The complex Russia-Iran partnership in Syria
Recently, an article in the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel suggested that Russian intervention in Syria came in response to a request by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime motivated by growing fear that the country was falling under the complete control of Iran.
The story, which cited a Russian official who had served in the Damascus embassy, came out as Reuters published a different narrative. According to the news service, intervention was motivated by Iranian and Russian alarm at the military setbacks suffered by Assad’s regime.
The decision to deploy was made at a meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei months ago and was followed up by contacts in Moscow between Russian officials and Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of al-Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
The contrasting messages in the articles underlined the complexity of the Russian-Iranian relationship in Syria, which is no less complex than the Russian-Iranian relationship in general. It could well be that both versions are correct. There have been numerous reports that Assad and his entourage are displeased with growing Iranian sway over Syria. Yet that does not mean that Russia and Iran will behave as rivals in assisting the regime. Indeed, the contrary is true: both need each other.
It’s best not to go too far back to understand current Iranian- Russian ties. That’s because Iran had as many resentments against Russia during the 20th century as it did against the Western powers, particularly Britain and the United States.
For instance through the Anglo- Russian Convention of 1907, Russia and Britain divided Persia into zones of influence, a bitter blow to Persian nationalists. And even after a communist regime took over, the Soviet Union continued to intercede in Iranian affairs. After World War II, the USSR, which had occupied northern Iran in 1941, refused to withdraw. Only an oil deal negotiated by Iran’s prime minister as well as American pressure persuaded Joseph Stalin to leave.
After the Iranian revolution in 1979, Iran and the Soviet Union grew somewhat closer by virtue of sharing common enemies. Today, the historical baggage hasn’t disappeared but the calculations on both sides are parallel. Moscow and Tehran share the aim of marginalising the United States in the Middle East, at a moment when the Obama administration has disengaged from the region.
The likelihood is that until Assad’s position is consolidated, Iran and Russia will overlook their differences of emphasis in Syria. Instead, each side may try to advance its agenda quietly, profiting from the vacuum in the country, while avoiding any confrontation with the other.
A division of labour is emerging in Syria that makes such pragmatism essential. Russia brings the military technology and firepower that may allow the Syrian regime to regain territory. Iran brings with it a key ground component of any counteroffensive: the Shia militias from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Iranian combatants.
The Iranians also have important leverage through their influence over the National Defence Force (NDF), the predominantly Alawite militia that Tehran was instrumental in creating. A recent report in Lebanon’s As-Safir newspaper suggested that Russia had asked the Syrian regime to reduce the role of the NDF and bring it under military command.
This could not be confirmed and it seems unlikely at this stage that the Russians would press to dissolve a main instrument of Iranian authority, despite the Syrians’ growing animosity to the NDF, which has broken up into criminal gangs.
However, in the medium and long term Iran and Syria might well disagree over two things: the kind of Syria they would ultimately like to put in place and Israel. Tehran is not averse to a permanently fragmented Syria, with the Assad regime controlling only the country’s heartland — Damascus, the coast, the Homs and Hama areas in between and the border with Lebanon.
The Russians are certainly in agreement with this for now. They have no choice. However, in its support for the Syrian state and armed forces, and in its warnings that a continued void in Syria would have negative repercussions on Russia itself, Moscow appears to be defending the long-term integrity of the Syrian state. Down the road this could indicate that Russia would prefer to gradually reconstitute a unitary Syrian state.
Then there is Israel. One of Iran’s objectives is to maintain an open front with Israel on the Golan Heights. It is doubtful that Russia would contribute to this. The recent meeting between President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu surely addressed the issue. Russia’s relations with Israel are good and it gains nothing by jeopardising them.
The delicate interplay of Russian and Iranian interests will continue to shape the dynamics of Syria’s war. Collaboration will go in hand with a certain level of competition. But for now the endgame is distant. As it gets closer, if it does, sharper differences may surface over what the aftermath in Syria should look like.