Countries all see something different in the term “foreign forces.”
On November 11, the US and Russia released a joint statement from the presidents of the Russian Federation and the United States while they were in Danang, Vietnam. About half of the statement was devoted to the cease fire in southwest Syria that was initially agreed to in July. Of particular interest, the statement noted that a Memorandum of Principles on the cease fire had been concluded in Amman on November 8.
While the full text of the memorandum has not been released, US and Israeli officials have presented conflicting views of it. A senior US State Department official indicated that Russia had committed to removing Iranian-backed forces from the border of the Golan Heights. Israeli sources also indicated that the agreement would require the removal of “foreign forces,” which ostensibly includes Iranian or Iranian-backed forces.
“The Memorandum reinforces the success of the cease-fire initiative to include the reduction and ultimate elimination of foreign forces and foreign fighters from the area to ensure a more sustainable peace,” the November 11 statement issued from Vietnam said. The Syrian regime narrative, as well as Iran’s narrative about the Syrian civil war, has continually stressed that they condemn “foreign interference in Syria,” in the words of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in 2013.
In 2015, Syrian President Bashar Assad told al-Manar, the Hezbollah channel, that the presence of its non-Syrian fighters was not a justification for foreign fighters joining the Syrian rebels. “There is a big difference. The Syrian state requested the assistance of Hezbollah. It was a request by the Syrian state, which is a legitimate state, in order to help defend the Syrian people.”
The Syrian regime does not view Iranian-backed forces or Hezbollah as “foreign.” In that sense, any attempt to enforce the principles agreed to by the US, Russia and Jordan to which Damascus was not a party runs into a snag.
Russia has long understood the Israeli concern over the presence of Iranian and Iranian-backed forces in Syria. The Jerusalem Post reported in February that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Oleg Syromolotov said Hezbollah and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps would leave Syria when the war was over.
The problem is that these assurances and the Memorandum of Principles rely on numerous conditions being fulfilled.
It requires that the cease-fire agreement continue to be renewed. That requires groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the Nusra Front, or Islamic State – which operate near the Golan border – do not break the cease fire (that they did not sign). It also is not clear if the “sustainable peace” comes before or after the “elimination” of the foreign fighters.
And it is not clear what is meant by the term “foreign fighters.”
Vague terminology and talk about “peace” and “free and fair elections” have been part of the nomenclature employed regarding the Syrian civil war since the 2015 UN Resolution 2254 and via the Geneva process. The myth of “free and fair elections” is similar to the promises that “foreign” fighters will leave Syria. It is predicated on the idea that “foreign” relates to Iran or Hezbollah.
Iran will argue that Shi’a fighters in Syria are not “foreign.” Evidence also shows that Iran is building more and more bases in Syria. It is likely not a coincidence that the BBC released information on an Iranian military base at al-Kiswah based on a “Western intelligence source” on November 10, a day before the US and Russia issued the Danang statement. The revelations coincided with the signing of the MoP and the statement about Syria, and were designed to remind everyone about the presence of Iran in Syria. Israel has reportedly demanded that Iranian forces be kept 60 km. from the Golan border; the new alleged Iranian base at Kiswah is 50 km. from the border.
When the Syrian regime and its allies in Tehran and Dahieh talk about “foreign forces,” they mean foreigners among the Syrian rebels, ISIS and Nusra.
They refer to the American and coalition garrison at Tanf in southern Syria. They also refer to Turkish-backed rebel forces.
They may even refer to elements within the US-backed Kurdish and Syrian Democratic Forces in eastern Syria.
“Foreign” means everything but Iran and Hezbollah. Israel wants “foreign” forces to include Hezbollah and Iran.
The US has bought into the vague language as well because the US is not yet serious about removing Iranian-backed forces from Syria. This is because it has not acted against Iranian-backed Shi’a militias in Iraq that have been officially incorporated into Iraqi security forces since 2016. If the US was concerned about “foreign” forces, then it would have done more about them in Iraq.
Israel is in a bind. Jerusalem wants to rely on Moscow, Washington and Amman in relation to standing by a cease fire in southwest Syria. But Israel particularly wants Russia’s cooperation, because Russia is a close ally of Damascus.
Russia’s interest is the stability and perpetuation of the Syrian regime. Iran’s interests in Syria differ from Moscow’s.
To the degree that Israel has a way to guarantee keeping Iran and Hezbollah away from the Golan, it can set red lines relating to their presence. It has done this through its air strikes that have targeted weapons transfers to Hezbollah. It can also encourage Moscow to see that this presence is not in Russia’s or the regime’s long-term interests.
There is evidence Assad does not want to be too beholden to Iran. Ambiguity in the cease-fire deal will benefit Iran. Time will tell if the “foreign” forces actually do begin to withdraw from Syria.