Messages of Trilateral Meeting among Defense Ministers of Iran, Russia and Syria

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Afifeh Abedi
Researcher of Eurasia Studies at The Center for Strategic Research (CSR), Tehran

Following adoption of the UN Resolution 2254, which laid out a road map for the political future of Syria, and after the United States and Russia reached an agreement over ceasefire in the Arab country, a new trend has begun, which has reduced the possibility of the involved parties getting back to the real war front. At least, Russia seems to be determined about continuation of the trend, which is under way now, and the country’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has been the sole person after the UN special envoy, Staffan de Mistura, to Syria, who has made the greatest effort to bring the warring sides to the negotiating table. However, it seems that by putting more emphasis on the need to find a political solution, Russia is actually squandering opportunities in Syria, while Iran and Syria are trying to make the Russian side understand this. The tripartite meeting in Tehran attended by defense ministers of Iran, Russia and Syria, can be taken as a step in this regard.

According to the official announcement by Iran’s Defense Ministry, the tripartite meeting in Tehran on June 9 was convened through official invitation of Iran’s Defense Minister Hossein Dehqan for his Russian counterpart, Sergey Shoygu, and Syria’s Defense Minister Fahd Jassem al-Freij. During the meeting, the latest developments in the Middle East and ways of bolstering and expanding the fight against terrorism were discussed. At a time that Syria peace talks are practically in deadlock and involved parties have once more returned to armed conflict, this meeting can carry a lot of meaning as it sends important messages to international observers.

Importance of Tehran meeting

During recent months, many reports were released claiming that there were differences between Iran and Russia and also between the governments of Syria and Russia. Tehran meeting, however, can prove that the three countries have, at least, common goals and interests in Syria, which can further cement their alliance. This message from Tehran meeting can be important for the United States and its allies for two reasons:

1. Syria peace talks are now in deadlock. The United Nations has announced that if the involved parties fail to reach an agreement over the framework of a political agreement for power transfer in Syria before the deadline set for August 1, the UN will no longer host peace talks in Geneva. This would mean a return to the battlefield, which could be a better option for the Syrian side, which enjoys support of Iran and Russia.

2. In the absence of necessary coordination among Iran, Syria and Russia, al-Nusra Front and the so-called “Syrian Democratic Forces” have gained new grounds in north Syria, but coordination among Tehran, Moscow and Damascus can once again turn the table in favor of the Syrian government.

Importance of the theater of war

Although both sides emphasize that they are fighting against terrorists and confrontations are still indirect, in reality, any advance against terrorists would be translated into increased popularity on the ground. Iran and Syria believe that the ceasefire was, in fact, an opportunity given by Russia to those terrorist groups, which are deliberately tolerated by the United States in order to advance on the Syrian government, which has been committed to the ceasefire endorsed by Russians. Iran and Syria demand serious moves against these groups and expect more military support from Russia. This is especially true now that Russia sees that the United States does not look upon Moscow as a partner in Syria, and by remaining committed to the ceasefire deal with the United States, it is giving Washington and its allies a new opportunity for effective reinvigoration of their forces against the Syrian government. Finally, following the Tehran meeting, there would be probably an increase and expansion in the Syrian army’s military operations against terrorist groups in the Arab country. Aleppo and Raqqah are among those regions, which will be among prioritized goals of such possible operations.

Although recapture of Raqqah from Daesh would be a great victory for any of the involved parties in Syria, it seems that liberation of Aleppo would be key to conquering other parts of Syria and a big point to be used at the negotiating table. This is why Americans have been trying through the disruption in Syria peace talks and by offering direct support to the so-called “Syrian Democratic Forces” to bring Aleppo under their control before the Syrian army gets there.

Moscow’s changing strategy

One of the most important goals that Russia pursued through air strikes in Syria was to bring belligerent parties to the negotiating table. There is a lot of evidence to show that despite achieving its primary goals, Russia has not achieved its final goal at the negotiating table. For one big reason, Russia has been showing great tolerance during negotiations with the United States over Syria. It seems Russia is still hopeful that as a result of cooperation between Moscow and Washington on Syria, tensions between Russia and the West would be reduced. The realities on the ground, however, show that this goal cannot be achieved due to a variety of reasons. One of the most important reasons for this are aggressive measures taken by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) along Russia's western borders and remarks made by American officials against Russia in meetings with their European counterparts. Although Russians emphasize the need to negotiate and get coordinated with the United States over Syria, officials in Washington, from the White House to the Pentagon, are doing their best to convince the European Union that Russia is the foremost threat to its member states and they must continue to mount pressure on Moscow.

It seems that Moscow is gradually finding out about impossibility of change in the United States’ position. Presence of Russia's defense minister in Tehran at a time that Syria peace talks are on hold, can be meant at sending a signal to the White House that if it is not serious in negotiations and cooperation with Russia in Syria, Moscow would be able to change its strategy as well. This message could be a warning for the White House, which has fewer available options in Syria. Experience in the past months since September 2015 has shown that if Russia provided more support for its allies on the ground, including the Syrian army, Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah, it would be more possible for these forces to gain more victories.

If such cooperation were realized among Tehran, Damascus and Russia in the Syrian battlefield, the United States would undoubtedly show a reaction. However, since the United States is facing presidential election in 2016, Washington would be probably more willing to get Russia back to the negotiating table.

Key WordsTrilateral Meeting, Defense Ministers, Iran, Russia, Syria, Daesh, Hezbollah, Messages, Sergey Lavrov, UN, Staffan de Mistura, Hossein Dehqan, Sergey Shoygu, Fahd Jassem al-Freij, Peace Talks, Deadlock, Al-Nusra Front, Syrian Democratic Forces, Aleppo, Raqqah, Abedi

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*Photo Credit: Mehr News 

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