Assad Meets with Khamenei: What Next for Iran's Syria Strategy?

Assad Meets with Khamenei: What Next for Iran's Syria Strategy?
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For the first time since the onset of the Syrian conflict, Bashar Assad made a surprise visit to Tehran on 25 February and met with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani. On a rare trip abroad, Assad appeared decidedly pleased as the Iranian media released photos (after Assad had landed in Damascus) of him and Khamenei cordially hugging and displaying a moment of triumphalism over “the success of the axis of resistance” in Syria.

The joy, however, abruptly subsided as the late-night news of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s resignation broke out. If the photos of the events were anything to go by, Zarif, an architect of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, was apparently excluded from both meetings. Instantaneously, the shocking news sparked a flurry of rumours and speculations about the actual motive(s) behind Zarif’s decision and its future impacts.

As the dust over Zarif’s saga settled down, it became clear that the principal reason behind his tactical departure lied in the argument that his ministry was “sidelined” in foreign policy decisions and that he wanted to restore “credibility” to the body responsible for Iran’s foreign policy. He was quite implicitly pointing the finger at Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force, who, as some argue, controls Iran’s policies on Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Afghanistan. Indeed, Zarif attempted to utilize the carefully crafted stratagem to draw some redlines for Soleimani’s and the IRGC’s over-involvement in the Middle East, in general, and in Syria, in particular.

What many pundits overlooked amid the surge of media reports about Zarif’s attempted resignation was the implication of Assad’s impromptu visit. In fact, many questions remained unanswered, namely what particular message(s) were Syria and Iran trying to deliver against the background of heightened military frictions between Tehran and Tel Aviv in Syria? How do the rest of the key players in the Syrian conflict such as Turkey, Russia, and Israel interpret the optics and politics of the Khamenei-Assad meeting? Will there be a shift in Iran’s Syria policy as a consequence of the recent events?

Iran and Israel: restraint amid a war of words?

It is important to note that Assad’s visit came on the heels of substantial remarks made by the Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, who stated on 23 February that they “have achieved 90 percent of Iran’s goals in Syria” and that they are “upgrading the deterrence capability of the resistance front” against the potential Israeli attacks. He also noted that Israeli strikes against Iran-backed militias have had “no strategic impact” on the Islamic Republic’s approach toward the Syrian conflict.

Noteworthy too is that Assad’s meeting with Iran’s leader was held less than three days prior to the much-anticipated meeting in Moscow between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The future of Iran’s military presence in Syria and maintaining communication channels to circumvent further conflicts between Israel and Russia were high on the agenda of the latter’s talks.

Not many details emerged from the Moscow negotiations, but the Israeli media quoted a “senior Israeli official” as saying that Putin and Netanyahu are mulling over plans to create a working group along with a number of other states, which will facilitate the withdrawal of foreign forces from Syria. Immediately after meeting with Putin, Netanyahu also said that Israel would persist in attacking Iranian targets inside Syria.

Despite Iran-Israel sabre-rattling, it appears from the recent statements by Iranian and Israeli officials that both sides are sentient of the conceivable risks of engaging in direct military conflict in Syria. Put differently, what can be interpreted from Shamkhani’s and Netanyahu’s remarks is that Iran and Israel are exchanging signals, albeit indirectly, that they both preserve specific redlines and have, at their disposal, certain offensive capabilities. For an all-out war to be averted in Syria or Lebanon, these redlines need to be mutually recognized and respected and their offensive capabilities be taken into consideration.

In fact, one can argue that even Shamkhani’s statement regarding Iran’s success in achieving 90 percent of its objectives in Syria and improving its deterrence capability is suggestive of Tehran’s gradual shift to a more pragmatic calculus aimed at avoiding a situation in which Israeli and Iranian militias become engaged in a direct military confrontation. That does not necessarily mean that Iran has given up on solidifying its presence in Syria, either via supporting Shia forces or by signing various trade and military contracts with Damascus. Rather, it demonstrates that Iran might be amenable to practicing a certain degree of tactical restraint towards Israel’s actions provided that Israelis refrain from ratcheting up military strikes on Iran-affiliated targets in Syria. Simply put, Tehran appears to be signalling that it desires to maintain some semblance of its “strategic depth” in Syria through political and economic means without having to endure Israeli military strikes.

Russia’s vigorous diplomatic efforts to maintain a successful balance between Israel and Iran have also played an instrumental role in letting the two archenemies up the ante without having to establish a new war front in Syria. Russia is particularly worried as Putin does not want the geopolitical benefits which he has reaped in Syria over the past eight years to go down the drain overnight by the continuation of the Iran-Israel faceoff.

Now, a key question arises as to what possible links exist between Netanyahu’s and Shamkhani’s statements and the Assad-Khamenei meeting in Tehran.

The axis of resistance in light of foreign policy infighting

Evidently, both Assad and Iran’s Supreme Leader sought to exploit Assad’s visit to convey an indubitable message, which is “the success of the axis of resistance” in Syria. Whether one can label it as such is an open question, but it is vital to mention that for Assad the visit was an exceptional opportunity to showcase his ability to travel abroad as the President of Syria and kick-start his prodigious project of reclaiming diplomatic and political legitimacy.

For Iran, it was a show of strength, which unfolded at a delicate time of internal and external pressure. Evidently, the visit was orchestrated by Soleimani who ostensibly seized the moment to expose the failure of the Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure” under which the US seeks, among other things, to clip Iran’s geopolitical wings. With a touch of personal ambition, Soleimani had no hesitation to boast about the success of the Syrian case under his command, as opposed to the disappointment of the nuclear case, which was negotiated by Zarif.

Zarif’s decision to temporarily leave his post was partly attributed to the recent attempts by hardliners seeking to weaken and marginalize the role of the Foreign Ministry in matters of “high politics”. Nevertheless, given that the IRGC holds sway over foreign policy making, including in Syria, it seems improbable that Zarif’s tactical exertion of pressure on the hardliners would pay verifiable dividends in ways that he would eventually succeed in employing more power and authority of his ministry over Iran’s IRGC-controlled Middle East policy.

The contention here is that the recent developments, including Zarif’s attempted abdication, coupled with Assad’s visit to Tehran and the remarks made by Netanyahu and Shamkhani do not connote that Tehran’s policy towards Syria is undergoing any major changes at the hands of either Zarif or the IRGC.

Turkish and Russian state of play

As for the implications of these developments on how Turkey and Russia will look at their continued partnership with Iran or how it may affect their Syrian policies, it is essential to note that the three “guarantors of peace” in Syria are gradually developing divergent priorities under their tactical partnership within the Astana framework. That does not mean that their partnership is at grave stake. Rather, it indicates that conflicts of interests and priorities do exist among Turkey, Russia, and Iran just as convergences of interest continue to shape their foreign policy behaviours in Syria.

Antecedently, defeating the ISIS constituted as the prevailing common objective of the three actors, but now that ISIS faces a damning territorial demise, the three guarantors of peace in Syria have an uphill struggle exploring and implementing new common grounds. Surely, restoring peace and stability in Syria remains to be an immediate concern shared by Turkey, Russia, and Iran. Nonetheless, for Turkey, no security concern is more urgent and existential than ensuring that the 911-km-long border with Syria will not become a safe-haven for the PKK/YPG.

Russia for its part appears intent on ending the military phase of the Syrian conflict by means of collaborating with Turkey to find a diplomatic solution to the situation in Syria's last rebel-held province of Idlib. The same logic applies to Moscow’s and Ankara’s ongoing efforts to influence if not determine the future status of the proposed “safe-zone” in Syria’s East Euphrates region.

Iran versus new geopolitical realities

Meanwhile, Iran appears to be on the defensive. Buffeted by sanctions and, above all, a growing wave of domestic discontent, Tehran struggles to maintain a semblance of “strategic depth” in Syria, eager that all the money and manpower it lavishly expended in the eight-year-long war were worth defending and expanding the axis of resistance.

Lacking a strategic vision, Iran faces the dilemma of either risking a military confrontation with Israel in its quest for a “reason to stay” in Syria or confining its activities to contributing to the political and economic phase of Syria's reconstruction and reconciliation. While Tehran appears to be leaning toward the latter option, one thing is clear. Regardless of the significance of the Assad-Khamenei meeting, the recent war of words between Iran and Israel, and Zarif’s grievances with the IRGC’s over-involvement in foreign policy affairs, it seems highly unlikely that Tehran will opt for a major alteration in its approach toward the Syrian conflict at least in the short to medium-term.

Moreover, while Russia is busy making use of its Syrian experience to actively project its order-making capabilities in the Middle East and thus reinstating its superior power status, Iran may have to cope with new geopolitical realities in the region. As Russia makes a spectacular comeback to the Middle East, Iran may face much greater challenges and constraints from Moscow than from Israel and/or the United States.

Hossein Aghaie Joobani is a PhD candidate at the Department of International Relations, Dokuz Eylül University, Turkey. He holds a Master’s degree in Political Science from Linköping University, Sweden.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect IRAM’s editorial policy.