On the face of it, the Trump- administration has positioned America squarely against Russia, China, Europe and most Muslim countries by its unrelenting pressure on Iran (the May 8 US exit from the nuclear deal and May 21 Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s threat of the strongest sanctions in history unless Iran meets 12 conditions). The only allies remaining to the US appear to be Israel and a couple of Gulf leaders.
Ismail Kowsari, the deputy commander of the Sarollah Revolutionary Guards base in Tehran, therefore mocked Pompeo’s threat of sanctions for forcing Iran to change course: “The people of Iran should stand united in the face of this and they will deliver a strong punch to the mouth of the American Secretary of State and anyone who backs them,” he said.
However, that presumption is one-dimensional. A close look at the hidden dimensions by DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources reveals a different, more evenly balanced lineup is taking shape with moves under the radar for shuffling the lead players into a completely different format. Here are some of those moves:
- The quiet understanding for Syria reached by Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Hamburg in September 2017 is still alive after some ups and downs. Both leaders are now sticking to their deal for keeping the land west of the River Euphrates under Russian control, and the region east of the river including the Syrian-Iraqi border area, under American influence.
- Russia and the US are agreed in principle that all foreign military forces should leave Syria – American, Iranian, Hizballah as well as the imported pro-Iranian Shiite militias – although getting to that point needs more work.
- Russian President Putin undertook, with Trump’s assent, to persuade Syrian President Bashar Assad to subscribe to this US-Russian consensus. Putin accordingly invited Assad to the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Friday, May 18 to discuss his country’s political future. After their meeting, Putin congratulated his guest on his victories in battle and, turning to the main object of the invitation, said: “All foreign troops must withdraw from Syria after the start of the political settlement.”
The Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov then offered “clarifications” to reporters. He noted that there are “regular and irregular forces from some countries in Syria whose presence is illegal according to international law.” He went on to say: “Foreign troops in Syria may leave after the beginning of the political process if their presence turns out to be illegal. There are some countries that have cooperative military relationships with Syria,” Peskov said and added: “Russian troops are thus in Syria at the request of the regime of Bashar al-Assad. They are there legally, unlike some other countries whose presence there is a violation of international law.”
Iran and Hizballah were not cited in any of the categories outlined by the Kremlin spokesman – legal or illegal. This was enough “clarification” for Tehran to set alarm bells ringing and touch off the first public rift over Syria between Moscow and Tehran. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi reacted by telling reporters on Monday, May 21 that the US and Turkey were deployed illegally in Syria and should withdraw their forces, but, he stressed: “No one can force Iran to do anything, Iran is an independent country that determines its own policies,”
DEBKA Weekly’s sources have not confirmed whether Assad went along with Putin on his deal with the United States, in full or even in part. His assent, however reluctant, to the eventual withdrawal of Iranian and Hizballah forces from his country, may be inferred from the ramping up of Russian arms shipments to his armed forces.
- In another message to Tehran, Moscow indicated to Arab media this week that the advanced air defense systems maintained by Russia in Syria were not there for protecting Iranian targets from Israeli air strikes, but only its own forces.
- If indeed a quiet consensus is developing between the US, Russia and the Assad regime for expelling Iranian forces from Syria, Tehran will find itself pitted not just against the US and Israel, but additionally against Russia and Damascus to boot. Therefore, President Trump and Secretary Pompeo are not the lone rangers they are presented as being by some Western media.
- It was in this context that Washington announced on Saturday, May 19, that the US was withdrawing its involvement and assistance, barring humanitarian aid, from northwestern Syria, a region that includes the rebel-held northern Idlib province. This region is surrounded by Russian, Syrian and Turkish forces. Afrin and areas up to Aleppo are occupied by the Turkish army. The $200m which the Trump administration had considered investing in the northwest, will now be spent on other projects. President Trump has repeatedly declared that US troops will not be involved in the Syrian civil war and will leave once the war on ISIS is over. An American skeleton force will remain in the east, as agreed between Trump and Putin three years ago.
The push to drive Iran out of Syria is gaining substantial weight from the military pressure Israel is applying on Tehran’s outposts in the country. (See a separate article on Israel’s latest tactics.)