Vladimir Putin may get all of the attention when it comes to Syria, but the biggest backer of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad — and thus the biggest obstacle to removing Assad and striking a Syrian peace deal — is in fact Iran. The Iranians are Assad's most important ally, providing Assad with tremendous military and financial support to make sure he stays in power. Without Iran, there is probably no Assad regime.
The conventional wisdom says that Iran will never abandon Assad. Not because the Iranians have some special love for their buddy Bashar, but because they see Assad's regime as the only way they can protect their interests in Syria.
But what if Iran thinks it can go without Assad — and might be getting ready to see him go? If you'll forgive a bit of old-school aggregation, I would urge you to read this fascinating piece in the National Interest, written by Joyce Karam, who is the DC bureau chief of the London-based newspaper Al-Hayat. Karam points out signs that Iran is already preparing for Assad's exit, and might thus be willing to accept his removal.
Iran's strategy, it seems, is to use pro-Iran Shia proxies — Hezbollah along with Shia militias from Iraq and Afghanistan — to establish control over strategically valuable Shia-heavy regions of Syria, particularly along the Mediterranean coast. This, Karam writes, will allow Iran to protect its strategic interests in Syria, even if Assad falls: maintain a route to arm Hezbollah, control territory from which Iran can threaten Israel, and prevent Syria from uniting under a Sunni and thus anti-Iran government.
Karam looks over evidence that Iran is already preparing the ground in Syria for this, and explains that this has parallels to a strategy Iran used, to real success, in Lebanon and Iraq:
Iran is also establishing that if Assad falls, it will have enough proxies and presence in Syria to secure its influence and prevent a hostile regime from effectively taking over. The strategy in Syria looks very similar to Iran’s playbook in Iraq and Lebanon, where heavily armed and trained nonstate actors are securing Iran’s interests. Both the Iraqi and Lebanese models prove that these new militia structures are there to stay and are not bound to UN resolutions or state and international agreements. Hezbollah has effectively ignored UN resolutions calling to disarm it (UNSCR 1559), and the newly formed Hashd Shaabi militia in Iraq ignores the SOFA agreement between Washington and Baghdad.
To be clear: None of this is exactly great news. Iran's strategy in establishing a quasi-independent, Iran-dominated, militia-run Shiastan in western Syria isn't about surrendering Assad — it's about making Assad irrelevant.
So what's the upshot of all this? What does this mean for Syria's future, and for the prospects of Syrian peace talks meant to end the civil war, thus bringing the world a big step closer to taking down ISIS and resolving the refugee crisis?
On one hand, as Iran becomes more willing to see Assad go, it will lessen its opposition to Syria peace talks meant to remove him. Iran is probably the single biggest obstacle to peace talks, so that's a big deal.
On the other hand, Iran's apparent strategy here makes it much harder to actually make a peace deal work in execution. A major driver of Syria's war is the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide; peace talks thus aim to bring both groups together in a united Syria. Iran's strategy only deepens the sectarian divide, and seems designed to make that divide permanent. And Karam points out that Iran's strategy also relies on keeping Shia militias in Syria more or less permanently, which means subverting Syrian sovereignty, and goes against a central requirement of any viable peace deal, that all militias leave. Sunni Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, whose primary goal is combating Iranian influence, are also likely to reject any agreement that allows Iran to keep this Shia militia presence, and may actually escalate their own support for Sunni rebel groups in response.
The bottom line, then, is this: Yes, it is indeed possible that Iran is getting ready to give up on Assad. But Iran's core strategy hasn't changed, and Iran's post-Assad strategy will still probably make any Syrian peace deal impossible.