Iran had been barred from participating in such discussions on the understanding that its backing of the government of Bashar al-Assad was a major contributor to the persistence of the crisis. But within the Obama administration, that view has softened over the last several weeks, with the US president repeatedly asserting that both Iran and Russia could be part of a political solution and could be persuaded to eventually encourage Assad to relinquish power.
This has been widely disputed, both on the basis of general analysis of Iran’s regional strategy and on the basis of Iranian officials explicit statement. For instance, Gulf News reported on Tuesday that Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Brigadier General Hossein Salami had reiterated that Syria is the front line for Iran’s conflict against the United States and Israel.
Salami made these remarks in the context of his announcement that the IRGC would be sending even more so-called advisors to Syria, ostensibly to train and assist Assad’s loyalist forces and the Shiite militias that are fighting on his side but are largely controlled by Iran. IRGC officials and Tehran’s political leaders have continued to downplay their role in Syria even as they have become marginally more open about their interventionism since Russia began providing air support. US officials recently estimated that the IRGC only has about 2,000 troops in Syria, but other intelligence sources like the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran believe the numbers to be much higher.
This perspective is backed up by the apparent increase in Iranian casualties from fighting in Syria. This is also something that Salami acknowledged but downplayed. Some critics of the Obama administration’s Iran policy may accuse it of joining in this mischaracterization of the situation, for the sake of deferring some criticism of a lack of Western response to the expanding Iranian influence in the broader Middle East.
But the PMOI, its parent organization the National Council of Resistance of Iran, and other opponents of the Iranian regime maintain that the only realistic solution to the Syrian crisis involves evicting Iran from the conflict. The inclusion of Iran in the international security conference makes this less likely. But many analysts have perceived it as unlikely for as long as the Obama administration has been leading Western policies toward Iran.
Charles Krauthammer evoked this sentiment on Tuesday in a syndicated column in which he argued that the Obama administration has been systematically refusing to confront not just Iran, but also Russia, and would essentially allow them to have their preferred outcomes in Syria.
There has, however, been some question about whether these two powers’ preferred outcomes would completely overlap. Last week, the Christian Science Monitor suggested that offensives by Hezbollah and Iran near the Golan Heights would test the extent of Russia’s willingness to support Iran. But the Jewish Press reported on Tuesday that Iranian officials had claimed that Russian air support had been actively extended to the Golan area, thus suggesting that the alliance among Iran, Russia, Syria, Iraq, and Hezbollah was only growing stronger.