Sa'adollah Zarei, senior expert on Middle East affairs sat down with IRAS for an interview about the growing military-security ties between Iran and Russia in Syria and what role the US and other regional actors play in the scene. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What is your opinion on Iran-Russia military and operational cooperation in Syria in recent years?
"The interpretation of success or failure should be understood from the viewpoints of Iran, Russia and the opponents of Iran-Russia security relations. Those who have been involved in Iran in dialogue and agreement with Russia to play a security role in Syria, now positively evaluate the cooperation. It should be added that there are critical points in the context of cooperation, but, in general, Iranian officials who are directly involved in the Syrian case are satisfied with the cooperation, and they call for continued cooperation between Iran and Russia. There are positive views in Russia as well, and on this basis, we see growing cooperation between the two parties in Syria. The agreements, which are allegedly concluded between the Russian government and the Syrian government in the port of Tartus on the stronger military presence of the Russians in the Mediterranean, indicate the Russian satisfaction for the cooperation between Iran and Russia in less than two years.
"At the global level, the general view also points out that Iran-Russia cooperation in Syria could take both the political and security processes out of the Americans’ hands, and make it so that Iran and Russia can determine the equation in this regard. Apart from the indicators that can be referred to, we can see in practice that over the course of about 22 months of cooperation between Iran and Russia, more security has governed in Syria, the severity of conflicts has been reduced in many parts of Syria, and the Syrian political system has become more established, that is, there is now less talk of ‘Bashar al-Assad should leave the political scene’.
"In addition, we see that a large part of the asylum seekers and those who migrated from Syria are returning, and today many people have returned to their homes. The power of terrorism has decreased in Syria, and the terrorists, especially al-Nusra as the main terrorist group in Syria, have received heavy blows. From a country opposed to the survival of Bashar al-Assad, Turkey has now become a country who takes part in negotiations resulting in the acceptance of the Syrian government by the Turkish government."
What Iran want from Astana talks and what's her differences, if any, with Russia?
"Iran did not contribute to the initiative of the peace talks between some opposition groups and the Syrian government. The initiative has not been practical. Iran has confirmed this. Negotiations have almost begun since May last year. Meanwhile, some events took place in different places. During this time, Iran has been in the context of the negotiations, and has also had an active participation in these talks. But Iran had two approaches to this issue. First, it was very difficult for the Syrian Army to handle all parts of the Syrian crisis at the same time, because fighting in various areas would severely undermine the army’s energy. So, for managing the military scene and the battle, Iran needed or needs to remove the conflict in some areas in a controlled manner, let some areas do this automatically, and make some areas active so that it can manage it.
"From Iran’s point of view, these ceasefire and peace talks can contribute to the military management, meaning they can serve as a tool in the hands of the military organization that is going to set up and conduct the operation. Iran’s second approach was that peace talks and agreements could save lives. That is, they can serve as a tool by which to reduce the damage to people’s lives, let people move easily, if needed, and also manage the war with fewer casualties. This strategy has been important and acceptable, and has so far, somehow, yielded this result. But these dialogues also pose a danger: a dialogue with terrorists, which have set Syria on fire, is dangerous, if it is supposed to replace the military resistance and defense, that is, if it tries to weaken positions behind the front lines, and Iran should be careful to be able to manage it."
What is Iran's assessment of the potential deal between the US and Russia on Syria and is Tehran ready for such an agreement?
"It has been always the case that the end of the story is told by the Americans who can decide on the Syrian case, and Iran has entered this case in vain. Or it is said that the end of Syria is determined by an agreement between Russia and the United States. That is to say while Iranian forces have been martyred and bothered in Syria, the decision on this case will be finally made by another country - Russia and/or the US. Even one of the authorities responsible for Iran’s foreign policy said at a meeting held six months ago that: “We will, at the end, lose both Assad and the territorial integrity of Syria.” Some authorities say that, for example, the end of the Bosnian war was finally determined by the Dayton agreement, which was brought about by the Americans. But it should be mentioned here that if the United States and Russia were to decide on the Syrian case, both of these countries had a long time ago been separately looking for a way to determine the fate of this case, but they could not find a way to do so. This is not a new story that a group of Syrian friends was formed, and that the meetings in Tunisia, Ankara, Paris, London and New York were held on Syria. But it has been a long time since any of these meetings has been held.
"In the past, the Americans had the upper hand in the Syrian case - the active player was the US and even Tunisia was working with it. However, many of the eighty - sometimes even 120 - countries who were once allied with the US are not currently working with it in this regard. Therefore, the effectiveness of the United States in the Syrian case has decreased. Now you see that the US cannot decide on the presence of Iran in Syria. A significant portion of the Syrian front is made up of Iranian forces and commanders who do not follow the Russian-American agreements. Hezbollah also plays a major part in the Syrian front, and it does not follow these agreements as well. The Syrian army is also doing a great deal in fighting against terrorism.
"On the other hand, the current relationship between Turkey and the United States is not such that the Americans can count on Turkey’s cooperation. This means that the US does not have its previous allies in the Syrian regional and border environment. For this reason, I believe that the Americans will have a limited share in the Syrian case - they currently have a limited share -, and the resistance front does not need to be conducted under the auspices of the United States and Russia. It can be decisive itself, and the Russians have also never asked Iran to act only within the framework of the agreements. Iran has done its work, and where the Russians could not act because they had to consider some issues, Iran followed its own way. An example in this regard is the case of the eastern border of Syria. I wrote some articles on this issue, and mentioned that the Russians agreed on the proposed solution, but eventually it was Iran who did not accept it. Meaning while on the eastern border of Syria, which covers the Jordanian-Turkish border, the United States and Russia agreed that there should be no troops from the resistance front in depths of about 80 km within 500 km, Iran broke the agreement. Therefore, I personally do not worry that the agreement between the US and Russia is so strong that Iran will not have the capability to break it, and has to accept it."
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