President-elect Donald Trump has announced that defeating the Islamic State group would
be one of his foreign policy priorities in the Middle East. In order to achieve this goal, he said that he would cooperate with Russia. He has also said that the nuclear deal (JCPOA) has strengthened Iran in the region and that the US should follow policies that can check its strength.
How would Trump’s apparent policy plans impact the current Iran-Russia coalition and, consequently, the fight against IS, and peace in Syria? Some speculate that the president-elect will want to cooperate with Russia in the form of a joint military operation against IS and also initiate direct peace talks in Syria, trying to separate Russia from Iran and isolate Tehran in the regional equations. But such a policy would neither defeat IS nor provide sustainable regional peace because the current Iranian-Russian coalition is based on both countries’ mutual needs to both defeat IS and find a political solution in Syria.
Sow division between the two, and the motivation they have to work together will be lost.
Iran and Russia are determined to defeat IS in the Levant. As the main source of extremism in neighbouring Central Asia, the Caucuses and Afghanistan, the group is an imminent national security threat for both countries. The spread of terrorism would have major consequences for Iranian and Russian economic, energy and tourism activities.
In Syria, Iran and Russia regard their coalition as crucial for preserving their political and military strength in Syria and accelerating the potential for a political solution to the crisis.
From their perspective, the current fights of rival anti-IS coalitions run by the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are all aimed at weakening the position of the Syrian government and influencing the country’s political transformation at the expense of Iran and Russia.
Based on this mutual need, and in the course of the crisis, the Iran- Russia coalition has strengthened, adjusting for both countries’ national and security interests. First, they have learned that benefiting from their common potentials will add to their strength in the regional political and field equations.
For example, the Russians know very well that their fight against the terrorist groups in Syria will be unsuccessful without engaging ground forces led by Iran. Iran also knows well that managing the battlefield without the Russian air supports will be very hard.
Second, they have learned how to equate and adjust these potentials to fulfil their common interests. In this regard, while the two countries attempt to support the positions of one another in the Syrian multilateral peace talks, they respect their specific interests and independent approaches in dealing with the Syrian and Iraqi crises. Russia supports Iran’s specific interests in Iraq while Iran supports Russia’s interests in Syria, especially in Latakia and Tartus.
Third, they have been able to convince one another to accept a balanced political solution in Syria, even while they may differ on other regional issues. For instance, while keeping its coalition with Iran intact, Russia is trying to adjust its interests with other regional actors including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Iran is also keeping close relations with Russia while it has continued specific relations with other effective forces such as Hezbollah and Iraqi Shia People’s Mobilisation Forces known as al-Hashd al-Sha’abi.
Fourth, they know that only their united presence alongside Assad can give him the necessary confidence to accept the process of political transformation in Syria. The reality is that the Syrian president has also learned to how to keep these two powerful supporters together to preserve his own interests in the crisis.
In the course of the Syrian crisis and peace talks, the US and regional actors such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia have attempted at times to deal directly with Russia in an effort to balance their regional interests. Iran could successfully convince Russia to take Iran’s side in Syria and, therefore, perceives any division in this respect at its own expense.
For instance, Tehran is against engaging the socalled moderate oppositions in Syria, perceiving them as terrorist group supported by regional rivals such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, but Moscow is in favour of a modest engagement with them, keeping the channel of peace negotiations more open.
But on several occasions the US tried to get to a deal with Russia on a ceasefire in Aleppo which failed. Turkey has recently tried to secretly lead negotiations between Russia and the so-called moderate oppositions in Ankara. Saudi Arabia also tried to move Russia away from Iran through different means such as offering energy cooperation and buying weapons from Moscow.
Yet none of these efforts have been successful so far as Iran and Russia understand that their geopolitical interests will be better preserved through increased cooperation in Syria.
Such cooperation has also changed the approach of fighting against terrorists and conducting peace talks based on multilateralism in the region, is the only way to achieve sustainable peace.