During the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, Republican Donald Trump made it clear he admired Russian President Vladimir Putin and even talked of working with the autocratic leader to help end the civil war in Syria.
Putin’s name repeatedly came up before and after the campaign, especially now that he’s been accused by the CIA of meddling in the election to help Trump win. But when it came to Syria, one country was conspicuously absent in the real estate mogul’s pronouncements: Iran.
Now that he’s the president-elect, Trump will not only have to cooperate with Russia to quell the devastating violence in Syria, but also possibly engage with Iran as part of the same objective. A first-time politician whose international experience is limited to building up his business empire, Trump talked tough on Iran throughout the campaign and even vowed to rip up a hard-fought deal to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Since then, he has stacked his team with former generals who hold staunchly anti-Iran views. Michael Flynn, who’s been tapped as Trump’s national security advisor, was reportedly pushed out as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency in part because of his preoccupation with Iran. When once asked about the top-three threats America faces, James Mattis, Trump’s nominee for defense secretary, summed them up as “Iran, Iran, Iran” (although he has cautioned that unilaterally backing out of the Iran nuclear deal will damage U.S. interests).
Trump’s insistence on working with Russia to negotiate a way out of Syria’s nearly six-year war is sure to rankle many in the Pentagon who fiercely distrust the Kremlin, but the effort is also likely to run headlong into another inescapable reality — that the road to peace in Syria leads not only through Moscow, but also Tehran. That has been made abundantly clear as Russia, Iran, Turkey and the Syrian government brokered a ceasefire with rebels in late December, with an eye on holding peace talks to end the country’s civil war in early 2017. The ceasefire, like others before it, is fragile and does include groups such as the Islamic State or al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, but the talks also notably excluded an even bigger player: the United States, which played no role in the negotiations.
So will the new administration be involved in efforts to end Syria’s bloodshed or will the U.S. be completely sidelined moving forward? If Russia does bring Trump into the mix, will the president-elect soften his seemingly hardline stance against the Iranian regime and engage it in talks? Experts interviewed by The Diplomat said it’s possible, but as with so much related to the incoming Trump administration, it’s hard to predict.
Russia officially entered the Syrian fray in September 2015 when it launched a campaign of punishing air strikes that were ostensibly meant to dislodge “terrorists” such as the Islamic State but in reality targeted all rebel groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Many observers agree that Russia’s intervention tipped the scales in favor of Assad’s beleaguered army, which scored a major victory recently by seizing the rebel-held portion of Aleppo, cementing his grip over a key stretch of territory often referred to as “essential Syria.” But Iran’s involvement over the years has been just as critical to keeping the regime alive.
Iran has supported Assad with money, weapons and its Revolutionary Guard troops, elite ground forces that have been instrumental in helping the Syrian Army hold and claw back territory from the constellation of rebel groups backed by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and other proxies. Tehran also directed Lebanon-based Hezbollah to supply Assad with some 30,000 additional ground troops (along with a smattering of Shiite militias from Iraq and Afghanistan). In fact, without Iran’s help, the Assad regime would likely have already collapsed.
“One stunning indication of the centrality of the Iranian role in the fight: Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, was pictured in recent days surveying the front in Aleppo,” wrote Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in a Dec. 21 op-ed in New York Daily News. “Suleimani, once a shadowy figure, is out there publicly to show that Iran is and will be shaping the future of Syria — and in a way that serves Iran’s regional aims.”
Iran, a Shiite nation in a sea of Sunni rivals such as Saudi Arabia, has a strong incentive to keep Assad’s ruling Alawite minority sect in power.
“Some believe Tehran has backed Syria to the hilt because of their common religious roots,” wrote Barak Barfi, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. “Both ruling cliques claim affinity with the heterodox Shia, a minority in an Islamic world populated by orthodox Sunnis. But Iran’s Syrian strategy derives less from spurious religious ties than it does from geopolitical factors. Surrounded by hostile pro-Western nations, Iran needs all the allies it can find to ensure that its regional interests are protected.”
Afshon Ostovar, author of “Vanguard of the Imam: Religion, Politics, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards,” says Iran and Syria are critical partners. “Washington first needs to understand why Iran’s stake in Syria runs so deep,” he wrote in an Oct. 12 piece in Foreign Policy.
“Syria under Hafez al-Assad was the only country in the Middle East to back Iran in its devastating war with Iraq during the 1980s. Iran’s military leaders are all veterans of that conflict. They still bear the scars, emotional and physical, of fighting in a war fueled by Iran’s Sunni neighbors that killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of their countrymen.
“But the alliance is more than just about personal affection,” he added, noting that the two countries grew close over their shared antagonism to Israel. “Syria became the conduit for support to Lebanese Hezbollah, which ever since has been used as proxy by Iran to threaten and pressure Israel and to serve as a pillar of Iran’s deterrence strategy toward Washington. Losing access to Syrian territory, in other words, would undermine Iranian deterrence and make it more vulnerable to Israeli and U.S. coercion.”
That’s why Ostovar argues that any negotiations between Washington and Moscow must take Tehran’s interests into account, because “[Iran] considers the war a personal, sectarian, and even existential matter for the Alawites in Syria and Shiites in neighboring states,” he wrote.
At the same time, the war has been incredibly costly to Tehran, which has yet to feel the economic benefits of the nuclear deal but has propped up Assad’s regime with billions of dollars while losing hundreds of its own troops.
With rebels having suffered a possibly game-changing defeat in Aleppo and Trump willing to work with Russia, Assad has strengthened his hand in any future peace talks. But whether the American president-elect would make room in those negotiations for Iran is another matter entirely.
Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute specializing in Iranian domestic and regional policies, told The Diplomat that the billionaire businessman’s penchant for deal-making could inform his approach to Syria.
“If you take the most basic premise he has laid out, which is that the two evils in this Syrian conflict are Assad and ISIS [Islamic State], at least based on what he said during the campaign, Assad is the lesser of the two evils,” Vatanka said. “If he sticks to that viewpoint and also wants a political solution to the Syrian war, then he has to be knocking at the door of the Russians and maybe the Iranians. Invariably, he will be asked to partake in a give-and-take process.”
Trump himself has vaguely suggested he might be open to negotiations, though he hasn’t mentioned Iran by name.
“My administration … will work with any country that is willing to partner with us to defeat ISIS and halt radical Islamic terrorism — and that includes Russia,” Trump said on the campaign trail in September. “If they want to join us by knocking out ISIS, that is just fine as far as I’m concerned. It is a very imperfect world, and you can’t always choose your friends. But you can never fail to recognize your enemies.”
One possibility for ending the protracted conflict in Syria often floated in foreign policy circles is giving Assad and his family immunity from war crimes prosecution and asylum in some other country (likely Russia) in exchange for transitioning him from power. The scenario could involve Assad handing the government off to some other leader of the Alawite minority, which would likely be a nonstarter for the rebels, who have seen hundreds of thousands of their brethren slaughtered by the regime.
But it’s an option that Iran, Russia and possibly a Trump administration could live with. Neither Tehran nor Moscow is particularly wedded to Assad. They’re more interested in keeping the Sunnis at bay while also preventing Islamic extremists from overrunning what’s left of the war-torn nation — the latter being a goal that Trump in theory shares.
“Nobody really knows what would happen to the Assad government if he was no longer at the helm, but assuming his departure didn’t mean the collapse of the rest of the government, then why on earth would Iran or Russia put all of their eggs in the basket of Assad?” Vatanka said. “What they care about above all is that their Arab rivals, particularly Saudi Arabia, don’t end up winning or even being perceived to have won the Syrian civil war. That tells you something about the depth of animosity between Iran and Riyadh.”
He said Iran might find the idea of easing Assad out palatable, considering the alternatives.
“If you are sitting in Tehran and looking at Syria and thinking, ‘OK, another five years of war and let’s hope Assad can clean house or let’s go with Trump and maybe he can bring a solution if he comes on board with Russia and by extension Iran, we would finish this war now — and the price we’d have to pay is to see Assad go?’ I think they’d say, ‘Fine. What is so special about Assad?’”
Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, agreed that the Iranians will be a key player in any Syrian resolution. But he wasn’t as optimistic about Tehran meeting in the middle with a Trump administration.
“The Iranians are in a position to call the shots at least as much as the Russians are,” Clawson said. “The key actors in almost all of these reconciliations [temporary ceasefires] have been the Iranians. This just suggests what an important role Iranian forces have played, and Iranian money is keeping Assad in power. If the Iranians aren’t happy with whatever arrangement is worked out with Syria, it isn’t going to happen.”
However, Clawson doesn’t envision someone else in the Alawite sect replacing Assad. He’s even more doubtful that the Iranians and Trump can reach some kind of accommodation.
“The idea that we’re going to have a common agenda with the Iranians is very optimistic,” he said. “A large part of their agenda is demonstrating the Americans can be defeated. It’s going to be really, really tough to find a way to work with the Iranians on that front.”
But he did express a glimmer of hope that Putin can convince Assad to focus attention on crushing the Islamic State once and for all.
“It’s conceivable this time that the regime will decide we’d like to go clean up that situation in the east and knock ISIS out,” Clawson said. “If the Russians can persuade the regime to do that, then the United States will be delighted. But this is going to be tough to deliver — really tough to deliver. But if that were to happen, I’m sure we would hear Mr. Trump say his policy with respect to the Russians is working.”
Ross of the Washington Institute, writing in New York Daily News, argues that cozying up to Russia and Iran to defeat the Islamic State could be counterproductive. “Joining with the Russians and the Assad regime in Syria will be seen as abetting Iran’s aspirations for regional dominance by many of our traditional partners,” he pointed out. “Rather than helping in the fight against ISIS, this may cost us the Sunni Arab partners we need.”
Regardless, Trump may not be able to enlist Russia’s — and by extension Iran’s — help in Syria and renegotiate the Iranian nuclear deal, as he pledged to do on the campaign trail.
Ilan Goldenberg, director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, argues that Trump can’t have it both ways: Either he kills the Iran deal or he accommodates Russia.
Goldenberg pointed out that Trump has said he would cut off aid to U.S.-backed rebels, paving the way for Russia and Iran to finish off the Syrian opposition in Aleppo in return for Russian cooperation in destroying the Islamic State.
He said that strategy would push any remaining moderate rebels to align with extremist factions and called it “morally reprehensible” in light of Assad’s atrocities. “But for all its faults, this approach, at a minimum, represents a coherent strategy,” Goldenberg recently wrote in War on the Rocks. “But if the Trump administration chooses to combine this Syria strategy with efforts to unilaterally dismantle the Iran nuclear agreement — the situation goes completely haywire.
“Even if Trump did not abrogate the deal on day one, there is still a good chance it could collapse over time,” Goldenberg wrote, warning that Iran would then not only restart its nuclear program with little international blowback, but it would also bolster its Shiite proxies such as Hezbollah, ramping up attacks against U.S. forces and possibly toppling the U.S.-friendly Shiite government in Iraq.
Vatanka agreed that Trump would be unwise to jettison the nuclear deal with Iran, especially if he wants concessions on Syria and to prevent Iran from further destabilizing the region.
“Mr. Trump loves to negotiate,” Vatanka said. “It’s better to say I’m not ripping the deal apart, but in order for it to go anywhere — for this 10- to 15-year agreement to be sustainable and viable — we need to talk about other things linked to Iran’s behavior in the region. If the Iranians want to play ball, then you might be able to take that approach forward and expect, or at least hope for, some modification of behavior on the part of the Iranians.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman (@michaelcoleman) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.