Iran looks to Syria peace talks to boost regional clout

Sunday 15/01/2017
At centre of diplomatic game

TEHRAN - Iran is looking to Syria peace talks next week as a chance to build on its regional clout, experts say, as Tehran, Moscow and Ankara all stake out claims for influence.

The Syrian army's victory in recapturing the rebel stronghold of east Aleppo last month has thrust Tehran to the centre of the diplomatic game playing out over the country's future.

The win was achieved with crucial assistance from Iranian military advisors and thousands of "volunteer" fighters.

President Hassan Rouhani said this week that the co-sponsors of the peace talks opening in Astana on Monday -- Iran, Russia and Turkey -- were the only powers with the influence to turn the fragile ceasefire between the Syrian government and rebels into a lasting settlement.

But resolving the different interests and plans of the co-sponsors will prove tricky.

For Iran, the priority is to ensure the survival of longtime ally President Bashar al-Assad, or at least a carefully managed transition that stops Syria falling into the hands of extremists or a government that sides with its rivals in Saudi Arabia and the United States.

It also wants to maintain a secure land route across Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, where its ally Hezbollah sits on the frontline of its longer-term concern: Israel.

"The war in Syria is not seen as a civil war in Tehran. It's rather perceived as a micro world war determining the geopolitics of the Middle East," said Adnan Tabatabai, Iran analyst and CEO of Germany-based think tank CARPO.

"Tehran is convinced that Israel would have carried out air strikes against Iranian nuclear sites... if Hezbollah did not exist as a deterrence on the Israeli-Lebanese border," Tabatabai said.

"So access to Hezbollah and maintaining the so-called 'axis of resistance' through Syrian territory is a key priority for Iran."

Negotiations between Iran and Turkey, which has been on the opposing side in the war as a backer of Islamist rebel groups, were always going to be thorny.

More surprising have been the cracks starting to emerge in Tehran's ties with Moscow, which has been the other chief supporter of Assad.

Iran is worried that Russia appears to be shifting its allegiance towards Turkey: working with Turkish forces against the Islamic State group and excluding Iran from initial ceasefire talks in northern Syria.

Ali Vaez, of the International Crisis Group, said Iran and Russia were only ever "tactical partners, not strategic allies".

"Russia doesn't appear to share Iran's key priorities in Syria. Not only does Assad appear more dispensable to Russia than he is to Iran, but Russian officials also appear more comfortable with the concept of federalism in Syria than their Iranian counterparts," said Vaez.

Others disagree, saying Russia has no choice but to stick by Iran.

"The Russians want a strong strategic presence in Syria and the region," said Ali Montazeri, a Tehran-based analyst.

"They know it's necessary to cooperate with Iran because Iran has a growing influence in the whole region."

Indeed, Iran has seen a string of successes throughout the Middle East in recent months.

As well as battlefield successes in Syria, Tehran saw its chosen candidate win the presidency in Lebanon, and its regional rival Saudi Arabia increasingly bogged down in the Yemen conflict and struggling with falling oil revenues.

Just getting to the negotiating table has been a major turnaround for Iran, which was frozen out of previous UN-sponsored peace talks on Syria.

The nuclear deal it signed in 2015 with world powers brought it back into the fold, helping to earn it a place at an international conference on Syria in Vienna in October of that year.

By then, it had become hard to ignore Iran's central role in the conflict.

Tehran provides few details of its involvement, but in November revealed that more than 1,000 of its volunteer fighters -- many recruited from Shiite communities in Afghanistan and Pakistan and overseen by the external operations arm of the Revolutionary Guards -- had been killed in Syria.

Iran is starting to see some payback for its sacrifices. A visit this week by Syrian Prime Minister Imad Khamis saw deals giving Iran the right to set up a mobile phone network and a petrol terminal in the country.

Now it hopes to turn battlefield strength into negotiating clout.

"Iran's first priority is to remind Turkey and Russia that no deal in Syria is feasible without taking Tehran's interest into account," said Vaez.