It’s probably best to start with the bottom line: Iran didn’t invest hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of dollars in Syria, didn’t lose thousands of fighters—members of the Revolutionary Guard Corps and regular army alike—and didn’t draft tens of thousands of Shi’ite conscripts into the pro-Iranian militias it trains and funds to suddenly up and leave just because Russian President Vladimir Putin or Syrian President Bashar Assad ask politely.
What’s more important is that in contrast to the reports in the Israeli media, neither Putin nor Assad asked the Iranians to leave Syria at all. Indeed, the Russian president called for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Syrian soil.
First and foremost, however, he was referring to the American forces which still in control one-quarter of Syrian territory, mostly in the Kurdish areas in the northeast, and which also grant protection to the rebels in the country’s south. The Russians would also like the Turks to leave the areas they control in Syria’s north. Finally, they want Israel to let Assad retake control of the Syrian Golan Heights and the country’s south, and to eradicate the rebels which, until recently, Jerusalem has supported.
Iran isn’t in Russia’s cross-hairs, because Moscow doesn’t see it as a competitor or adversary (for now, at least). Iran is simply the vessel that the Russians use to advance their goals in Syria.
The Russians understand Israel’s concerns pertaining to Iran. They also don’t want Israel to “go nuts” and pummel the Assad regime, which they have all but dragged to the finish line and victory. Hence, they are willing to facilitate efforts to remove Iranian forces from the Golan border, a demand they believe the Iranians can accept as a temporary, confined concession on the path to Tehran’s greater goal of establishing a permanent foothold in Syria.
Just for the record, in their deal with the Americans from half-a-year ago, the Russians already committed to keeping the Iranians from the Israeli border and, incidentally, to also prevent the Syrian regime from attacking the rebels in southern Syria. The Iranians, though, haven’t left southern Syria and Assad’s regime is on the verge of an offensive against the rebels there. What’s disconcerting isn’t Russia’s willingness to toss the signed deal into the trash, rather the Americans’ willingness to “go with the flow” and accept the violation of the deal they promoted.
This doesn’t mean that Russia and Iran aren’t competing or that inherent tensions don’t exist; both want to control Syria when the civil war ends. We can assume that Assad, too, will eventually look to rid his country of Iran’s invasive presence and influence in Syria’s internal affairs, threatening to permeate all government institutions, the army and even the Alawite ethnic group. Assad also won’t want the Iranians to embroil him in a clash with Israel. Although he has attested to living his entire life in the shadow of “Israeli aggression,” he knows very well that Israel is not his main enemy or problem.
He’ll cross that bridge when he gets there. For now, and certainly in the weeks and months ahead, Assad and Putin need the Iranians. After all, next to the Russian jets in the air, the tide of the war was turned, and the survival of Assad regime is ensured by Iranian and Hezbollah forces on the ground.
Generally speaking, Russia’s problem—namely, its competition, rivalry or cold war—is with the United States and the West, not with Iran. The latter, as stated, is a tool wielded by the Russians in their fight against the West, and there is no reason to relinquish it. Will disengagement from Iran make Assad a darling of the international community and open doors for him in Washington, after slaughtering hundreds of thousands of his own people; and will Iran’s exit from Syria win Putin points in his fight in Ukraine, Eastern Europe and other corners of the globe with Washington and Western Europe? No, of course it won’t.
It is therefore feasible to reach loose understandings on keeping Iran away from the Israeli border, but it’s also uncertain the Russians even have the desire or ability to make that happen. What’s clear is the fight to dislodge Iran from Syria is still far from over.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.