With growing reports that Iran’s notorious Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani has suffered debilitating injuries, the loss of Tehran’s main strategist and public face of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s campaign to shore up President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus would certainly be a costly blow to Iran’s regional ambitions.
Despite Soleimani’s initial victories against ISIS, Tehran’s campaign has been a costly military gamble for ultimately a political solution, which Iran may no longer be in a position to shape.
Soleimani’s visit to Moscow for increased assistance in the campaign may have been necessary for Tehran – but it was a strategic and mortal miscalculation for Soleimani personally and for the Supreme Leader. Tehran’s room for maneuver has been substantially curtailed by President Putin’s military move to shore up Assad and concurrently, his diplomatic hardball in Vienna. While the Russian President’s military move hasn’t produced the full gains that he may have first expected, Putin’s diplomacy has reaped substantial dividends.
Putin eclipses Khamenei
Instead of Tehran being seen as the key broker to a settlement on Syria, Putin has positioned himself as the holder of Assad’s future. From King Abdullah of Jordan to President Obama to Prime Minister Netanyahu, it’s not Tehran that world leaders go to for a deal on Syria, but Moscow.
Putin’s terms for a settlement are arguably more palatable for regional states that see Iran’s motives in Syria as opportunistically sectarian.Andrew Bowen
Putin’s terms for a settlement are arguably more palatable for regional states that see Iran’s motives in Syria as opportunistically sectarian. Moscow’s actions in Syria are perceived then as strategically driven and, critically, negotiable. Russia’s commitment as well to fighting ISIS has created space for a dialogue between Russia and regional and global powers over how to more robustly address this security challenge.
Iran has played a very well-resourced hand quite poorly in contrast to Russia, which has played a weak, low resourced hand quite well. For a fraction of the cost of Iran’s expenditures on Syria, Putin has a window of opportunity now at the Vienna talks to reach a settlement of Syria’s civil war, where President Assad, after a period of constitutional reform, would agree to new presidential and parliamentary elections. In contrast to Iran – which has a lot less room to maneuver on an alternative Syrian Presidential candidate to Assad – Moscow has more options, including current Ba’athist officials and senior Syrian army officers.
Unlike Russia, which has had a decades-old relationship with the Syrian army and Syria’s Sunni, Alawi, and Christian communities, Ayatollah Khameini’s main relationship is with President Assad and to a lesser degree with the Alawite community and the security and intelligence services that resent Iran’s new position in Syria. While Russia’s candidate for Syria’s Presidency may secure some of Iran’s interests, such a candidate will not be as beholden to Tehran as Assad is.
Iran’s fait accompli
Putin is more likely to force a settlement on Assad that would prevent him from running for another term, compared with Tehran, which has no clear alternative candidate at present. The Russian President has a limited window to demonstrate that Russia is a global power that the U.S., Europe, and regional states need to work with. While Obama may see the Vienna talks as a process that doesn’t necessarily need to finish at the end of his presidency, Putin needs to show domestically and internationally that these talks, brokered in part by his administration, is the only avenue for peace. The Russian President has no intention of being dragged into a quagmire in Syria.
For Ayatollah Khamenei, his room to oppose such a settlement, if Russia is able to bridge the gaps with the GCC and Turkey, is narrow. He may seek to turn this costly bad gamble around by trying to play hardball with Putin to reach a settlement more favorable to him, but the costs of the conflict (as evidenced by his own lead commander lying in a hospital bed) and Khamenei’s own need for Russian assistance to prop up Assad may check such moves. Khamenei may also make the call that going up against Russia on Syria is too dangerous a risk at this point, as Iran operates in a post-nuclear deal environment. Russia is, critically, one of the main sellers of the arms and military technology that Iran needs. To further expand Iran’s military capabilities in the region, the Supreme Leader can’t completely alienate Putin.
Iran is therefore more likely to accept a bitter fait accompli with Russia than make a further bad gamble that derails the Vienna talks.
Andrew Bowen, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow and the Director of Middle East Studies at the Center for the National Interest.
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