under Obama; has accelerated under Trump’s courting of Putin. Israel has bought on; the Lebanese too; Turkey will have no choice; and Jordan as well.”
A senior European diplomat has told Haaretz that European leaders are concerned about possible U.S.-Russian understandings on Syria that would include Washington allowing a “normalization” of Assad.
But can some level of acceptance of Assad help drive out Iran? The same European diplomat said the chances of that happening are “very low,” explaining that “Assad needs Iran and will continue to need Iran in the near future. His rule is not going be strong and stable even once he controls the entire country. Iran’s presence will help him deter the angry and oppressed population of his country from even thinking about reigniting the civil war. He won’t give up on that anytime soon.”
A key aspect of Iran’s support for Assad has been its use in Syria of Shi’ite militias from countries in the wider region such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Any discussion about Iran’s future in Syria includes those militias, and there are no signs at the moment that the Assad regime is willing to get rid of them.
“Their continued presence in Syria provides the regime with an opportunity to consolidate its rule and expand its authority beyond major urban population centers,” said Ali Alfoneh, an expert on Iran who has written about the various militias operating in Syria. “In the longer term, we may even witness a permanent presence of those militias on Syrian territory and a demographic-sectarian change in strategic areas.
Alfoneh added that “I have the sense that we have reached a point where all parties involved are used to the presence of these militias, including Israel. As long as there is no or very small Shi’a militia presence at the Israeli border, all parties can live with status quo.” Despite all the rhetoric about kicking Iran out of Syria, that last observation seems to be true – at least for now.