Borodavkin had delivered his remarks in defense of Iran’s position while in attendance at UN-brokered negotiations that aim to secure a political solution that will end the war once and for all. But the Examiner indicated that there are a number of different pathways being pursued by different parties in pursuit of that aim. The report described Russian President Vladimir Putin as trying to foster a “competing peace process” in the Kazakh capital of Astana. Meetings for this process took place last week, involving Russia, Iran, and Turkey.
The same report also called attention to a conference in Saudi Arabia where leaders of the pro-democracy rebellion against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad were able to voice their views regarding what might serve as a suitable political solution. Borodavkin commented directly on the outcome of that conference, saying that the rebels were being “unrealistic” with their demands that Iranian militias depart from Iran and that Assad eventually vacate the office of the president.
The Russian diplomat also questioned whether the Syrian opposition could contribute to the peace process at all, in light of its view of the Assad regime and its allies as criminals who bear the lion’s share of the responsibility for half a million casualties in the more than six-year civil war.
But for their part, the Assad regime and the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran have persistently referred to all of Assad’s opponents as “terrorists,” making no distinction between ISIL and moderate groups like the Free Syrian Army. In fact, Iranian-led ground operations and their Russian air support reportedly placed much of their initial focus on destroying such moderate groups before turning their attention to ISIL only after it came to represent the only serious threat to Assad.
Various critics of the Iranian regime have long expressed concerns that under those conditions, Iran-backed militant groups stood to effectively take over for ISIL, thus extending the influence of a hardline Shiite theocracy into territory where ISIL had sought to establish its own Sunni caliphate. The entrenchment of Iranian proxies in Syria and Iraq has been linked to an apparently longstanding Iranian project of establishing a “Shiite crescent” in the region, stretching through an unbroken strip of territory from Tehran to Beirut and possibly beyond.
Borodavkin’s comments seem to indicate that the Islamic Republic retains significant backing from foreign allies as it strives to extend its influence in this way. The Russian diplomat told his Western counterparts, in no uncertain terms, that they should expect Iranian militias to stay in Syria over the long term. What’s more, the Washington Examiner reports that the Russian military stepped up its air campaign this month in order to help solidify Iranian gains in eastern Syria, where strategically significant towns could serve as crucial links in a supply route leading from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea.
Iranian Rhetoric and Resulting Backlash
Iranian officials have publicly boasted of their control over these and other territories in the surrounding region. And the language of that boasting arguably also includes Iran’s Russian allies as member of the “axis of resistance” that is developing against Western interests across the Middle East and Central Asia.
On Monday, Newsweek reported upon the repetition of this rhetoric by General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, before a gathering of the Basij civilian paramilitary. “Today, the global mobilization force of the Islamic front has been established,” he said. “Cores of resistance have formed in many countries in the region and the world.”
Additionally, the National Council of Resistance of Iran issued a report on Tuesday that called attention to similar claims published in media outlets known to be affiliated with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Notably, some such outlets directly acknowledged that various members of the “resistance axis” are regarded as terrorist groups throughout much of the international community. The NCRI indicates that Iranian hardliners have been pointing to this fact in the apparent hope of undermining the expectation that the Islamic Republic will bring itself into line with the requirements of the international body known as the Financial Action Task Force.
The backlash against FATF compliance is another indicator of the Iranian regime’s resistance to cooperation with entities that are not currently counted among its allies. This in turn speaks to the possibility of those allies drawing closer together in explicit defiance of the interests of Western powers and other nations that would enforce FATF requirements, as by urging the removal of Iran-backed forces from regional conflict zones.
Arguably underscoring this possibility, the government of Israel has issued several warnings to Russia in recent weeks about Israeli unwillingness to tolerate an entrenched Iranian presence in neighboring Syria. Although Israel and Russia have traditionally enjoyed close relations, the recent expansion of Russian support for Tehran raises questions about the future of that relationship.
The Times of Israel reported on Sunday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had explicitly threatened Israeli military intervention in the event that Iranian elements were permitted to establish their own permanent bases in Syria. The article also suggested that Netanyahu likely intended to deter the Assad government from issuing a formal invitation for Iranian forces to remain in the country.
Although the IRGC and its proxies already appear to be playing a significant role in post-ISIL affairs, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani recently called for all foreign players to leave Syria unless they have been invited to stay by the government. Russian forces have reportedly received such an invitation, while the Iranians have not.
In line with the threat of intervention presented by Israel, there have been some recent indications that the US government is also interested in taking on a more direct role in post-war Syria. Foreign Policy reported upon this trend on Monday, but it did so in the context of a report on the possible reduction in American support for Kurdish forces that had established themselves as the main competitors against expanding Iranian influence. Under President Donald Trump, the US has been pursuing a distinctly assertive policy toward the Iranian regime, with the expressed intention of reducing Iranian influence in the broader Middle East. But Trump has also expressed wariness over new direct entanglements in that region.
One Side or the Other
It remains to be seen whether a new American strategy will make up for the adverse impact of the Kurds’ loss of an American supply chain for weapons and logistical support. But it also remains to be seen whether the US will actually follow through on its declared intention to sever this supply chain. Foreign Policy indicates that Turkey expects the White House to fulfill this commitment, but it is not clear how much importance Turkish expectations will have for American foreign policy considerations in the near future.
Although Turkey has traditionally enjoyed productive relations with Western powers, those relations have become more strained under the administration of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, especially with the United States. On Tuesday, the New York Times reported upon new developments in the case against Reza Zarrab, a businessman accused of helping Turkey to evade Iran sanctions, whose prosecution has been opposed by the Turkish government.
The Times indicates that Zarrab has pled guilty and is cooperating with American prosecutors, meaning that he is likely to present information harmful to the Erdogan government. While Zarrab is no longer expected to stand trial, the case against his co-defendant will go forward as planned. Reuters previously reported that Turkey suspected a plea deal was in the works for Zarrab, and the report highlighted the strain that this was likely to put on US-Turkey relations.
At the same time that those relations are being threatened, Turkey is evidently growing closer to Iran. However, this trend had been ongoing for some time, at least since last year when the Islamic Republic supported the Turkish president in the midst of a coup attempt. Erdogan has laid the blame for the coup on a Muslim cleric who is currently residing in the US, whom the American government has declined to turn over.
Iran’s English language propaganda network Press TV recently reported that Turkey and Iran had signed new trade agreements on Sunday, in talks that also involved the Arab nation of Qatar. Meanwhile, Forbes reported upon the ways in which Qatar was also drawing closer to Iran, ostensibly in direct reaction to ultimatums by former Arab partners that are eager to bolster opposition to Iranian influence in the region.
Although the Forbes editorial suggests that Saudi-led pressures on Qatar have been counterproductive in this regard, the story is also indicative of the emerging fault lines of regional tension, whereby various countries are effectively been forced to choose between either supporting the growth of a Shiite crescent with Tehran at its heart, or else joining the US and its Middle Eastern partners in putting pressure on Iran while striving to undermine its existing alliances.