US Pushing Back Against Iran’s Policy in Syria, but More to be Done

Obama declared that Iran and Russia most both submit to a “fundamental shift” in their perspective on the rule of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. In the days since the ISIS terror attacks in Paris, there have been a handful of expert editorials in Western media urging policymakers to not lose sight of the goal of Assad’s ouster in the interest of focusing attention on ISIS. Such arguments tend to emphasize that the Assad regime’s abuses helped to create conditions in which ISIS was able to flourish, and therefore must end to allow ISIS to be defeated once and for all.

Meanwhile, Iran has attempted to exploit the Paris terror attacks to urge the opposite course of action. In Vienna security conferences both before and after the attacks, Iranian delegates have reiterated that they are unwilling to consider any alternative to the Assad presidency. Other Iranian officials have issued statements on the Paris attacks suggesting that they were the direct result of French policy in Syria, and that the West as a whole should accept Assad’s long-term rule in order to concentrate political and military efforts on ISIS.

As Obama has been criticized in the past for a weak Middle Eastern strategy, his opponents have been recognizably worried about the possibility of further capitulation to Iranian demands at a time when the July 14 nuclear agreement has raised speculation about broader rapprochement. But the administration has so far remained committed to its policy of supporting moderate rebels in lieu of Assad. And Obama’s latest remarks seem to showcase a certain willingness to push back against Iranian efforts to compel the West toward a change of strategy.

With Iran’s refusal to cooperate in the Vienna conferences serving as evidence, many Western analysts have concluded that the regime in Tehran considers the preservation of its Syrian ally to be more important than the fight against ISIS. Thus, Obama’s call for a “fundamental shift” may not be realistic in the case of Iran. But it is not clear whether the same is true of Russian policy in the region. Many analysts and some Iranian officials have concluded that the interests of the two allies might diverge, so that Russia could be swayed to accept an alternative to Assad.

The evidence to the effect remains scattered, however, and is arguably contradicted by a steady stream of new reports regarding Iranian-Russian collaboration. Agence France-Presse reported on Friday that Russian President Vladimir Putin would personally host Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on Monday, at which point he would also meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

But Putin will follow up these meetings on the following two days by hosting the heads of state of Jordan and France, as well. Taken together, these meetings seem to point to Russia’s position as an intermediary between Iranian and Western policies. And indeed, it has been suggested that Russia is deliberately maintaining this position for as long as it can, in order to wield leverage over Iran and the West at once.

Monday’s meeting is expected to deal with a range of bilateral issues such as trade and energy cooperation. By all accounts, that cooperation is expanding. The latest example comes in the form of a Sputnik News report that the two countries would cooperate on aerospace projects and that Iran was interested in obtaining equipment for satellites of various types from Russia.

However, AFP also points out that forthcoming meeting comes in the midst of a “diplomatic push over the Syria conflict.” So while it is expected that Moscow and Tehran will have friendly talks over other areas of collaboration, it remains to be seen whether they will remain in agreement on their joint strategic approach to Syria. Earlier this week it was reported that Russian officials had expressed willingness to constrain Iran in that field of conflict if a broader political solution was established.

The firmness of US and European demands on the topic may very well make a difference in Russia’s long-term decision-making. Obama’s statement on Thursday is an initial hint at a firm policy, but the president’s critics are sure to emphasize that it has yet to be backed up by action. It is perhaps in part because of the perceived need for such action that the US Senate this week unanimously voted in favor of a bill that allows the US government to sanction businesses that are shown to have relationships with the Iranian-controlled Lebanese paramilitary Hezbollah, which is an increasingly strong contributor to Iranian operations in Syria.

The Tower quoted one of the bill’s sponsors, New Hampshire Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen, as saying, “The U.S. government must be relentless in disrupting Hizballah’s operations. This legislation turns the screws on its network of support and sends a message to Tehran that there will be zero tolerance for financing terrorism.”

At the same time, the international community is helping to bring awareness to the general abuses of the Syrian government, which may help to discredit the notion that the Assad regime hosuld be tolerated in the interest of focusing on ISIS. The Associated Press reported on Thursday that the human rights committee of the United Nations General Assembly had passed a resolution condemning human rights violations in Syria.

One-hundred fifteen members states voted in favor of the resolution, in comparison to 76 “yes” votes for a similar resolution on Iran, which passed at the same time. The popularity of the resolution signifies how well acknowledged are the claims in the next, including the notion that all attacks against the moderate Syrian opposition are ultimately beneficial to ISIS. But the voting record indicated the persistent limitations of any break between Russia and Iran, as both nations were among the 15 that voted against the resolution.

But there is still more that can be done to expose the various elements of the Syrian situation that may support the Western position on Assad and on Iran’s influence. For example, an editorial in the National Interest suggested on Friday that the international media is still downplaying the ideological dimensions of the fight to preserve the Assad regime. At the same time, it is emphasizing these elements of ISIS while downplaying the financial incentives that also help to draw recruits to the Sunni militant organization.

The article contradicted this skewed perspective by pointing out that both Afghani and Pakistani enlistment in the war is increasing on Iran’s side. And the brigades that are entirely made up of these two ethnicities have not just been staffed with destitute refugees living in Iran; rather, Iran has been actively recruiting sincere Shiite militants from outside its own borders. The article further claims that if these forces are not challenged by Western policy, they could turn into permanent transnational networks acting on behalf of Iranian interests in the region.