US President Donald Trump will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 16, in a summit that has been likely since Trump entered office last year.
They will discuss Syria. Russia and the United States have interacted inconsistently there. Where once it was thought that Trump would follow the Russian line on Syria’s civil conflict, events have proven more complex.
In February, US and allied forces killed Russian mercenaries – possibly hundreds – who were attempting to attack a base manned by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the United States’ primary Syrian proxy.
The United States and its allies directly struck the Assad regime, Russia’s client, in April, after the regime used chemical weapons to attack Douma, in Eastern Ghouta.
Trump has called Syrian President Bashar Assad an ‘animal’ and called on Russia and Iran to withhold support for the regime.
Trump’s anti-Assad rhetoric has not translated into policy, however, and his policies have been inconsistent. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the regime ‘extremely successful’ before repudiating the comments under criticism.
Trump’s animus towards Assad seems largely built on a broader antipathy to Iran. Iranian forces are tied closely to the Assad regime and Iran-linked militias operate across Syria, including near the SDF-occupied north of the country and near the Israeli border at the Golan Heights.
The United States has ruled out acting to prevent or punish the offensive mounted by Damascus and its allies against rebel-held Daraa in southern Syria.
Opposition to Iranian encroachment remains strong. It prompted a diplomatic effort from the Americans and their allies, particularly Israel, to split Russia from Tehran and impel Moscow to evict Iran from its Syrian holdings.
However, it would be difficult for the Russians to supplant Iran. The official Russian presence in Syria is small and the Russian government frequently announces the imminent withdrawal of its forces.
The unofficial Russian presence, particularly mercenaries and contractors, is greater but those forces are underequipped and were massacred when facing US special forces and air power in February.
Iran has thousands of troops in open operation in Syria and is at the centre of a network of tens of thousands of troops fighting to support the regime. Iran’s Lebanese proxy Hezbollah has been essential to Damascus’s war effort and is fighting across Syria.
The role of Iran-linked forces ‘was and remains crucial to Assad’s survival’, said Phillip Smyth, Soref fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, via social media. ‘Assad’s real offensive power on the ground has come from Iran’s use of foreign Shia militiamen. Many of these units are still quite active over large stretches of the country. Additionally, there is the high likelihood of their presence on the southern front, given they have operated there since the beginning of the war.’
Elizabeth Tsurkov, research fellow at the Israeli Forum for Regional Thinking, said: ‘Russia itself cannot force the Iranians to do anything’.
Its lack of military leverage means Russia cannot confront Iran directly or even induce it to withdraw. For example, Russian attempts to test Iran-linked forces have produced failure, such as when Russian troops, accompanying regime forces, failed to induce Hezbollah fighters to leave al-Qusayr in June.
‘There is a whole list of issues that will neither vanish overnight nor could they be accomplished by Moscow with the presence they currently have’, said Smyth.
If Russia wanted truly to remove Iran from Syria, it would have to appeal to Damascus.
‘The only thing Russia can do is talk to the Assad regime and try to convince it that the right move for the preservation of the regime and for the achievement of its goals is to prevent Iranian presence in the south’, Tsurkov said.
This would produce another challenge, she noted, saying: ‘The Assad regime would need to convince Iran to respect the desire of the regime’. This means that both Russia and the regime would need to convince Iran of their credibility and the necessity of bending to that demand.
Although Iran-linked troops are not essential to the Daraa offensive, Tsurkov said: ‘Iranian and regime interests in the short term align. Both are interested in the preservation of the Assad regime. The Iranians and the Russians as well recognise that Assad’s forces are too weak to hold Syria alone. In the long run, the interests of the regime and Iran diverge.
‘Iran would like Syria to remain a weak state in which it can wield influence through a network of militias and proxies.’
Further points of divergence include Israel, against which Iran and the regime are aligned. However, because Israeli generals and ministers have threatened that, if Iran were to attack Israel then Israel would overthrow the Assad regime, Damascus is unlikely to support such actions.
The deal the United States seems set to offer Russia would involve the withdrawal of Iran and then US forces from Syria.
Both events are unlikely. Russia is unable to evict Iran and, even if it could do so, the Assad regime remains unwilling to dispense with Iranian support.
Trump’s plan to induce Russia to evict Iran from Syria appears doomed to failure.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.