By Francois Nicoullaud
For the time being, the Islamic Republic of Iran revels in the fulfilment of the “divine promise” embodied by its victory in Aleppo. The Pasdaran, or Guardians of the Revolution, have given their all for five long years. They have steadfastly supported Bashar al-Assad’s shaky army. They have mobilized and trained combat-ready auxiliary Syrian forces, imported thousands of Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and Iraqi Shia militiamen, and offered impoverished Afghans migrants work and resident permits in exchange for their deployment to Syria.
If ever it had any doubts, Iran can today take comfort in its strategic calculations. For its leadership, there was never any question of permitting some sort of neo-Taliban take power in Damascus, crush all its minorities, then cross into Lebanon and Iraq to desecrate the most sacred shrines of Shi’ism, and ultimately threaten the very borders of Iran itself. All of this with the massive support, overt or covert, of Saudi Arabia, now more than ever obsessed by the centuries-old Persian and Shi’a threat.
An Iranian Victory—of a Sort
The Iranians, however, had never harbored any illusions about Syria’s Supremo. They have criticized Bashar in half-muted tones for the ferocity of his reaction to the popular and initially peaceful revolt in 2011. They offered, at least once, to help him withdraw gracefully and settle elsewhere, but to no avail. At the same time, they regularly challenged their Western counterparts with the question, “if Bashar would leave tomorrow, who would you have take his place?” And, after a deafening silence, they would go on: “If you then leave it to a transition process, why exclude him from it? If the Syrian people, and especially the Sunni Arabs who form more than 60% of the population, hate Bashar so much, what would be the risk of letting him take his chances in an election organized by the United Nations and monitored by the International community?
While reassured to have been on the right side in the fight against terrorism, Iran also knows that its victory is fragile. First, it has to share it with a stronger partner: Russia. Of course, it had little choice. During the summer of 2015, General Qassem Soleimani, in charge of the Pasdaran’s intervention in Iraq and Syria, had to travel to Moscow to fully detail the exhausted state of the Syrian army and focus his hosts’ attention on the prospect of seeing Bashar brushed aside on short notice. Putin lost no time in understanding the threat to the Russian military and civilian presence in the Syrian coastal cities of Latakia and Tartus.
Of course, Russia today considers itself as the one and only real winner. When preparing for the evacuation of the insurgents and the civilians still trapped in eastern Aleppo, Moscow didn’t bother to consult the Iranians and the Syrian government, and worked instead only with the Turkish intelligence units in touch with the rebels. That is why the pro-Iranian militias blocked the process, demanding the parallel evacuation of Shi’a populations trapped by insurgent factions in two towns located about thirty miles away. And Iran had to swallow another bitter pill, as it is invited by the Russians to meet in Moscow for a discussion about Syria’s future–not alone, not with the Syrian government, but with…Turkey, which has supported all kinds of jihadists in Syria since the beginning of the civil war!
The Iranians know therefore all too well that the Aleppo victory is not the end of the story. The recent death of a Pasdar general in Palmyra, during the Islamic State’s recent reconquest of the city, serves as a useful reminder. If the coalition of forces supporting Assad were to reconquer all the Syrian territories that remain beyond its grasp, it would have to brace again for endless fighting. The Russians know it, too, and want to avoid falling into a new Afghanistan-like quagmire. They have reminded Assad, who still speaks of regaining control of the whole Syrian territory, that there is no military solution to the conflict. And that is probably the reason why they have arranged an honorable way for the last rebels in Aleppo to escape, instead of crushing them all in situ. Moscow is therefore pressing Assad to make concessions to the opposition and agree to an inclusive peace process, based on a national union, to defeat IS. This task by itself would already require significant new sacrifices, which could be difficult to bear for an organization like the Lebanese Hezbollah, which has already paid a heavy price in this war.
Finally, there remains a big question mark over the behavior of the future U.S. administration. Donald Trump has said that the elimination of IS would be his first priority, and that, in order to reach this goal, he would be ready to explore the possibility of finding common ground with Russia, and even with Assad. Turkey could join the endeavor if assured that the Kurds would be duly contained in the process. In such an arrangement, what place would be left to Iran? True, the Iranians are intervening in Iraq, where the Americans are also present. But in Mosul, among other places, the Iranian advisers are not as directly involved as they are in Aleppo. If the United States and Russia start acting together in Syria, Iran could be relegated to a secondary role. If not, it could at some point find itself acting as the cat’s paw of the Great Satan.
The Aleppo victory could therefore mark Iran’s high point in its Syrian venture. Its primary concern now should be to consolidate its position and remain an integral part of the solutions to come, rather than seek new conquests. All the more so, since the Iranian population already appears tiredf these endless external ventures, not to mention the considerable costs in blood and treasure incurred by protecting the Syrian regime at Iran’s expense. Of course, the interventions in Syria and Iraq are presented to the public as essential in protecting Iran from terrorism, and the Iranian people generally accept that justification. But, if the euphoria over the Aleppo victory leads to grander ambitions, if it gives rise to the idea that Iran is now in a position to establish its domination over the region, it is unlikely that the public would follow.
As in most countries, the Iranian people focus on their own economic condition. Since the conclusion of the nuclear agreement in July, 2015, and the lifting of the first sanctions, they are waiting with growing impatience for the recovery of their economy, and do not want it to be compromised by unnecessary external crises. There is already plenty to do in order to ensure the survival of this agreement and the lifting of the remaining sanctions, both of which are now gravely threatened by the election of Donald Trump. This is the question on which Iranian opinion will position itself in May’s election, when President Rouhani runs for a second term. This, not Syria, is where the Iranians are expecting results.