Astana Talks: Why Iran and Russia differ on Syria?

KAZAKHSTAN-SYRIA-CONFLICT-DIPLOMACY
The Nur-Astana mosque in Astana on January 22, 2017. The Astana peace talks, set to begin on Monday, will be the first time a delegation composed exclusively of rebel groups will negotiate with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (AFP)

With a new administration under Donald Trump taking the helm in Washington, Iran has shown its concerns by opposing any participation by the United States in upcoming Syrian peace talks scheduled for today in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan.

“We have not invited them, and we are against their presence,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on January 17, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, citing Iran’s Tasnim news agency.

This is Iran trying to keep a straight face for its dwindling social base back home, knowing they have lost hegemony in the Syria dossier to Russia, and yet refusing to admit such a strategic setback. Zarif’s remarks, however, went against pledges made by Russia and Turkey, who have recently taken the initiative out of Iran’s hands in Syria, of inviting the new Trump administration to the Astana talks. US officials have also signaled Washington will be taking part in the new effort.

This latest development points to a major conflict over one of the many definite flashpoints to come between Washington and Tehran over the Middle East. This goes parallel to the highly possible strong approach Team Trump is on the track of adopting, making a significant U-turn in comparison to the Obama administration and their immensely flawed appeasement policy.

In fact, it also proves how Moscow never considered Tehran a strategic partner. It is quite obvious Kremlin would prefer a strong relationship and a real “reset” with the White House, and not the mullahs and what little they have to offer. While Iran considers Syria its 35th province, it has never been the case for Moscow.

“If the enemy attacks us and seeks to take Syria or Khuzestan [oil-rich southwestern Iranian province], our priority would be to keep Syria, because if we keep Syria, we can take back Khuzestan. But if we lose Syria, we would lose Tehran,” said senior Iranian cleric and former IRGC intelligence chief Mehdi Taeb in describing the utter importance of Syria for Iran.

Russia’s objectives

Russia, however, has a variety of objectives in its return to the Middle East after 40 years. With crippling sanctions imposed by the US and Europe over the row in Ukraine and Crimea, Moscow is considering to not only gain a foothold in a strategic corner of the globe, but to also obtain a bargaining chip for future deals with Brussels and Washington.

Russia seeks to maintain its hold on Syria as a Middle East ally and a profitable market for its export of military weapons. This, however, does not spell into maintaining Syrian dictator Bashar Assad in power. The arrangements Moscow is looking for can be reached in talks with the West.

Tehran, on the other hand, is trekking a completely different trail and continuing its original path of establishing a disastrous “Shiite crescent” across the region. Meaning Iran simply cannot have an overhaul take place in Syria, while this is exactly what the Western-backed Syrian opposition seeks.

Iran has invested heavily in Syria and its conglomerate of Shiite militias–far more powerful than what is left of Assad’s army–are taking orders from Tehran, not Damascus. Syria is the cornerstone and the backbone of Iran’s Middle East strategy, stretching from Iraq to Lebanon and even Yemen.

As a result, with Russia pursuing a main objective of obtaining more concessions from the US and Europe on various issues including Ukraine, the possibility of Moscow and Washington reaching an agreement over Syria vastly in contrast to Tehran’s interests should not at all be considered farfetched.

This lays the ground for a dangerous potential, from Iran’s perspective, of Russia and the US coming to terms over Syria’s future. Moscow is in pursuit of a fast solution for Syria and sees Washington involvement in the Astana talks in line with such an objective.

And this is why Zarif, Iran’s top diplomat, seems to have shown such a harsh reaction, as if Iran is being thrown under the bus by Russia. The dispute between Moscow and Tehran over Syria and its future are serious, to say the least. As I explained in a recent Gatestone piece:

“Iran may have enjoyed tactical gains in Aleppo. However, Russia apparently has separate, long-term interests in complete dissimilarity from those of Tehran. Russia has conducted secret direct talks with the Syrian opposition. To add insult to injury, Iran – viewing the Obama presidency as a golden era – is also concerned about the incoming presidency of Donald Trump and his administration, who seem to have strong views against Tehran.”

Originally posted in Al Arabiya English

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