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Where does Putin stand on Israel-Iran faceoff in Syria?

May 22,2018 - Last updated at May 22,2018

The last few weeks have not been kind to Tehran: President Donald Trump carried out his campaign promise and took his country out of the international agreement to restrain Iran’s nuclear programme, demanding that a new deal be negotiated. Few days later, Iran’s political allies in Iraq suffered a major setback, when a centrist, anti-sectarian and broad nationalist coalition that is primarily against Tehran’s meddling in Iraqi affairs, took the lead in last week’s legislative elections. And, to make things worse, as Iranian officials raced to contain the damage from these two events, Israel has hyped up its pounding of Iranian military targets in Syria with the Russians looking on.

The Russian-Iranian alliance in Syria was always viewed as one of convenience, a transient arrangement that served the short-term interests of both Moscow and Tehran. But now a triumphant Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, is charting an independent course in Syria that leaves the Iranians out in the cold. He is yet to demonstrate where he stands on a possible showdown between Israel and Iran. The former has followed its threats with action: carrying out a series of strikes, almost on daily basis, against carefully chosen Iranian targets all over Syria. The more recent ones were attributed by the Damascus regime to “unknown parties”, but it is almost certain that Israel is the main, if not only, culprit.

Putin is seizing the geopolitical moment. Since Russia intervened militarily in Syria in September 2015, the tides have changed: The regime of President Bashar Assad narrowly escaped certain collapse, while the rebel groups’ hold over major cities and districts was undone, albeit at a huge humanitarian cost to civilians. Pro-Iranian militias played an instrumental role in repulsing Daesh, Al Nusra and other militant groups in Aleppo, Qalamoun, Hama countryside and more recently in Eastern Ghouta, hence the cooperation between Tehran and Moscow.

But now, new rules are in: Putin is playing both Israel and Iran, hoping to use the former to put pressure on the latter. As he told Assad this week in Sochi, he wants to see all foreign armed forces withdrawing from Syria. That includes US, Turkish and Iranian troops, although Putin made no specific reference to any. Furthermore, Putin pushed Assad to re-commit to the political process. Assad announced that he will be listing delegates to the Constitutional Committee that will work on amending the Syrian constitution. In fact, Russia has intensified its political efforts by convening the Astana roundtable last week, which re-newed commitment to preserving the de-escalation zones; the most important being the southern one: a potential battleground between Israel and Iran. Last week, a senior Russian official said he expected a new round of the inter-Syrian talks to be held in Geneva in the near future. This is another indication that Moscow, the major stakeholder in Syria, wants to revive the political process hoping to arrive at a closure to the Syrian conflict.

It is not clear if Putin has presented himself as a mediator between Israel and Iran. But for a beleaguered Tehran, Moscow is an important player that can help in two fundamental issues: Salvaging the nuclear deal, and avoiding open confrontation with Israel in Syria. The Israeli press has hinted that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have received Putin’s approval to take action in Syria against specific Iranian targets, while visiting Moscow on May 9. Five days later Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was also in Moscow to review repercussions of the US exit from the nuclear deal. But it is likely that Israel-Iran tensions in Syria were also discussed.

Iran’s lack of response to Israeli strikes is not surprising. The fate of the nuclear deal is of utmost importance, especially to President Hassan Rouhani and the so-called moderate camp. Engaging in a protracted war with Israel in Syria will distract efforts and strengthen Iran’s hardliners. Rouhani’s window of opportunity to save the nuclear deal will be closing soon. If and when that happens, one can expect major political shifts to take place inside Iran.

Iran will be pressured by the EU, and maybe by Moscow and Beijing, to review the nuclear agreement and expand it to limit Tehran’s long-range missile programme and end it’s meddling in regional affairs. Salvaging the nuclear deal may require it to limit its presence in Syria as well as in Iraq and Yemen. Rouhani is unlikely to yield to such conditions, as hardliners will accuse him of selling out to the west and its Arab allies.

So far Israel is making the best out of Iran’s political debacles. Putin will allow it to strain Iranian gains in Syria, but without indulging in an open war. It is a risky game for all, but it is one that may succeed in weakening Iranian hands in Syria and that is good news for its neighbours. The bad news is that it may also contribute to Rouhani’s fall, thus handing power to extremists and putting various players on a new regional collision course.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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