Moscow emerging as winner in Syria, Iran losing influence
Despite all the blood and treasure Tehran and its allied Shia militias have sacrificed in Syria, Moscow is emerging as the victor in the struggle for supremacy in Syria and in the Middle East as a whole. Iran is losing its hard-won influence and Iran’s leaders have only themselves to blame. After all, Tehran paved the path for Russia’s regional engagement.
In July 2015, the Assad regime was on the verge of collapse. Major-General Qassem Soleimani, chief commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ al-Quds Force, headed to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Al-Quds Force deals in extraterritorial operations but the exact nature of the discussion between the two men is not publicly known. However, in September that year, Russian aircraft began a systematic bombing campaign against militant groups opposed to the Syrian government.
For a time, there was a convergence of interests between Tehran and Moscow. Russian air support was instrumental in Iranian and allied Shia militia offensives in the Syrian civil war. The Assad regime survived and the opposition groups — especially those receiving modest military training and equipment from the United States — were decimated.
The Russo-Iranian axis was a marriage of convenience, not a strategic alliance. Before long, their conflicting considerations became evident.
In November 2015, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Moscow did not “insist” on keeping Assad in power, a clear indication that Putin was ready to sacrifice the Syrian president to reach a political solution.
Major-General Mohammad Ali Jafari, IRGC chief commander, responded by expressing Iran’s unconditional support for Assad. He said: “The resistance is completely dependent upon Bashar Assad in Syria and we cannot ignore this issue… After him, we do not have anyone to fill the void.”
In September 2016, as Russia and the United States moved closer to a more coordinated mission in Syria under the “Joint Implementation Group,” which allowed for “integrated” yet specified air attacks, Tehran once again feared being ditched by Moscow. Major-General Rahim Safavi, former IRGC chief commander and military adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, warned Moscow. It should, he said, guard against letting itself be “deceived” by the United States, and “ignore Iran’s interests.”
Ignoring Iran’s interests seems to be Moscow’s operational mode. In its latest move on the chessboard, Russia, which controls the skies over Syria, allowed Turkish fighter jets to bomb Kurdish militia targets around the city of Afrin. The air operation was followed by Turkish military incursion into territories previously held by the US-supported Kurdish People’s Protection Units.
Major-General Mohammad Bagheri, chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, in a telephone conversation with his Turkish counterpart, emphasised that the incursion should not “pave the way for the enemies of the Syrian nation and the Muslim world, particularly the United States and its allies.” However, in reality, Moscow, and not Tehran, calls the shots in Syria.
With a minimal level of commitment, Moscow is maximising its influence in Syria and the rest of the Middle East, playing all regional players against each other. This means Tehran is losing ground with no prospect of benefiting from its sacrifices.
Had Iran been capable of improving relations with Washington, Iranian leaders could have played the great powers off against each other but there is no indication of any such manoeuvrability
With a minimal level of commitment, Moscow is maximising its influence in Syria and the rest of the Middle East.