The first tactical victory emerging from Russia’s intervention in Syria came not on the al-Ghab plain in Syria’s Hama province or around Syria’s divided commercial capital of Aleppo. Rather it came at the end of last month in the peaceful surrounds of Vienna. It was there the US and its regional allies, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, finally had to acknowledge what had been obvious from the start of the civil war. There can be no negotiated outcome to the Syrian crisis without Iran having a seat at the table.
So bloody-minded have the Saudis, Turks and Qataris been, and so sure they'd be able to find the right jihadist coalition with which to dislodge Syria from Tehran’s orbit, that they refused to countenance Tehran’s attendance at any of the previous conferences held to chart a way forward in the conflict.
Other than a statement of intent and a promise to meet again in a few weeks’ time, nothing concrete came from the Vienna meeting; its significance lay in the list of participants.
Russia’s air campaign in support of Assad’s Syrian government forces and Iranian-backed Shi‘a militia groups has always had a relatively limited strategic aim; to allow Damascus to win the peace. Syria’s allies know that Damascus can’t generate enough combat power to reconquer all of its territory, and neither Moscow nor Tehran are willing to do it for them. Russia has only deployed enough ground forces to protect its main airbase and a small number of forward operating bases, and possibly to provide some enabling functions to allied ground forces. If reports are true that Iranian-backed groups number around 2,000, then this also represents something far short of a game-changer.
Knowing that the only solution to the Syrian morass is a negotiated one, the Russian and Iranian intervention is designed to strengthen Damascus’ hand.
This entails firming up the security of core government-held areas, pressuring jihadi supply lines, and weakening the strengths of the various militia groups that serve as proxy forces for regional interests. This is one reason why the Russians don’t really care which opposition group they target — all of them are antithetical to Moscow’s strategic aim. Weakening any puts the Assad regime’s backers in a stronger position during negotiations.
That is not to say that Russia has no interest in targeting Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra, it’s just not Russia's primary aim. It never was. The fact that the US-led air campaign is putting pressure on ISIS in the east of the country and Kurdish groups are doing the same on the ground means the Russian air campaign can support the ground manoeuvre force and treat any rebel group as the enemy and a legitimate target.
Regional states can (and allegedly have) provided rebel groups with weapons to exact a toll on Syrian and Iranian-supported ground forces, however Russia is likely betting that this largesse won’t extend to surface to air missiles. Washington is concerned (with good reason) that providing such weapons to rebel groups, without being able to account for them once they cross the border, risks creating a much bigger problem than the one it seeks to solve. The alleged bombing of the Russian airliner over the Sinai would make the provision of surface to air missiles to any group in Syria even more unlikely.
Iranian military casualties have been growing since it has increased its forward-deployed Revolutionary Guard presence in Syria. This is indicative of the degree to which Tehran seeks an outcome in the Syrian negotiations in line with its regional strategic interests. Iran has every intention of maintaining Syria within its regional orbit, and it is investing heavily in blood and treasure to do so. It was never going to agree to any negotiated outcome at which it was not present, and the Vienna talks were a simple recognition of this.
The world can no longer publicly deal Tehran out of the Syrian solution; at the same time dealing it in is unlikely to alter Iran’s Syrian policy. Tehran has always held a strong hand in Syria; the Russian intervention and regional acknowledgment of Iranian interests in Syria have both made it stronger.
The Lowy Institute Analysis Looking for leadership in the Arab Middle East by Rodger Shanahan was published 30 October.