From the Arab uprisings to the birth of the Islamic State, and from the eruption of four civil wars to the Gulf Crisis, the Middle East has never been more turbulent in its modern history. That the region has escaped a large-scale conventional war during such a volatile period in which U.S. diplomacy has been virtually absent is nothing short of a miracle.
But this streak of good fortune may not last long. With the Islamic State militarily defeated since last year, the Syrian civil war has transitioned into a battleground for regional powers, raising the risk of inter-state war. Southern Syria is where things are most combustible. Arch-rivals Israel and Iran operate in close proximity in that part of the country and are locked in a military crisis that could easily escalate.
Israel wants Iran far away from its northeast corner and ultimately out of all of Syria. Iran, on the other hand, has no interest in leaving, having spent considerable blood and treasure to save the Assad regime and pursue a set of strategic interests in Syria and across the region.
To compel Tehran to cooperate, Israel has resorted to military force, bombing Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria repeatedly. But Iran has not budged, licking its wounds after every hit, and recently even shooting back at Israeli positions in the Golan Heights, to which Israel retaliated by launching the most extensive strike on Syria since the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
Russia, the most powerful player in Syria, has stepped in with a diplomatic compromise to prevent things from spiraling out of control: Israel would allow Assad’s army to take control of the south unhindered, in return for Iran removing its forces from the area. Moscow has even proposed that except for its own security personnel, all foreign forces including Iran, Hezbollah, Turkey, and the United States would later withdraw from Syria.
Russia’s initiative has benefits, as it could temporarily pacify the most explosive dynamic in the Syrian conflict—that between Iran and Israel. But it seems to be missing one key ingredient: Iran’s buy-in.
It’s not at all clear that Moscow consulted with Tehran prior to allegedly reaching an understanding with Israel. But even assuming that it did, it’s hard to imagine that Tehran’s response was positive. Israel knows that Russia cannot impose its preferences on Iran, whose military units and proxies are widespread, numerous, and the strongest forces on the ground in Syria. And even if Russia manages to persuade Iran to pull back forces under its control to a distance of 60 to 70 kilometers east of the ceasefire line in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel would still have doubts about Russia’s ability to enforce compliance in the event of an Iranian violation or change of heart. At the end of the day, as valuable as Russia’s mediation is, Tehran’s decision is what matters the most.
Iran has three main options, and each has pros and cons: One, ignore Russia’s proposal and preserve the status quo; two, remove all forces under its command in southern Syria, but beef up its presence elsewhere; and three, dismantle its own military infrastructure in Syria, but copy the Lebanese Hezbollah model, as it did in Iraq, by working through Syrian proxies.
The first option frees Iran from any obligations, but it runs the risk of alienating Russia and triggering a major clash with Israel, which could lead to the military involvement of Washington, who under President Donald Trump is looking for any excuse to punish Iran. Under these circumstances, Iran could still try to avoid war by absorbing any further Israeli attacks against its forces in Syria and hope that its Hezbollah and Hamas military deterrents in Lebanon and Gaza, respectively, would prevent Israeli escalation. But deterrence could fail, and if Israel starts upping the tempo, scope, and lethality of its strikes, it’s quite unlikely that the IRGC leadership would watch Israel crush all its assets in Syria and do nothing about it.
The second option could avert the wrath of Israel for now, but it would weaken Iran’s bargaining hand and might not solve the problem anyway, from Israel’s perspective. After all, Israel has said that it will not tolerate any Iranian military build-up in Syria, which could mean that its strikes won’t stop until Iran and its proxies are no longer operating in Syria. Why concede to an enemy who won’t be satisfied until all its goals are met, Tehran would probably wonder. If Israel’s objectives are maximalist and non-negotiable then Tehran might calculate that it would be better off standing firm and forcing Israel to reach some kind of a compromise.
The third option would virtually eliminate the risk of war with Israel, since it would fulfill all of Israel’s demands, but it would also end all hopes of Iran building hard power in Syria and reaping all the attendant benefits, including added strategic deterrence. Iran would still seek to develop its soft power in Syria as a means to sustain its influence, but without boots on the ground, this would be much more challenging.
With Iran bereft of military leverage in Syria, Assad, being the dictator that he is, would more easily block Tehran’s efforts to establish a proxy that would operate outside the confines of the Syrian state, like Hezbollah does in Lebanon. Also, creating a Shi‘a constituency in a Sunni-majority Syria under Alawi rule (assuming Assad stays in power) without Iranian operatives and clergymen funding, training, arming, and proselytizing would be near impossible. Finally, without military power in Syria, Iran would be less able to force its way into economic deals with the Syrian regime that would help it finance such an ambitious sectarian project in Syria.
We don’t know which option Iran will pick because we have no clue how much strategic value Iran places on its military presence in southern Syria. Tehran is nothing if not pragmatic, but sometimes ideology trumps rationality in Iranian foreign policy, as various examples of Iranian behavior in the Iran-Iraq War attest. Perhaps the struggle with Israel will top all other considerations.
Iran’s decision will also depend on the existence (or not) of positive incentives. If Iran is offered nothing in return for its cooperation, expect it, logically, to stick to its guns. If, on the other hand, there’s room for negotiation, possibly over the fate of America’s military base in al-Tanf, then Iran might be more amenable to making concessions.
Israel seems to have shut the door to bargaining given its red lines in Syria, all of which forbid Iran and Hezbollah from having any type of military presence. To be sure, that’s a legitimate Israeli request, since Iran has no business deploying troops and long-range missiles outside its own territory and right at Israel’s northeastern frontier, but these are the facts. Israel’s refusal to adhere to more realistic goals in Syria has reduced the prospects of a peaceful negotiated settlement.
In a few days, Assad will order his 4th and 5th armored divisions to recapture the city of Dara’a and its environs, along with the region bordering Israel. If Iran goes against Israeli and Russian wishes and embeds its men in the Syrian army, it might mean that Tehran has decided to reject Russia’s offer. If it stays away, it’s a sign, albeit not a definitive one, that it is open to a resolution. But even then, the devil would still be in the details, and Russia would still have to show Israel, the United States, and Jordan that it is not only willing but also able to turn its diplomatic initiative into reality.