In Multipolarity

Published in Al-Monitor, June 26, 2016

Iran rejects speculation on shift, divisions over Syria

Ali Hashem reported that a recent reshuffle of senior officials at the Iranian Foreign Ministry does not signal a shift in Iran’s approach to Syria.

The changes, announced June 19, include former ministry spokesman Hossein Jaberi Ansari being appointed deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs, succeeding Hossein Amir-Abdollahian; Amir-Abdollahian being named adviser to Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, with perhaps some special envoy responsibilities; and Bahram Ghassemi taking over as head of the Public and Media Diplomacy Center as well as becoming the new ministry spokesman.

The reshuffle follows the designation of Rear Adm. Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, as being responsible for political and military strategy in Syria, including coordination with Syria and Russia.

As Hashem explained, “the ongoing war in Syria is no longer a matter of regional security. The conflict now has direct effects and implications for Iran’s national security.”

Changes matter, but Iran’s national security decision-making may be more institutionalized than most observers acknowledge. A senior Iranian diplomat told Hashem, “Iran’s foreign policy goes through four levels of decision-making. It starts with the supreme leader, then the Supreme National Security Council, then the government and finally the Foreign Affairs Ministry.” Zarif said on June 22, “There’s no bigger insult to the Islamic Republic than to claim that the change of an official is because of this or that person.”

Hashem explained that alleged differences over Syria between Zarif and Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, as reported here by Laura Rozen, may be more division of labor than struggle for influence.

“Zarif and Soleimani are national icons to many in Iran. The former negotiated the landmark nuclear agreement, and the latter has overseen the frontiers of his country’s zones of influence, reaching all the way to the Mediterranean. Now that both men are dealing with the same file, each from his own position of responsibility, the question of whose line of thinking will be adopted has been raised,” Hashem wrote.

“In direct response to such queries, Zarif said in the Netherlands on June 23, ‘There is consensus over Syria in Iran,’ adding that he has had discussions with Soleimani about Syria and that they both agree that the crisis needs a political solution. Indeed, Iran has for years expressed consistent support for a political solution while rejecting the immediate departure of [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad. In this vein, one senior Iranian official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, ‘There has been no change in our position [on Syria].’ He added, ‘We have been saying the same thing since we presented the four-point plan. We should not focus on individuals, because it prevents a solution, but we need to focus on institutions and constitutional reform and allow the Syrian people to make their own choice,’” Hashem concluded.

Russia losing patience with U.S. in Syria

Russian officials, frustrated by U.S. accusations of violations of the cessation of hostilities in Syria, may be rethinking Russia’s approach to Syria, according to Maxim Suchkov.

Suchkov quoted Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian military’s general staff, on Moscow’s increasing exasperation with Washington: “We are in full compliance with our obligations to maintain the cease-fire and ensure national reconciliation in Syria. … For three months we’ve been sending positioning data of [the Islamic State (IS)] and [Jabhat al-Nusra] to the Americans, and our U.S. partners are still undecided where there are opposition forces and where there are ‘turncoats’ from international terrorist organizations.”

Suchkov explained that these and other statements “reflect a broader disappointment within Moscow. Russian media and mainstream commentators have until now focused primarily on the battle for Raqqa, but more knowledgeable pundits and decision-makers are tacitly concerned that the events in Syria are not running the course Moscow initially charted. No doubt, IS is largely seen by most parties as an enemy that cannot be compromised with under any circumstances. But as far as the U.S. presence in the area is concerned, some Russian reporters compare it to the ‘run for Berlin,’ meaning Russia and the United States are desperately trying to ensure their own forces seize the city first.”

Suchkov continued, “Russian military experts were skeptical that Raqqa was ever a real goal for Assad, who devoted more effort toward capturing Tabqa to gain a foothold for further offensives. It is clear that plan hasn’t been working well so far: IS recaptured large chunks of the territory from Syrian forces in Raqqa and other areas, while the opposition forces maintained their control as well. All of this makes the future of Assad and his army more uncertain. And Moscow’s own uncertainty is growing over what it largely sees as Washington starting to pursue a more delicate policy.”

Russia is especially wary of the U.S.-backed offensive in Manbij, which is backed primarily by Syrian Kurdish forces, which allows access to a transit route for opposition groups to receive assistance via Turkey. Suchkov explained that this would allow U.S.-backed opposition fighters to take Azaz and eventually Afrin.

The Russian rethink is concentrated on how to assist Syria to take Aleppo and Idlib, which could turn the tide of battle as well as the political negotiations in favor of the Syrian government. “Moscow’s even greater concern,” Suchkov wrote, “is whether Washington will support Ankara in transferring additional resources into these areas. If that should happen, Russia fears Syria could lose some territory. So the Kremlin is desperately trying to devise an adequate counterplan. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s visits to Iran and Syria can be viewed as part of this effort. Or Russia might use its more traditional approach of recruiting former U.S. allies from the cohort of rebel opposition groups. Both moves are understandable — Moscow wants to coordinate efforts with its tactical allies to make its policies more effective and, at the same time, secure its influence within opposition groups when and if they become part of the transition process in Syria. There’s a reasonable concern in Moscow that this might not be enough: Assad’s commanders have been making some grave mistakes on the battlefield while the opposition forces are stretching out government troops and hitting ‘army-free’ areas.”

De Mistura seeks U.S., Russia “critical mass” on Syria

UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura flew to Washington after meeting with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin last week in advance of a UN Security Council meeting on Syria on June 29, Laura Rozen reported.

De Mistura is seeking to develop a U.S.-Russian consensus on steps to prevent a further erosion of the cessation of hostilities and resume political negotiations.

Rozen quoted the UN Syria envoy as saying, “Don’t forget that the cessation of hostilities took place when the Russian Federation and the United States agreed on something, and that produced a critical mass. We are looking for the same type of critical mass on the beginning of the political transition, and we can help. We are helping, but we need that one.”

De Mistura and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had met with Putin on the sides of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum last week. Putin told reporters after the meeting, “I agree with the proposals of our partners, primarily our American partners that suggest … considering the possibility of bringing representatives of the opposition into existing power structures — for instance, the government. … It is necessary to think about what powers this government will have. Many of our partners are saying that Assad should go. Today they are saying no, let’s restructure governing institutions in such and such a way, but in practical terms it will also mean his departure. But this is also unrealistic. Therefore, it is necessary to act carefully, step by step, gradually winning the confidence of all sides to the conflict.”


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