Is Putin trying to pressure Assad to negotiate?

The official position of Iranian and Russian officials regarding Russia’s sudden decision to partially withdraw troops from Syria has been that Russia's objectives have been achieved and the move will allow the political process between the Syrian sides to be successful. Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, is the latest Iranian official to address the withdrawal, saying March 16, “The withdrawal of Russia from Syria was based on predetermined coordination and plans and in no way was it unexpected.” However, not everyone in the Iranian media is buying the official explanations.

One of the more critical articles of the Russian withdrawal appeared in Reformist Arman Daily, headlined, “Russia was not a strategic partner.” Russia analyst Morteza Makki wrote that the withdrawal can be seen as “an agreement between Russia and the United States for the establishment of a cease-fire … and a new political process.” Makki continued that it is natural for two negotiating sides to apply pressure on their allies, “but not with such speed that it would surprise everyone.”

Makki wrote that despite Zarif’s positive statement on the withdrawal, “this quick and surprising decision by Russia shows that Iran and Russia’s partnership in Syria was not a strategic partnership. The Russians make decisions based on their own calculations and interests, and the partnership was not such that Iran and Syria would be able to push forward with their views and positions by leaning on the Russians.”

Makki continued that it is possible Russia’s decision was made to force President Bashar al-Assad’s government to show flexibility in the Geneva negotiations, saying that in their recent statements, the Syrians have been very optimistic and have presented red lines regarding Assad’s departure. Even conservative media outlets have suggested Russian President Vladimir Putin was angered by Syrian officials' comments ahead of the negotiations in Geneva.

When it comes to Syria, the Iranian media has typically been keen to conform to the statements of officials. To see an article suggest that the official version presented by authorities is hiding key points is rare indeed. Most Iranian media outlets have parroted official positions on the Russian withdrawal, but they, too, have struggled to explain it. Even Iran Newspaper, which operates under the administration's direction, called the withdrawal “surprising.”

The hard-line Yalasarat, Ansar-e Hezbollah's weekly publication, reported that Russia’s withdrawal was even “more surprising” than its entrance into the Syrian civil war. The article offered its own explanation for Russia’s withdrawal, suggesting that Moscow had four objectives: to strengthen Assad’s position, to show Russia's military power, to weaken the Syrian opposition and to influence Western positions on sanctions, Ukraine and NATO expansion. The article claimed that the first three objectives were achieved to a large degree and Russian’s decision was made to show the Syrian opposition its good intentions and also to force Assad to show more flexibility in the negotiations. It is rumored that Russia also presented a proposal for a new constitution.

The article warned that while the opposition thinks Russia is abandoning Syria, “they are completely wrong,” and “While the Russian [jets] are leaving Syria, their [bases] are still there and they can easily return.” Russia’s involvement in Syria, the piece pointed out, is only six months old, while the war has lasted five years and Russia wants to see an end.

Most Iranian media organizations seem to believe a resolution is still far off. Makki wrote that at best, Syria is looking at a short-term semi-cease-fire and an eventual federation. Yalasarat reported that regardless of the talks and Russia’s partial withdrawal, for various reasons, the Syrian crisis is unlikely to end before 2020.

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