Rumours of an Iran-Russia split over Syria little more than a Western chimaera

There have been renewed claims that Russia and Iran have such differences in vision and interest in Syria.
Sunday 03/06/2018
Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, (R) speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting in Tehran, last November. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)
Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, (R) speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting in Tehran, last November. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

LONDON - There have been renewed claims that Russia and Iran, while both supporting Bashar Assad’s regime, have such differences in vision and interest in Syria that there is a schism Western policymakers can take advantage of.

The basic notion is to work with Moscow, which has a less maximalist position, to limit the influence of Iran, a more disruptive power that could draw in worried regional countries to a wider war. This idea is not new and remains illusory. Russia is powerless — even if it were willing — to restrain Iran, the dominant force driving the regime coalition’s war.

When Assad met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in May , Putin said: “We presume that… with the significant victories… of the Syrian Army in the fight against terrorism, [and] the onset of… the political process in its more active phase, foreign armed forces will be withdrawn from the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic.”

A few days later, Iran Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi, was quoted as saying: “No one can force Iran to do anything. Iran’s presence is based on the Syrian government’s invitation… As long as the Syrian government wants, Iran will continue to assist the country.”

Many concluded that a significant breach had occurred and Putin was hinting at, perhaps even promising to compel, an Iranian withdrawal of its ground forces from Syria. This was built on three recent interrelated data points.

First, Turkey, whose operations in northern Syria were coordinated with Russia, to a degree that, some said, Assad and Iran found uncomfortable. Second, Israel, which has struck repeatedly at the Iranian infrastructure in Syria and launched its largest attack to date just a day after Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met Putin on May 9. Third, Daraa, where, after clearing Damascus, a pro-Assad coalition offensive is in the offing and some detect tensions in the Russian and Iranian approach.

Closely examined, none of these points add up to a serious divergence between Iran and Russia.

In January, Turkey moved to evict the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) from Afrin province. Russia, which the PKK believed had guaranteed its security, positioned itself in support once it was unable to stop Turkey. In negotiations about the city, Russia showed a more accommodative stance towards Turkey but Iran sent its proxy militias to fight alongside the PKK.

Since Afrin fell to Turkey in March, the PKK has been understandably bitter towards Russia and drawn somewhat closer to the Americans, principally through the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. However, the PKK’s historically deep links with the pro-Assad coalition remain. At most there has been a rebalance for the PKK between Russia and Iran, leaving the PKK lever in the pro-Assad camp.

In Idlib, the situation is even clearer. Turkey set up its final observation post on May 16 as part of “Astana Nine.” Then, on May 23, as Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies noted, the Russians worked with Iranian forces to create 17 fixed military posts surrounding the Turks, days after Moscow apparently hinted it would push Iran out of Syria.

Supporters of the perennially paranoid Assad/Iran axis wondered in public about the possibility of collusion between Moscow and Tel Aviv over the May 10 Israeli strikes on Iranian positions in Syria. There was no evidence of this; all that the Israelis demonstrated was Russia’s inability to defend its client, a longstanding fact.

“The problem, it strikes me, is that people often start from the assumption of an all-powerful Russia in Syria,” Badran explained, where freedom to operate “must be granted by Russia to outside forces” like Israel and America. The reality, Badran said, is that the Russians’ “position is vulnerable and they are aware of it.”

The misinterpretation of these dynamics means that capacity limits are taken as political divergence. This is wrong, Badran concluded: The Russians work around these limitations, as do the Iranians, to achieve the shared objective of bolstering the regime.

Which brings us to Daraa.

Southern Front rebels who occupy the Israel-Jordan border area in Daraa, starved of resources and demoralised, will fold quickly if they are attacked. The resulting wave of refugees into Jordan, potentially destabilising a Western-friendly government, would be congenial to Iran. However, the limitations of the Assad regime’s ground forces are very real, as is the potential of provoking a devastating Israeli response. So Russia is trying another tactic.

Putin is messaging Israel that he “only wants to restore the authority of ‘the Syrian government’ in south-western Syria,” Badran said, and the Sochi remarks fit within this framework. Whether forcibly taken or annexed through a “reconciliation” agreement, the notion that Russia will, or can, prevent Hezbollah or other Iranian instruments intruding into this zone once it falls is rather doubtful, Badran points out.

Meanwhile, the Jordanians, left alone to face the pro-Assad coalition, were co-opted by the Russians long ago, and will go along with this scheme, not least so they can re-open the Nassib crossing and resume trade.

The differences between Russia and Iran over Daraa amount to a good-cop, bad-cop routine and, mutatis mutandis, this is almost invariably the case when a schism between the two appears to open.

As if to confirm this interpretation, Russian Middle East envoy Mikhail Bogdanov met with Assad May 24 in Damascus and clarified Moscow’s view: Assad is the “sovereign” and for as long as he decides foreign troops “are needed on Syrian territory,” they should remain.