No real details were publicly revealed about the new military deal that was clinched after the Iranian Defense Minister’s trip to Damascus but the Islamic Republic’s top military representative earlier told reporters that “No third party can affect the presence of Iranian advisers in Syria”, in what was clearly a response to aggressive American and Israeli demands that Tehran immediately withdraw from the Arab Republic. Russia’s position towards this sensitive issue has been more nuanced but was nevertheless unambiguously articulated a few months ago by its Special Envoy to Syria Alexander Lavrentiev who said that President Putin’s mid-May pronouncement that “We proceed from the assumption that…foreign armed forces will be withdrawing from the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic” does in fact “include the Americans, Turks, Hezbollah, and of course, the Iranians”.
That said, Russia’s stance is a lot more gentle and respectful of Iran’s international dignity after the enormous sacrifices that it made while fighting terrorism in Syria at the invitation of the democratically elected and legitimate government, as was seen by what its Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov recently said on the matter following talks between the Russian and American National Security Advisors in Geneva. His exact words were that:
“We treat Iran’s steps to furnish its own security and activities with great respect, specifically in Syria at the invitation of this country’s legitimate government. However, this does not mean that there are no prospects or room for further efforts in this sphere. We’ve got many inconsistencies with the Americans in this area. Our approaches are diametrically opposed in some cases, but here as well, and this is vital, there are grounds for continuing dialogue on Syria.”
Specific attention should be paid to what he said about how there are prospects and room for further efforts in the sphere of Iran’s military presence in Syria despite its legal status, and how there are grounds for continuing Russia’s dialogue with the US on this issue. This could be interpreted as Russia trying to delicately strike a “balance” between its geopolitical interests in the region, especially regarding its desire to safeguard Israel’s security, and its military ones inside of Syria.
Syrian President Bashar al Assad meets with Iranian Defence Minister Amir Hatami in Damascus,Syria in this handout picture provided by Syrian Arab News Agency on August 26, 2018
Encouraging the dignified “phased withdrawal” of Iranian forces from all of Syria just like it recently did from around the Golan Heights would strengthen the Russian-Israeli Strategic Partnership and provide an opportunity for reaching a common understanding with the US that could lead to a reduction in sanctions and other asymmetrical pressure on Moscow, though at the same time, Iran fulfills an important anti-terrorist role in the country and will greatly contribute to post-conflict stabilization measures there. The Syrian Arab Army is seemingly unable to keep the peace on its own, which is a “politically incorrect” observation in some circles but nonetheless an objective one when considering that Damascus needs the assistance of Iran and even its allied Hezbollah militia to help it carry out this important task that’s obviously also in Russia’s interests as well.
The end result is that Russia naturally welcomes the new Syrian-Iranian military agreement because it would rather have Tehran’s troops carrying out de-facto “peacekeeping” and other stabilization missions in the country than put its own men in harm’s way instead, though that doesn’t mean that President Putin’s position from a few months ago – as importantly confirmed by Lavrentiev – has changed and that Moscow’s eventual (key word) goal isn’t to “balance” the Mideast by seeking Iran’s dignified “phased withdrawal” once the situation there noticeably improves.