The wave of Iranian protests is not dying out. Angry people continue to hit the streets and the feeling of discontent has not evaporated. The slogans show they mean business. With little information coming out, it’s impossible to make any assessments. The protesters appear to have no leaders and it’s hard to say if their actions are organized. Some people may welcome the events, some adopt negative attitude and some may be reserved, taking a wait-and-see approach.
Are the protests incited from outside? On January 29, ambassadors from the United Nations Security Council were invited on a field trip to Washington to inspect remnants of Iranian weapons allegedly illegally supplied to insurgents in Yemen. The ambassadors visited the White House where President Donald Trump told them about the need to counter “Iran’s destabilization activities in the Middle East.”
It’s worth to note that the event took place on the eve of the renewal of the protests in Iran on Jan. 30. Was it a coincidence? Everybody has their own opinion but the last time the US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley presented what she called "concrete evidence" of Iran's weapons proliferation was in mid-December, 2017. A wave of protests hit Iran in early January 2018. A few days later, the US introduced new sanctions on Iran. It’s nothing more than an observation but that’s the chain of events we have.
This is an internal affair of Iran, of course, though sympathies may differ. Unlike the US, the EU, Israel or Saudi Arabia, Russia has not taken sides, calling on other actors not to meddle. It’s really neutral. Iranian people are the ones to decide what’s better for them. The only thing to do is to keep the fingers crossed hoping there will be no bloodshed.
It’s worth to consider nothing but facts in an unbiased way. Some consequences to impact the situation in the Middle East are unavoidable. No matter how strong the Russia’s air force presence in Syria is, it cannot keep Assad’s government in power without boots on the ground. Today, military cooperation between Russia and Iran is crucial to keep the situation under control and prevent the resumption of large-scale hostilities.
According to scenario number one, the rebels win, the ayatollahs’ regime in Tehran is toppled and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards formations are rapidly withdrawn from Syria. Another scenario – the regime quells the rebellion, with a smoldering large-scale conflict to last for a long time. In both cases the outcome is the same – the Revolutionary Guards will have to leave Syria, Iraq and Lebanon and return home to protect the government. One should be realistic – with Iran gone, Persian Gulf monarchies and their supporters will come in. Russia enjoys good working relations with these countries to make them part of the ongoing peace process.
In any of these scenarios, Iranian ground forces will partially or fully withdraw from Syria and someone will have to fill the void.
This turn of events is quite unexpected as everyone believed the Iran’s government was stable. But you never know. After all, nobody expected the Iranians to oust the US-backed Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1979.
So, it’s highly probable that Russia will have to rush in more troops or, to be exact, military police for peacekeeping missions into Syria for a limited period of time. With peace process making progress, the forces could be completely withdrawn to leave only the contingents deployed at the two military bases. The action could be coordinated with Syria, Turkey, Iran and other key players. The Russia’s military police units monitoring de-escalation zones have proven to be a very effective force.
It does not necessarily mean intensification of combat actions. One of the ways to mitigate the probable reduction of Iranian and pro-Iranian forces is the intensification of diplomatic efforts, such as the Syrian National Dialogue Congress held in the Russian city of Sochi. No doubt such activities will be intensified. Moscow can lead an international coalition of pertinent actors.
Iran’s reduced presence in Syria will not automatically lead to resumption of hostilities across the country. This scenario can be avoided. But the increase of boots on the ground forces to carry out peacekeeping missions will come to the fore. Nobody wants it, everyone tried to avert it but one cannot ignore reality – it’s either more ground forces to support the government of Assad or sliding back to where we were before Russia lent a helping hand to Syrian President Assad in September 2015.
Russia promotes an all-inclusive dialogue in Syria. The fact that it is friendly with everyone, except jihadi terrorists, makes Moscow the key broker of a peace deal. It is in unique position to head the process and achieve what nobody else can – a peace settlement in Syria. It does not apply to Syria only but rather the entire Middle East.