twitter share facebook share 2018-06-08 1315

A regular survey of experts on matters relating to Middle Eastern and North African politics and security.


Elliott Abrams | Senior fellow for Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations, former deputy assistant to the president and deputy National Security Advisor

Iran’s ability to sit on the Golan border depends largely on Russia, which provides air cover and a certain degree of deterrence against Israel. If, as it now appears, the Russians do not want Iran to threaten Israel from the Golan, Iran will find it very difficult to remain there.

Two things seem clear. First, Israel is quite determined to prevent Iran from recreating in southern Syria what it has done in southern Lebanon with Hezbollah. Second, Russia has no desire to see Iran threaten Israel or fully control Syria. Russia is better off with bases in Syria and a weak Assad regime in Damascus that is dependent on Russia, not on Iran. And in the longer run Russia—unlike Iran—could even accept a negotiated settlement that produces a new regime in Damascus, so long as Russian interests are protected. So Iran may not “agree” to be kept away from that border, but power politics and the military balance suggest that it will indeed be kept away.


Camelia Entekhabifard | Author, columnist, and political commentator

At protests in Iran—whether carried out by those denouncing economic hardships or the division of Kazerun County in southwest Iran, or by Sufis claiming the right to visit their masters—the chants are the same: “Abandon Syria! Think of us!” The reference is to the Iranian regime’s spending on Syria to support the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The funds to do so are coming out of Iranian pockets.

Recently, Israel pounded Iranian military bases in Syria claiming Tehran is building up a presence there that aims to target Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is demanding that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) leave Syria or else Assad’s regime may be toppled. To save Assad, to calm angry Iranians who are upset about the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran, and to reduce the cost of the Iranian presence in Syria and regional tensions, the IRGC is ready to pull out of the Golan. For Tehran, the priority is to deal with protesters at home, who want nothing short of regime change.

Suggesting this sentiment of easing domestic tensions and decreasing Iran’s footprint in the Golan, the head of Iran’s National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, said on June 2 to Iran’s Sharq newspaper: “There are no Iranian militants—not even on an advisory level—present in southern Syria.”


Ali Hashem | BBC Iran affairs correspondent

One of Iran's main objectives in Syria, besides preserving Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s position, was securing an advanced outpost against Israel. This involved laying the foundation for the deployment of allies and weaponry near the Golan Heights. Giving this up would represent a major setback for Iran. However, Tehran is known to be pragmatic when it comes to dealing with threats, particularly if the consequences would greatly harm its influence in Syria.

Therefore, if the recent Russian-Israeli deal to keep Iran and its allies away from the Golan is implemented, and gives the Syrian army the upper hand in the area, it is probable that Tehran and its allies are going to try apply an equation similar to the one they did in Lebanon following the 2006 war and passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701. This would involve maintaining a quiet presence, while working on consolidating their capabilities until the next round of confrontation. However, that won’t be easy in Syria, where Israel, the United States, and even Russia aren’t going to turn a blind eye to such attempts.


Sanam Vakil | Professorial lecturer in the Middle East Studies Department at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna, Italy, and associate fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs

For the time being Iran has no choice but to accept the Israeli-Russian agreement to block movement of its militias near the Golan border. In light of the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran and forthcoming U.S. sanctions, Tehran is under immense political pressure to keep international, particularly European, momentum on its side. Any military escalation in the region could turn the tide of support against Iran at a time when it needs economic and political lifelines.

However, this does not change Tehran’s long-term calculation regarding the value of its strategic investment in Syria. Tehran is cognizant that Russian, Israeli, American, and Syrian interests are working against it. While in the short run Tehran will respect the new rules of engagement, it will continue to play the long game and further entrench itself within the remnants of a weak Syrian state.