Earlier this month, The White House announced that U.S., Israeli and Russian national security advisers would meet in Jerusalem in June to discuss regional security issues. According to the White House press release, United States National Security Adviser Ambassador John Bolton, Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, and Russian Secretary of the Security Council Nikolai Patrushev will be in attendance.
During a conference call with reporters, a senior White House official said that the U.S. plans to stress to Russia during its trilateral national security advisers summit that Iranian forces and their proxies have to leave Syria. As the focus of the summit will be Iran's activities in Syria, Lebanon and the rest of the region, the U.S. and Israel are expecting Russia to have specific proposals for the meeting. Israel and the United States will insist that Russia, with its dominant position in Syria and massive influence over the Assad regime, lay down the law with Iran and force the withdrawal of Iranian forces.
Two main issues will determine if this meeting will be successful. One, if Russia is willing to help get Iran out of Syria, and two, even if Russia is willing, is it capable of doing so.
Despite all the promises and initiatives, Russia has done very little to limit the Iranian presence and power in Syria. Russia has allowed Israel to bomb Iran and Hezbollah’s facilities in Syria, but that is because Russia cannot upset Israel. Otherwise, there haven’t been any major incident that proves Russia’s leverage over Iran in Syria.
That’s until last month, when Russia rejected Iran’s request to purchase S-400 air defenses, as it apparently worried that Iran’s acquisition of the advanced system would upset the geopolitical balance in the Middle East and prompt greater conflict. That incident probably prompted the US and Israel to try to seek Russia again. However, refusing to sell weapons to Iran is very different from being capable of pushing Iran out of Syria.
On the second part, Russia’s record hasn’t been very impressive:
First, a de-escalation agreement was reached between Russia, the US, and Jordan in June 2017. According to this agreement, Russia was supposed to guarantee that militias backed by the Syrian government’s ally Iran must be pushed 40 km (25 miles) from the border. During the two years since then, Russia failed miserably. Iran is still in south Syria, and close to both Israeli and Jordanian border, and both Russian and Assad troops could not remove Iranian militias away from these borders.
Russia’s general inability or unwillingness to keep its promises in Syria warrants skepticism about its security guarantees. For example, when Assad used chemical weapons against civilians in 2013 and the United States was poised to launch military strikes in retaliation, Putin helped convince Washington to hold off by guaranteeing that the regime would surrender its chemical arsenal. Yet Assad kept some of that arsenal and has since used it repeatedly against civilians.
Even more tellingly, Russian forces were rebuffed in June 2018 when they accompanied the Syrian army’s 11th Division to push Hezbollah forces out of their positions in the border town of al-Qusayr. The plan—which was not coordinated with Iran or Hezbollah—was to take over the Jusiyah crossing with Lebanon, then move closer to Syria’s Qalamoun region. Yet Hezbollah forces refused to leave their positions; instead, Russian and Syrian troops turned around and left less than twenty-four hours after they arrived, and Hezbollah soon reinforced its presence around al-Qusayr. This small incident—which was probably a Russian attempt to test Iran’s reaction—shows that Moscow would probably be unable to budge Iranian proxies once they become entrenched.
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech as he inspects a parade during his visit to the Russian air base in Hmeimim in the northwestern Syrian province of Latakia on December 11, 2017. (Getty)
While all eyes have been – and will continue to be – on Iran’s military capabilities in Syria, Iran is already working behind the scenes. Iran understands that real power is in sustaining presence beyond military presence and that securing long-term influence in Syria requires more than military means. Accordingly, they are applying best practices from their experience with Hezbollah in Lebanon, where the powerful Iranian proxy has entrenched itself not only militarily, but also politically, religiously, and culturally.
To extend this model to Syria, Iran is purchasing real estate, changing demographics, and developing networks of support between Damascus and the Lebanese border, with the ultimate goal of establishing a geographical area of control similar to Hezbollah’s stronghold in Beirut’s southern suburbs. It is also pushing social, religious, and economic programs designed to entice poor communities who lack viable alternatives.
These roots will allow Iran to remain in Syria even if the Russians, or any other force, tries to remove their military forces from Syria. If all the IRGC and their proxies were forced at one point to leave Syria, Iran’s presence will be deeply rooted and its influence will have long roots.
WHAT WOULD RUSSIA TRY TO WIN?
Israel and the US will probably try to offer incentives to Russia in a bid to limit Iran’s influence in Syria, which could include – according to regional reports - legitimizing the leadership of Bashar Assad.
Russia will try to take as much as it can from this meeting. Guarantees on Assad will be one of Putin’s asks. However, Russia wants more, such as a better and more powerful presence in international diplomatic scenes. Russia wants Crimea, a resolution to sanctions and more lucrative investments deals in Syria and the region.
If Putin gets one or more of these requests, he can only give promises. However, based on his past records, Russian troops in Syria are still incapable of removing a single Iranian or pro-Iranian soldier. Moreover, even if they try, Iran is still stronger on the grounds. The only place where Russia has more power is the Alawite coast, but only because Iran accepted this compromise.
There have indeed been reports of recent growing friction between Iran and Russia in Syria, such as the standoff between Russian soldiers and Iran-backed militias in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fighting may have been triggered over competition for control of city checkpoints, which brings in a lot of money for forces on the ground.
Additionally, Voice of America reported on May 27 that Russian military police carried out a raid against Iranian-backed militiamen stationed at Aleppo international airport and that “in the aftermath, several Iranian militia leaders were arrested.”
Despite these reports, the recent – and old - friction between Russia and Iran in Syria are nothing but negotiations over space and resources and are by no means signs of serious confrontation. Russia and Iran are strong in Syria because of their alliance. Without one, the other will be drastically weakened. And this alliance is not going to be weakened when both think they have been victorious in Syria. They still need each other and the international community needs to be more invested and present in Syria if they want Iran out.
If the trilateral meeting in later this month is to be successful, the US and Israel should not accept any promises from Russia, but actions, before they guarantee anything to Putin.
Hanin Ghaddar is the inaugural Friedmann Visiting Fellow at The Washington Institute.