Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad .
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Iran appears to be trying to leverage the momentum gained from the conclusion of the nuclear deal, and improved relations with the West, in order to achieve some kind of deal that safeguards its interests in Syria and Lebanon.
According to recent reports, behind-the- scenes talks aimed at finding a compromise solution to stop the fighting in Syria are ongoing. Despite these efforts, however, an agreement to resolve the conflict – and not just pause it – are unlikely to be immediately forthcoming.
Compromise is not a common solution in the Middle East – either victory or defeat are.
The Syrian Sunni-dominated opposition and its supporters in the Gulf see themselves as the rightful rulers of Syria.
Sunnis comprise a majority of the Syrian population. The Gulf states are also loath to see Iran win the proxy war in Syria and keep President Bashar Assad in power.
Likewise, the Iranian-Shi’ite axis – which includes Syria and Hezbollah – have vital strategic interests in the region and do not want to see their ally in Syria
fall to their enemies.
The first visit of a top Syrian official to a Gulf Arab state in more than four years took place last week when Syria’s foreign minister met his Omani counterpart in Muscat.
Diplomats say it has been Assad’s allies Russia and Iran that are the prime movers behind the latest push for detente, in the wake of Tehran’s July 14 nuclear deal.
Iran has said that it will soon present the United Nations with its own peace plan for Syria. The Iranians, apparently, did not share their diplomatic initiative with the Saudis.
Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s elite military Quds Force (who is subject to a United Nations travel ban) has met senior Russian officials in Moscow, an Iranian official said on Friday.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Sunday that the United States should cooperate with Syrian President Bashar Assad to fight Islamic State and that this required an international coalition uniting all those for whom the jihadists are “a common enemy.”
The Obama administration sees the Iran deal as opening up new opportunities with Iran on Syria, potentially involving Iran in brokering a solution to the Syrian conflict. Such talk, however, is a non-starter for Sunnis.
Tony Badran, research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for the Beirut-based website NOW Lebanon, told The Jerusalem Post that all the media speculation about a possible deal is just noise.
“The Obama administration and the Iranians want to capitalize on the deal, but the Saudis are not pulling back on getting rid of Bashar,” Badran asserted.
Following the nuclear agreement, “Iran wants to cement the perception that it is now an inevitable, principal interlocutor on regional affairs,” he said adding, “In this, it is backed by the Obama administration.”
“But beyond this, there is actually nothing there in terms of substance or a change in the attitude of any of the players, which is why this is noise,” Badran explained. “We are in garbage time as the Saudis wait out Obama,” he said.
Yuri Teper, a Russian expert from Ariel University told the Post that if the meeting between Russian officials and Soleimani indeed took place, “I’m inclined to believe they discussed ways to fight Islamic State.”
The Saudi and Russian foreign ministers are due to meet in Moscow to discuss global energy prices. Their meeting is expected to be primarily concerned with the oil prices, said Teper, who is also a fellow at the Israeli Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.
“The proposition regarding some kind of a deal that includes Assad stepping down looks unlikely,” Teper asserted, adding that such rumors have been circulating for some time. He attributes this to the assumption that the Saudis will not stop financing the rebels and that Iran and Russia likewise do not want to loose their influence in Syria.
If the extent of the cooperation with the Saudis is joining together in the fight against Islamic State, Teper says, it would not be worth it for them.“Moreover, Russians are very suspicious of the Saudis and many in the Russian establishment see Saudis as American agents and allies,” argued Teper. “This is a false and surely oversimplified view, but it is very common in the Russian establishment.”
Reuters contributed to this report