The Syrian war lumbers on, with all its attendant tragedies. Although the violence continues as ever, the goals of many key actors in the conflict have noticeably changed. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s international enemies no longer seriously entertain the idea of ousting him; they have de facto accepted that he will remain in power.
The US government and its Middle Eastern allies now focus on ridding Syria of Iranian forces. With Tehran’s hold in Syria as strong as it is problematic, Assad’s military victories have intensified pressure to prevent Iran from cementing a long-term presence there.
Yet there is no easy way to root out the Iranians, who have supported Assad throughout the long conflict. Indeed, the pursuit of maximalist ambitions is only likely to meet with an equally uncompromising response from Tehran and, eventually, wider conflict. Multiplying sources of tension – including a series of Israeli airstrikes in Syria – have created a febrile environment.
Some may welcome direct conflict with Iran, but not only will this inflict more pain on the long-suffering Syrian people and possibly envelop neighbouring states, it will also create new space for the Islamic State group (ISIS) and likely play to Tehran’s well-practiced ability to exploit regional chaos to its own ends.
Averting such escalation now requires some form of implicit accommodation with Iran. Given that perceptions shape reality, Tehran will not budge in Syria so long as its opponents aspire to impose a complete defeat upon it. Despite the growing tensions, this accommodation may still be feasible – so long as expectations are realistically lowered by delinking immediate priorities from the maximalist ambition of a full Iranian withdrawal. For the United States and Israel, core security interests do not require that Syria be cleared of every last Iranian. Instead, they require a way to sufficiently curtail Iran’s presence, particularly along Israel’s immediate border. From its perspective, Tehran might benefit from an arrangement that does not threaten its wider position alongside Assad and that avoids costly escalation.
This is an approach that European states should actively encourage (as outlined in ECFR’s recent report, The Middle East’s New Battle Lines), notably by mobilising ongoing channels with Iran to press for an accommodation and seeking ways to institutionalise a beefed-up the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) near the Syrian-Israeli border. They should also stress the counterproductive nature of maximalist ambitions to their US and Israeli partners.
The Russian fantasy
Some in the Israeli security establishment already appear to understand that Israel needs to find a way to live with Iran in Syria. But the country’s political leadership remains set on grander ambitions. Meanwhile, the White House remains rhetorically fixated on a full-scale Iranian withdrawal from Syria, despite President Donald Trump’s simultaneous desire to – against the wishes of the US security establishment – end his country’s involvement in the country.
The US and Israel, as well as Gulf Arab states, are now coalescing around a strategy that centres on persuading Russia to push Iran out of Syria. This approach reflects the reality that Iran’s foes want to avoid entanglement in a broader conflict. The hope of leveraging Russia’s military presence in Syria, as well as its ties to the Assad regime, rests on assumed tensions between Moscow and Tehran.
Recent talks in Helsinki between Trump and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, point to attempts to secure Russia’s support in moving Iranian forces away from the Syrian-Israeli border – as a prelude to their full withdrawal from Syria. The same is true of recent discussions between Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov.
The US and Israel appear ready to accept that Assad remaining in power is the price of Russian support. But some also see Assad as a possible partner in their endeavours. They believe that, because the Syrian president wants to regain central control over Iranian-backed forces, he can be brought into a deal that exchanges international acquiescence to his survival for Tehran’s withdrawal.
This logic appears to be partly driving US and Israeli acceptance of Assad’s ongoing, Russian-backed military advance against opposition forces in southern Syria. While Israel’s downing of a Syrian fighter jet earlier this week highlights its determination to punish encroachment into the airspace it controls, the country seems to increasingly favour Assad’s return to southern Syria.
But this approach is fundamentally flawed: Putin and Assad are neither willing nor able to force a significant Iranian exit from Syria. These countries share an ongoing desire to resist perceived US attempts to shape the regional order; the exclusion of Iran would threaten hard-won gains. Although Assad may want to rein in non-state actors, this does not mean he will turn on Tehran, whose support he continues to need and which he probably views as a more important ongoing ally than Moscow. It is not for nothing that, since 2011, Assad has repeatedly rejected Gulf Arab states’ overtures for him to abandon Tehran.
Even if Russia and the Syrian government are prepared to shift their stance, they lack the resources to remove entrenched Iranian forces. In the last seven years, Iran has hunkered down across Syria, integrating its militia presence deep into the fabric of Assad’s order. Tehran now has direct influence on thousands of domestic and foreign militia fighters in Syria. Other pressure bearing down on Iran – including that from the United States’ withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and intense new sanctions – will only encourage Tehran to double down on its regional position.
The maximalist threat
From Tehran’s perspective, the White House aims to push Iranian forces out of Syria as a part of a plan to force regime change in Iran. Without a broader agreement that accepts Iran’s presence in Syria, Tehran is unlikely to make any compromises of its own, including on Israel’s core demand that it stays out of southern Syria – where a presence will provide important ongoing deterrence leverage against Israel.
The US and Israel need to shape an Iranian presence in Syria that they can live with – and, critically, to signal their willingness to reach such an accommodation to Tehran. They should focus not on unattainable maximalist goals but areas in which they can more realistically hope to contain Iranian influence. Given that none of the parties appear to want a direct conflict, it may still be possible to reach an agreement in which the US and Israel accept the presence of Iranian forces across much of Syria in return for commensurate concessions. This compromise could involve a sustained withdrawal of Iranian-backed forces from areas near the Syrian-Israeli border (though less extensively than now pursued by Israel or the 100 kilometres Russia allegedly suggested) and some restrictions on weapons transfers.
Crucially, Moscow may actually be capable of helping implement such a framework, not by imposing it on Iran as currently envisaged but by working alongside Tehran on a mutually beneficial solution. Europeans can also do more to support this track. Ongoing talks between Iran and the EU/E4 (the European Union, France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom) on regional issues – which were supposed to cover Syria in June, but have been delayed – are one of the few avenues through which to conduct ongoing international negotiations with Tehran. European negotiators should stress to their Iranian counterparts that, without constructive steps on the Syria front, they will struggle to resist the Trump administration’s more aggressive stance, let alone engage in investment in Iran as part of a bid to save the nuclear deal. Simultaneously, European members of the United Nations Security Council (France, the UK, the Netherlands, Poland, and Sweden) should work with Russia to strengthen UNDOF’s mandate and ground presence near the Syrian-Israeli border, thereby establishing a much-needed buffer zone.
This approach will not rid Syria of Iranian forces’ destabilising presence in the country. But the establishment of a new balance could reduce the likelihood of further escalation, which will only further feed the worst impulses of this long-running conflict. It may also begin a long-term process of incrementally weakening Iran’s presence in Syria, a goal that ultimately remains critical to stabilising the region and protecting the interests of the Syrian people.