Secretary of State John Kerry recently testified before Congress that Iran is planning to withdraw most of its forces from Syria in the near future. He said that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards were planning to transfer most of their forces from the Syrian front back home.
Israeli TV reporter Ehud Yaari elaborated on Kerry’s testimony on Israeli TV, claiming most of the 2,500 troops in Syria would be leaving, He said a small group of 700 military advisors would remain as trainers and continue working alongside government forces. Yaari, who is a WINEP Fellow at the think-tank originally founded by Aipac is known as an unreliable source and the validity of his claims concerns me.
Many who wish for improved relations between the US and Iran would like to see a lessening of tension between the two nations. If Iran did withdraw all or part of its troops, this would could facilitate a marked improvement in those relations. However, we must be careful about what we wish for and not confuse it with what is true.
Yaari reports that the reason the IRG is withdrawing is that it has experienced grave losses in the field. 160 troops have reportedly been killed, including senior IRG generals (at least three killed in Israeli attacks it mostly has refused to acknowledge). This to me sounds like wish-fulfillment. I doubt very much that the IRG is so soft as to turn-tail because it lost soldiers. It is a tough resilient fighting force which fought valiantly in the war against Iraq over eight years. It faced far worse losses in that war, which did not persuade it to give up or retreat. So why would it feel compelled to do so now?
It’s quite possible this is a feint from Israeli leaders seeking to goad the IRG into deliberately and publicly rebuking Kerry by flaunting its military ambitions. What would enrage Ayatollah Khamenei or Soltani more than Bibi Netanyahu or the IDF intelligence commander leaking a claim that the IRG is bleeding to death in Syria? If Iran took the bait, ratcheting up its involvement in Syria, it would shame the Obama administration.
There may even be some motivation by the IRG to do so given the massive defeat by Iranian hardliners in the elections held yesterday, which resulted in all 30 moderate candidates for the majlis winning seats in Tehran districts. Nothing would bring the newly triumphant moderate faction to heel more than a demonstration of force and continued relevance by the military in Syria.
This too would play into Netanyahu’s hands. He desperately needs an Iranian bogeyman to keep his own constituency motivated to support him. No one loves Bibi. No one supports him out of affection, admiration, or love. He survives based on fear. Fear of the Arab-Muslim Other. The terrorist. The Islamist. The Iranian. The Hezbollah fighter. Without Iran, Bibi needs will need to attack Gaza even more than once every summer or two, as he has during his reign.
There’s another potential narrative: Yaari may’ve had this story leaked to him by Kerry’s people (remember Yaari’s WINEP connection) in order to weaken Bibi’s position regarding Iran. An Iran that is reducing its level of military engagement in Syria is an Iran that can no longer pose as much of a threat to Israel. You’d think that would be a good thing. But from Bibi’s point of view it’s not. He needs Iran. He needs enemies. Without them, he’s toast.
So the Obama administration would be happy to take any shot it can at Bibi. This possibly being one.
I have consulted with several Iran analysts and a number of them have disagreed with Kerry and Yaari. Eli Magnier even tweeted that the opposite was true: that Iran, if anything, was increasing its military presence in Syria and not reducing it.
But let’s assume Kerry is right and that Iran is sending many of its troops home. If that’s the case, then there is room for marked improvement in U.S.-Iran relations. One of President Obama’s crowning achievements after the P5+1 nuclear deal would be to find a solution of the Syrian conflict, which has killed hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians over the past five years or more.
Secretary Kerry has negotiated a ceasefire with his Russian counterpart. So far it seems to be holding. If Kerry is correct and the Iranians are willing to reduce their level of involvement, it permits us to pressure allies like the Saudis, Qatar and other Sunni States to reduce their participation in the hostilities. That would permit the Obama administration to proceed with further warming of relations between the two nations. Somewhere on the horizon is diplomatic recognition between the two states leading to full relations. This would be one small but very positive step in that direction.