Washington has announced that a three-way meeting between the US, Russia and Israel will be held at the end of June to discuss the threats posed by Iran and the situation in Syria to the wider Middle East.
The meeting will also address challenges in the region and coordination to avoid possible clashes between the three countries. It will likely include US national security adviser John Bolton, Russian adviser Nikolai Patruchev, and Israeli adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat.
Since the US does not usually declare its goals precisely, many analysts believe the meeting is intended to explore ways of ridding the region of Iranian influence, paving the way to removing Russia from Syria at a later stage and reinforcing the US role in the Middle East.
The meeting comes after the US declared it had almost entirely stamped out the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group in Syria and amid escalating tensions with Iran. However, curbing Iranian influence in Syria will be a challenge for the US, as will eliminating Russian influence.
Russia wants to limit US influence in Syria in particular, and it has therefore moved closer to the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, Turkey, and Iran in a bid to remain the dominant power.
The US has weakened Russia and its allies, notably by blocking Russian attempts to tailor a political solution to the Syrian crisis. It has ignored the Russian-sponsored Sochi Meetings and Bashar Al-Assadand now wants to exclude Iran from Syria.
Some analysts believe the forthcoming meeting is meant as a way of ensnaring Russia and forcing it to agree to Iran’s removal. However, the Iranian influence in Syria goes very deep, and Moscow could attach a very high price to its cooperation.
Removing Iran from Syria at US behest would clip Russia’s wings and could pave the way to imposing a political solution that could lead to regime change followed by steps to remove Russia as well.
But Russia cannot safely reject the US-Israeli demands or confront these two countries, and it will likely thus aim to swamp the meeting in detail with a view to wasting time.
Even before Al-Assad became president of Syria, Iran was trying to increase its influence in the country, and it has continued to do so during the eight-year civil war. It has supported the regime militarily and politically, supplying it with Iranian, Iraqi, Lebanese and Afghan militias and with financial and logistical assistance.
In return, it has been allowed to largely control political and military decisions in Syria, and a blind eye has been turned to its attempts to change Syria’s demographic and ethnic composition.
For eight years, Iran has focused on expanding its influence in Syria, with Russia allowing Iran to meddle in areas under the control of the Syrian opposition.
However, Moscow wants to retain control of the Syrian coastline, particularly the Baniyas oil refinery and port facilities, and it has placed Damascus Airport under its military control.
Meanwhile, Tehran has loaned the regime nearly $8 billion and forced Al-Assad to agree to Iranian investment proposals in oil and gas, phosphates, and other materials. Iran has also promoted Shiism in Syria by targeting the country’s poorer classes, in order to control Syrian society and economic affairs.
In recent months, Russian, Iranian and regime forces have clashed several times, with Moscow being undecided about Iran’s participation in the battle for Idlib in the north of the country.
Moscow has monitored Iranian fighters near the Syria-Iraq border and in southern areas in Golan near the Israeli border. These moves have made it clear that Iran intends to resist pressures to remove its military presence from Syria, and it may resort to using its militias to do so.
Meanwhile, Russia may be reaching the limits of its intervention in Syria, particularly since no country will cooperate with it as long as Iran is its ally. It has sought to distance Turkey from the West and diluted the pressure on the Al-Assad regime to accept international and UN solutions to the crisis.
At the same time, the US can no longer deny the need to coordinate with Russia and the latter’s key role in confronting Iran and curbing its influence in Syria.
It seems likely that Washington will offer Moscow some middle ground by accepting that Al-Assad remains in power until the end of his current term in return for removing Iran from Syria and agreeing to a political transition that limits the powers of the president, restructures the military and security agencies, and creates an environment conducive to free elections with international monitoring.
The Syrian opposition is concerned that the US will agree to assist the Syrian regime in return for Iran’s withdrawal and removal from government sectors and society, including by “ending Syria’s international isolation” in the offer made by US Special Representative for Syria James Jeffrey.
The US and Europe want to declare the demise of Russia’s Astana Conference and a return to the UN-supported Geneva track as a way of resolving the Syrian crisis.
The meeting between the US, Russia, and Israel at the end of June may be intended as a step in this direction. However, it is being obstructed by the desire of Russian President Vladimir Putin to find a deal that joins Syria to Ukraine and other issues, with Russia and Al-Assad cooperating in removing Iran from Syria in return for US participation in pushing through a political solution that complies with Russia’s preconditions.
Whether or not Russia agrees to the US-Israeli demands, this month’s meeting may be unwelcome to Russia as its margin for manoeuvre is narrow and it needs to find solutions. It has invested billions of dollars in its intervention in Syria, with Russian public opinion increasingly questioning its rationale.
Meanwhile, Turkey is undecided about whether to leave its alliance with Moscow in favour of an alliance with Washington.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 June, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Deciding on Iran