On 9 April, forces from the Russian, Iranian and militia alliance supporting Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad issued a statement saying that last week’s US air strikes on the Al-Saherat Airbase in Syria has crossed several “red lines” and that they would “respond with force” to any “new aggression” while increasing their support for Al-Assad.
In response to allegations that forces loyal to Al-Assad attacked civilians last week with chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun, an area held by the Al-Nusra rebel group, the US launched missile attacks against the Al-Saherat Airbase.
Tension immediately rose in the region, but the response of the two major supporters of Al-Assad, Iran and Russia, was low-key, both understanding the possible consequences of real confrontation in a tense environment.
While many observers had been expecting a rapprochement between Russia and the US, the air strikes may lead to further deterioration. Many Iranian leaders see the new tension as an opportunity to get closer to Russia, which had earlier been isolating Iran in the talks on the Syrian crisis.
Military strategists believe that the US strikes on the airbase could have been more destructive had the US wanted them to be and that they were meant to give a warning to those on the ground in Syria and were not necessarily a signal of greater US involvement in Syria.
“Our priority in Syria hasn’t changed. The president has been clear – we must defeat ISIS,” US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Sunday on the US TV show Face the Nation, referring to the Islamic State (IS) group.
Tillerson’s remarks and his upcoming visit to Russia next week could help to reduce the tension, while UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has asked the international community to speed up talks on the Syrian crisis.
For both Russia and the US, the fight against IS is a priority, but for Iran the case is different. Al-Assad’s fate is crucial to Iran, and the country is not looking for any kind of confrontation with the United States.
With only five weeks to go before the presidential elections in Iran on 19 May, neither the Iranian nation nor President Hassan Rouhani wants to see further tension. Hardliners in Iran may be looking for trouble in order to gain influence ahead of the elections and to promote their own conservative candidate, but the case for Rouhani and his supporters is different.
Iran has already learned the brutal lessons of what it means to suffer a chemical weapons attack, as these took place during its eight-year war with Iraq during the rule of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. Iran lost 20,000 of its soldiers and suffered an estimated 50,000 civilian casualties through such attacks.
As a result, the Iranian public has been disgusted to see the footage of Syrians suffocating after being gassed by toxic materials, and there have been questions raised particularly on social media about the government’s support for the Al-Assad regime.
Rouhani’s first reaction was to ask for an investigation by the international community to clarify who had used the chemical weapons against civilians, and an Iranian government spokesperson condemned the use of the chemical weapons regardless of who had used them.
When the US responded with its missile strikes, there was an impact in Iran with regard to the presidential elections and public opinion. Rouhani needs the popular vote in order to win a second term in office in May, and if he does so he can begin to act more strongly in order to implement the nuclear deal with the West in general and the US in particular.
Hardliners in Iran wishing to break the nuclear deal apart and radicalise the region will undoubtedly want to question the president over his “soft approach” towards the US during the upcoming presidential debates.
However, Rouhani and his government seem to have decided to remain cautious until after the elections when they can monitor circumstances better.
The new US involvement in Syria may also worry some other major supporters such as influential Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr who has urged Al-Assad to step down. “Take an historic and heroic decision and step down to spare the country further bloodshed,” Al-Sadr said on 9 April in Baghdad.
It is not clear what motivated Al-Sadr to make such a direct statement on Al-Assad’s future, but it could be seen as the Iraqi Shias changing their position on Syria for the sake of the region regardless of their loyalty to the ruling regime.