M K Bhadrakumar |
The prevailing impression is that Russia plays a hugely influential role in the Syrian conflict. But it is equally the case that there are serious limits to what Russia can do and/or is willing to do to influence the future trajectory of the conflict.
Russia and the US have managed through joint efforts to bring the conflict in southwestern Syria to an end. This has been possible because the Syrian government forces undertook the operations against extremist groups in Daraa province without involving the Iranian military advisors or Hezbollah (overtly, at least.) In turn, this provided Israel with a face-saving pretext to swallow the bitter pill – namely, accept the fait accompli of the decimation of its proxy groups in the border region with Syria.
However, Israel still swears that it will ensure the rollback of Iranian presence in all of Syria. PM Netanyahu is meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 11 to discuss the subject ahead of the Helsinki summit on July 16 between President Trump and Putin.
Iran nuclear deal, sanctions against Iran, Syrian conflict, Israel-Iran tensions, US-Iran standoff, energy security and so on. The point is, Russia is uniquely placed – on talking terms with both the US and Israel on one side and Iran and Syria on the other side.
What are the prospects of Russia playing ball with Israel and Trump to “evict” the Iranians from Syrian soil? Frankly, “zero”. When asked for comment on the subject at a media interaction in Moscow on July 4, this is how Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov responded:
Let us first agree on some basic things. There are many non-Syrian forces in Syria. Some of them stay there with the agreement of the legitimate Syrian government, a UN member-country, while others stay there illegally, in violation of the principles of international law. Evidently, what Lavrov meant was that the Iranian presence in Syria is “legitimate” under international law. He then added:
We see how the Western media discusses the subject of Iran in a very simplified context that is designed for a not very sophisticated audience: “Iran must leave and everything will click into place.” This is applied not only to Syria but also to the entire region. It is alleged that Iran should leave, stay within its borders, and everything will be wonderful. This is absolutely unrealistic.
It is impossible to seek solution to the region’s problems without the participation of its key countries, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, to name a few. All of the region’s countries have their own concerns and many have grievances against each other. As in any other area of the world, they should sit down at the negotiating table, state their concerns and start talking on how they can remove them on a mutually acceptable basis. There is no other way. It is necessary to act in the same vein as regards the settlement in Syria or any other problem in this volatile region.
Israel still swears that it will ensure the rollback of Iranian presence in all of Syria. PM Netanyahu is meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 11 to discuss the subject ahead of the Helsinki summit on July 16 between President Trump and Putin.
So, what we get here is the Russian position, as follows: ‘It is not for Moscow (or for Washington) to dictate to Tehran that it should not indulge in any presence outside its territorial borders in foreign countries. The Iranian presence in Syria cannot be viewed in isolation without taking into consideration the highly complicated Middle East security situation where regional states are pursuing policies in their self-interests which are often working at cross purposes. Therefore, the solution – in Syria or elsewhere in the region – lies in the regional states resolving their differences at the negotiating table.’
Lavrov was frank in underscoring that it is “absolutely unrealistic” to demand that “Iran should leave, stay within its borders, and everything will be wonderful.” However, this doesn’t mean that there is nothing for Trump and Putin to discuss at Helsinki regarding Iran. Interestingly, NSA John Bolton held out some meaningful signals during his CBS News interview last Sunday when asked about Helsinki summit. He said:
There are possibilities of doing a larger negotiation (with Putin) on helping to get Iranian forces out of Syria and back into Iran, which would be a significant step forward – to do so to have an agreement with Russia if possible. This has been something that’s been going on now for nearly seven years – this conflict in Syria. But the Iranian presence now across Iraq and Syria really reaching into Lebanon and their connection with Hezbollah, which has been an Iranian subsidiary from the outset.
The Iranian presence in Syria cannot be viewed in isolation without taking into consideration the highly complicated Middle East security situation where regional states are pursuing policies in their self-interests which are often working at cross purposes.
I don’t think Assad is the strategic issue. I think Iran is the strategic issue. It’s not just their continuing nuclear weapons program, it’s their massive support for international terrorism and their conventional forces in the Middle East and I would say there – this is something the two presidents will want to discuss at length because I think President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the misbegotten Iran nuclear deal, reimpose our sanctions begin to put much more pressure on Iran is having an effect on their decision making not just on the nuclear issue but on these efforts to extend Iranian influence around the region.
Read more: Trump and his generals lock horns over Syria
Significantly, this has been the second time in the past 3 weeks that the Trump administration taken note of certain moderation in Iran’s regional policies lately. (Trump himself had flagged this earlier – twice – during his press conference in Singapore following the summit with Kim Jong Un on June 12.)
Clearly, what Lavrov said on Wednesday need not necessarily be the last word. Lavrov met Iranian FM Zarif on the sidelines of the foreign minister level meeting of the remaining guarantors of the Iran deal (EU, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China) in Vienna today. Trust Russian diplomacy to work on an approach that somehow connects the various dots in the jigsaw puzzle – Iran nuclear deal, sanctions against Iran, Syrian conflict, Israel-Iran tensions, US-Iran standoff, energy security and so on. The point is, Russia is uniquely placed – on talking terms with both the US and Israel on one side and Iran and Syria on the other side.
M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”. This piece was first published in Indian Punchline. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.