Foreign ministers of Iran, Russia and Syria.

Photographer: Anton NovoderezhkinTASS, via Getty Images

Syria's Opposition Wants Trump to 'Drive a Wedge' Between Iran and Russia

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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The last person in the world one would expect to support Donald Trump's coming outreach to Russia would be Abdul Ilah Fahad.

He is the secretary general of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces. His side has been bombed mercilessly by Russian aircraft for more than a year now.

What's more, Fahad and his coalition opposed Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts this year to negotiate a deal with the Russians in Syria. With Trump though, Fahad believes he has a chance to strike a bargain that drives both Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian backers out of Syria. He told me that in informal meetings he held last week in Washington with Republicans, "We got a sense that Trump is open to trying to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran."

I have my doubts this wish will come to pass. There are reasons, however, to believe it is not entirely crazy. To start, Fahad said Russian officials for years have told opposition representatives that they would be open to gently pushing Assad out of power. They have said the same thing to U.S. diplomats as well. "The Russians have given us many signals that they are not that attached to Assad," he said. "This came from high officials." Fahad said he thinks that Russia's intervention in Syria is driven by national interests and not personal relationships.

Also consider the early composition of the Trump administration itself. Rex Tillerson, the Exxon-Mobil CEO whom Trump just tapped for secretary of state, is an unknown on the Iran question. But Trump's other choices for his national security cabinet -- Mike Pompeo for CIA, Michael Flynn for national security adviser and James Mattis for secretary of defense -- all have strong anti-Iran bona fides. Unlike Kerry and Obama, Trump's team won't fall for the Iranian con that it really wants to be a responsible partner in the Middle East. The next administration is likely to isolate and pressure Iran instead of exploring opportunities for partnership.

There is also some precedence here. Before and during the nuclear negotiations, Russia went along with crippling sanctions against Iran. It's true that at the end of those negotiations, Russia pressured the U.S. and its allies to lift a conventional arms embargo on Iran. At the same time, Russia has consistently recognized that a nuclear Iran is not in its interest.

Going back further, Iranians historically have seen the Russians and the British as hostile colonial powers. One of the reasons Iran's current constitution prohibits the basing of any foreign military on its soil is that the Soviet Union refused at first to withdraw its forces from Iran after World War II. Russia also forced weak Iranian leaders to agree to humiliating treaties in the 19th century. All of this baggage played out over the summer when the Russians announced they were flying bombers from Iranian bases into Syria, forcing a rebuke from Iran when it got into the press.

Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert and author at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me he thought breaking apart Russian-Iranian cooperation in Syria would be tough. He said the Russians would ask themselves, "Why mess with success?" He added: "Russia is winning in Syria. Assad is winning the civil war. Part of the Russian message in the Middle East is that unlike the Obama administration, 'We stick by our friends.'" 

Nonetheless, Takeyh does think there may be some openings for a U.S. detente with Russia that would isolate Iran. For example, Russia has an interest in stopping an oil and gas pipeline between Iran and Syria. Takeyh said there was a chance the U.S. could use the negotiations with Russia to persuade Moscow to reopen the Iran nuclear deal: "Ideally, we would go back to pre-2013 parameters, where the scale of Iran's nuclear program is determined by its energy needs, where there is no sunset clause to the agreement, and Iran can only join the international community after it certifies its nuclear program is peaceful." 

All of this may be the case. But the odds are that Trump's reset with Russia will end in the same failure as Obama's and George W. Bush's. The problem with reaching out to Russia is the Russians. At this point, Trump would be a fool to believe anything Vladimir Putin or his henchmen promised. For more on this, read the Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens from Tuesday.

At the same time, I can understand why people like Fahad are trying to put lipstick on this particular pig. He had to watch from the sidelines as Kerry negotiated with Russia's foreign minister this summer without even consulting the opposition he would ask to make significant concessions. Fahad told me Friday: "Anything is better than Kerry." His coalition will soon find out whether that's true.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net