Agence France-Presse reports, however, that this confirmation has in no way contradicted Iran’s previous statements indicating that it would neither cooperate with its rivals at the negotiating table nor be pressured into changing its position on the continued leadership of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Foreign Ministry spokesman Sadegh Hossein Jaberi Ansari said that Tehran recognized several red lines for the discussions and would not allow “foreign players” to make decisions “on behalf of the Syrian nation.”
Tehran’s official position is that the Syrian people must choose their own leadership. But in practice this has meant that Tehran has been enforcing Assad’s continued rule while the US and its Middle Eastern allies have been pushing for him to either be ousted or to voluntarily step down. Iran was credited with preserving the Assad government in the early days of the Syrian Civil War, when analysts projected that he would have been removed from power by the popular revolt in absence of foreign support.
Iran’s statements on the crisis tend to aggressively criticize backers of the moderate rebel groups but do not recognize Iran’s own contribution to the war as manipulation by “foreign players.” And Tehran has held to this official line even as its own role in the war has expanded. Even the direct intervention by the Russian air force was partially credited to Iran, as Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force had reportedly visited Moscow to make the case for this deployment.
The Russian backing has allowed Iran to make more aggressive moves both against moderate rebels and against Islamic State extremists. But it has also led to the Islamic Republic sacrificing more of its own blood and treasure in the conflict. The Daily Beast explored the depth of Iran’s intervention in an article published on Friday. It pointed out that forces affiliated with the IRGC appear to have lost as many as 40 individuals in Syria just during the past month.
Whatever the particular figure, it is sufficient to have made it virtually impossible for the Iranian government to hide its involvement or the seriousness of its own losses. The Daily Beast notes that more and more information has accumulated about the nature of IRGC involvement, indicating that it includes combat personnel in addition to advisor officers, and also that it is not limited to the Quds Force, which is the official IRGC division for foreign operations.
Several sub-units of the IRGC have been identified on the battlefields, as have IRGC affiliates including Shiite militias and Fatemiyoun, which is mostly comprised of Afghans conscripted by Iran, often in exchange for monetary payments and promises of permanent resident status if they make it back to Iran.
But the Times of Israel reported on Friday that this multi-layered Iranian involvement and its Russian backing has failed to beat back the Islamic State. The forces loyal to Assad have celebrated occasionally significant victories as with the recent Islamic State withdrawal from the Aleppo area, IS has made gains elsewhere and the overall trend has been toward a more entrenched conflict.
It is generally understood that the current Iranian strategy is to focus attention on the moderate and Western-backed rebel groups in order to leave Syria with no viable short-term options other than Assad or the Islamic State. In other words, Iran is aggressively backing the Assad regime on the expectation that the international community will concede to let Iran have its way, so as to confront the threat from IS, which is deemed more significant.
So far, the US and its allies have refused to capitulate, but the White House has drawn some criticism for its continued willingness to negotiate in hopes that Iran and Russia will agree to a more equitable political solution. Given the recent upsurge in Iran’s anti-Western rhetoric, this seems unlikely unless conditions on the ground change more dramatically. And Iranian officials appear to be making efforts to convince the West that Russia is similarly entrenched.
Whereas IRGC commander Mohammad Ali Jafari previously acknowledged that Iran and Russia might have divergent interests in the midst of the Syrian crisis, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian insisted on Friday that the two countries “close position” on Syria had evolved into a “shared position,” according to Middle East Confidential.
But there has been no confirmation of this from Moscow, and numerous analysts have suggested that the situation might be very different and that Russia might still be swayed to end its backing for Assad. The Washington Post thoroughly analyzed the issue of Russian-Iranian collaboration on Friday, suggesting that there were significant tensions in that collaboration. For instance, Russia’s position on Assad is strategic while Iran’s is largely ideological, and the Post suggests that this can be a source of worry for the Kremlin.
The Post also indicates that the currently-growing partnership between the two countries is only one side of a relationship that has historically included both competition and collaboration, both strategic alignment and distrust. But the cyclical nature of their past relations does seem to leave open the possibility of further expansion of the current collaboration if both sides happen to see this as being in their interests.
Whether or not they will ultimately see the situation this way remains to be seen, but in some respects the incentive for further collaboration does seem to be steadily accumulating. This is especially true with respect to trade agreements and economic joint ventures. On Thursday it was reported that Russia was considering extending loans to Iran totaling seven billion dollars, and on Friday Retuers pointed out that Russian President Vladimir Putin has determined to personally visit Tehran on November 23 when the Islamic Republic holds a summit for natural gas-exporting countries.
Previous visits of Iranian officials to the Kremlin ultimately led to the formalization of military cooperation in Syria as well as Iraq. A state visit by Putin may prompt reciprocal action from Iran in support of Russian interests, potentially prolonging or deepening the alliance.