High Stakes for Iran as Negotiations to End War in Syria Gain Momentum

Last week, Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed to facilitate a full-scale political process in Syria, as well as sponsor a conference in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi to end the war. Some consider this a victory for Iran, but Putin’s hosting of talks on Syria gives the appearance that Moscow is making the decisions. Tehran waged a six-year long campaign to keep Assad in power, but now the regime will need to display political flexibility.

After allocating billions of dollars on its Levant campaign, Tehran may see a decreasing role in the region.

According to Heshmat Alavi, journalist and political and rights activist, in his Al Arabiya article, “Many would argue a pact between Washington and Moscow will define the blueprint of finalizing Syria’s crisis. Did the Sochi talks place Tehran and Ankara in line with Moscow and Washington? Doubts remain in this regard and Iran understands clearly how a post-ISIS Syria will come at a heavy price.”

Russia is scaling down its military presence in Syria, and China is considering a role in reconstructing post-war Syria. With more players having a stake in the future of Syria, Iran’s role grows smaller. Still, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) are eyeing a share in Syria’s reconstruction.

However, the Trump / Putin phone call is a sign of coordination between their two countries in Syria. In fact, Bloomberg reported that US Defense Secretary James Mattis said recently, “US troops in Syria to fight Islamic State, won’t be packing their bags now the jihadist group is essentially beaten. They’re staying on.” According to Reuters, the Pentagon is also likely to announce the presence of around 2,000 US troops in Syria. Alavi writes, “Iran understands fully that US presence in Syria is a source of dilemma for any future plans in the region.”

Russia has close relations with Saudi Arabia, so it is believed that Moscow will strive to obtain Riyadh’s consent for any decisions on Syria. When United Nations special envoy on Syria, Staffan de Mistura, met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, he emphasized the way his government worked with Saudi Arabia to unify the Syrian opposition, indicating UN’s approval, as well.

Assad remaining in power is not of great concern to Russia. Moscow will likely seek Riyadh’s cooperation to have the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council and regional states to join together bring a final end to the Syria crisis, which means a more significant role for Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis continue to challenge Iran. In a recent New York Times interview, Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman described Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei “the new Hitler of the Middle East.”

Iranian state media described the Sochi talks, that seek to establish peace and stability in Syria, and are based on United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254, as an “American and Zionist conspiracy.”

On Thursday in Riyadh, the Syrian opposition meeting agreed to dispatch a single bloc for next weeks’ UN-backed peace talks. Nasr Hariri, a known Syrian opposition figure, was selected as the new chief negotiator. He will be in Geneva when the talks begin. The opposition is ready to discuss “everything on the negotiating table,” according to Hariri.

It is hoped that the Geneva talks will provide the opportunity to end Syria’s fighting. “Iran, however, thrives on increasing violence across the region. Any decrease in such tensions is against Tehran’s interests as it allows the international community to place its crosshairs on Iran’s belligerence, including a controversial nuclear program, developing ballistic missiles, as senior Revolutionary Guards commanders recently threatened, spreading its influence across the Middle East through supporting terrorism and proxy groups across the board, and human rights violations,” writes Alavi.

The Saudi Crown Prince also said in his interview that the world has “learned from Europe that appeasement doesn’t work.” The international community must keep this in mind as they work together to bring an end to the war in Syria.