Russia, Iran race for influence in Syria
Latakia - Russia and Iran are publicly united in their support for Syrian President Bashar Assad but, behind the scenes, differences have grown and developed into a power struggle that became more obvious following Moscow’s direct military intervention in Syria.
Many observers say Moscow and Tehran are caught in a tight race for control of Syrian decision-making on political and economic matters, in addition to the conduct of hostilities.
Both countries have engaged forces on the ground to prevent the collapse of the Syrian Army but their forces are allocated in separate zones of operations, averting interaction between them. The Russians have been active in the central Palmyra region and Latakia in the west and the Iranians and their allied Lebanese Hezbollah fighters have been mainly deployed in Aleppo and rural Damascus.
Retired Syrian General Turki al- Hassan downplayed reports about Russian-Iranian rivalry, arguing that having separate zones of operations for their forces is part of their coordinated support of Assad’s regime.
“It is exaggerated to talk about a Russian-Iranian struggle in Syria,” he said. “The existence of different viewpoints on certain aspects of the conflict does not mean that there is a heated competition between them as circulated by certain partisan media claiming that Russian planes targeted Iranian forces in Aleppo.”
However, another high-ranking Syrian officer still in service, argued that the rivalry has reached unprecedented levels, growing with time as the conflict became more complicated.
“This competition has been detrimental to efforts for resolving the conflict,” said the general, who asked to be identified by his first name, Mohamad. “It has been building up for months but intensified after the Russians stepped in directly in the conflict last September 30th.”
He said that while Russia’s partial withdrawal from Syria in March defused tensions with Washington, it affected Tehran’s military conduct, with Iran dispatching hundreds of additional fighters to the front lines in an attempt to fill the gaps. Iran then said that it had sent fresh fighters to rural Aleppo to back Hezbollah and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps combatants.
Mohamad said he wondered why Russian planes failed to provide air cover for Iranian fighters and asked whether the two countries supporting Assad’s regime have partitioned Syria into “spheres of influence”.
He argued that all indicators point to disagreement on the ceasefire, among other differences.
“While Iran is against any cessation of hostilities, preferring military options to put pressure on negotiations with Washington and its allies, Russia is in favour of easing the scale of military operations and this is exactly what it has been trying to do since recapturing Palmyra from the Islamic State,” the general said.
Moscow’s open and direct coordination with Israel on the Syrian conflict is another point of contention, which was countered by Iran’s invitation of the Turkish prime minister to visit Tehran at a time tensions between Moscow and Ankara were highest. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has visited the Kremlin twice since the Russian military intervention in Syria and might be planning a third visit.
Downplaying the significance of the visits, Hassan said: “It is wrong to place the Turks’ visit to Tehran within the context of an Iranian- Russian power struggle because such exchanges could help narrow differences between the main players in the Syrian conflict. Whereas, it is no secret that Russia and Israel have established close relations and exchanges between them is a routine matter.”
But for Mohamad, it is “totally illogical” not to look at mutual exchanges between Russians and Israelis on one hand and Turks and Iranians on the other hand as closely related to their differences in Syria.
“In Tehran, for instance, the Turks discussed an open-door strategy whereby Iran would replace Russia in Ankara’s economic strategies and supply Turkey with its needs of liquefied gas,” the officer said. Moscow imposed stringent economic sanctions on Ankara after it shot down a Russian warplane that Turkish officials said violated Turkish airspace last November.
The Kurdish issue is yet another controversial subject. Although Russia’s overture to the Kurds in Syria is primarily meant to “punish” the Turks, it has raised Tehran’s concerns regarding its own Kurdish community. Iran is adamantly opposed to any independent Kurdish entity in northern Syria and has repeatedly stressed its unyielding support of Syria’s unity and territorial integrity.
The killing of five senior Hezbollah commanders in Syria within the past six months raised suspicion about Russia’s interest in providing intelligence information and protection to the Lebanese party and the Iranians.
“What angered the Iranians most is Israel’s capability to assassinate (Hezbollah militant leader) Samir Kantar in a suburb of Damascus despite the deployment of Russia’s most sophisticated air defences system in Syria… Moscow could not convince Tehran that it was not aware of the Israeli scheme, unless the S400 anti-aircraft missiles system is meant to protect the Russian forces only,” Mohamad said.
A June 9th meeting that included defence ministers from Iran, Russia and Syria was seen by military analysts as a serious attempt to overcome “heated disputes” between Moscow and Tehran over mechanisms for dealing with the Syrian crisis.
One analyst, who noted that Assad denied such disputes in a June 7th speech before parliament, argued that the defence ministers’ meeting was a “message” to emphasise that the alliance supporting him “will not break up” and the “existing differences can be contained in one way or another”.