The myth of ‘separating Russia from Iran’

According to reports in both Syrian and English media, Israel last month made what was essentially a devil’s bargain with Russia after weeks of intensive diplomacy: Israel will give Russia and its Assad regime client the diplomatic “green light” to attack rebel forces abutting Israel and Jordan, and in return, Russia will ensure that Iranian proxy forces who back Assad do not join the offensive. The demand regarding Iranian proxies is key, as many such proxies have clear intentions to attack Israel.

But Russia has not held up its end of the bargain. On June 26, Iranian proxy militia Liwa Zulfikar announced its participation in the storming of Busra al-Harir, which was the first major town to fall to the regime in the recent offensive. Heavy Russian airstrikes were reported on the town when it fell. The next week, one of the top Iranian proxy commanders – a man known as “Abu Ajeeb” – appeared on the new main front line in Da’el, a town under 30 km. from the Israeli border. Iranian media even reported the death of an Iranian commander in Deir al-Adas, a third key town within 30 km. of Israel.

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On July 3, a photograph of what appeared to be a Russian general speaking with Iranian proxy commander “Abu Ajeeb” was circulated among Da’el opposition activists, along with the claim that “Abu Ajeeb” had turned the photographed site into a military base. Activists from the area told me that the site in question is a schoolyard close to the front line, and an imagery analysis of the photograph supports their assertion. At a minimum, the photograph proves that Russia is aware of an Iranian presence well within the boundaries of the 45 km. buffer that Israel reportedly desires.

It seems that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made a fundamental mistake. Having worked on Syria policy in Washington, DC for five years, it is a mistake I’ve seen before: the myth of “separating Russia from Iran.”

When Donald Trump was sworn in as US President in January 2017, he took his tendencies to confront Iran and reconcile with Russia into the Oval Office. This triggered a scramble among many policymakers to craft plans to “separate Russia from Iran” in Syria – or, more bluntly, to grant Russia and Assad concessions in the hopes that they would jettison Iran later. Yet both the Israeli and American experiments with this policy idea have brought only further Iranian expansion.

Trump initially presented cause for optimism among those who shared his desire to challenge Iranian regional influence. His retaliatory missile strikes after the Assad regime’s April 2017 nerve gas massacre were a welcome shift from President Obama’s cancelled chemical “red line” in 2013. These Tomahawk strikes were quickly followed by the first-ever US airstrikes on Iranian proxy fighters; as I highlighted on these pages soon after, the airstrikes came at a critical moment when Iran’s “ground corridor” to the Mediterranean hung in the balance and would soon be either completed or blocked.

But then Trump blinked.

In June 2017, Russian warplanes directly targeted US-backed rebels fighting to block the corridor.

When the US did not respond, Iranian and regime forces began to quickly advance and soon clinched their corridor by surrounding the US-backed rebels. The die was cast in July 2017, when Trump arranged a “de-escalation agreement” for southwest Syria. While the move was framed as a peace deal to solidify Syrian rebel areas near Israel and Jordan, its true impact was to legitimize the Russian “deescalation zones” plan that had allowed Iran to complete its corridor.

American and then Israeli consent to expanded Russian influence in Syria, under the banner of “separating Russia from Iran,” has led directly to the current situation. American consent last year granted Iranian proxies a supply line back to Tehran, while allowing regime troops to eliminate each “deescalation zone” one by one; and Israeli consent more recently enabled Iran’s militias to breach Israel’s desired buffer zone.

YET LIKE blackjack players who keep doubling down at the casino until they run out of chips, supporters of the “separating Russia from Iran” policy have only grown more ambitious as the observable impacts of their ideas have worsened.

The latest idea in US policy circles is to fully jettison Tanf Base, now the main US base constricting an Iranian corridor, once Russia ensures the full exit of Iranian proxies from Syria. Given that Russia was also supposed to ensure the exit of Iranian proxies from southwest Syria, but instead provided them air cover to advance closer to Israel, this is not an idea that inspires optimism.

Who will ensure that Iranian proxies in fact withdraw this time around, unlike previous occasions when they simply pretended to withdraw, only to return disguised as regime troops? And is Russia to be the guarantor? Russia also posed as the “guarantor” for its “deescalation zones” plan that has so far led to slaughter in two of the zones, including the one closest to Israel that Trump directly negotiated. The phrase “Russian guarantor” is now akin to a swear word in Syrian opposition parlance.

It’s time to put the myth of “separating Russia from Iran” to rest. The evidence shows that Russia and Iran are fast allies, and are more likely to remain so than to separate. If Trump and Netanyahu are serious about rolling back Iranian influence, they will have to get tough on Russia as well.

The writer is the Policy and Advocacy Officer at the Syrian American Council.