In Syria, Russia and Iran have different plans

Friday 25/09/2015
Priorities in Syria have been to maintain Assad in power

BEIRUT - An intriguing question surrounding Russian military involvement in Syria is what it tells us about Russia’s rela­tionship with Iran. Moscow and Tehran have parallel interests in Syria but tell-tale signs show a dif­ference in approach, which the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad will play on to define the outcomes it prefers.

Iran’s priorities in Syria, like those of Russia, have been to maintain Assad in power. The as­sumption that either country would give up on him was always unrealistic. Assad has been expen­sive to maintain but he sits atop an Alawite-dominated military-intel­ligence network put in place by his father. Removing him threatens to unravel it.

However, Iran had another ma­jor stake in helping defend the Syrian regime, namely protecting areas in Syria that could provide its Lebanese ally Hezbollah with strategic depth in a conflict with Israel. Without this, the Iranians feel, they would no longer have a deterrence capability with regard to Israel, which could imperil Iran’s influence in the Levant.

In this context Iran has focused on securing what is referred to as “essential Syria” — Damascus, Syr­ia’s Mediterranean coast and the areas linking the two, particularly the districts of Homs and parts of Hama. To ensure geographical continuity with Lebanon, Hezbol­lah has fought hard to clear the Qalamoun district in Syria, along Lebanon’s north-eastern frontier, of rebel groups.

In parallel to this, the Iranians have reportedly urged the Assad regime to abandon outlying areas far from “essential Syria”, which are a drain on the regime’s limited manpower. While tactically sound, such a policy can only accelerate Syria’s fragmentation and indicate that Tehran seeks Syria’s de facto partition.

Apparently, the Syrian regime has had grave doubts about this advice. Until now, it has not pulled out of Aleppo, Deir ez-Zor and Sweida, all places outside “essen­tial Syria”.

The Russian strategy is more ambiguous. While there have been reports that the Russians, too, have recommended that the Syr­ian Army regroup and abandon far-flung positions, there is some question as to whether things are as simple as that.

The Russians, unlike the Irani­ans, seem more concerned with maintaining the geographical in­tegrity of the Syrian state and the continuity of the military and se­curity apparatus. A fragmented Syria would not only mean per­manent instability, it would cre­ate a breeding ground for terrorist groups, with those from the Cau­casus and Central Asia possibly at­tacking Russia.

If this is true, in the long run Moscow would be more likely to push for the gradual re-conquest of Syria by the regime under the guise of an anti-terrorism cam­paign, in parallel with a political plan to gradually consolidate As­sad rule. This is easier said than done but is the path most satisfy­ing the regime.

As the Iranians have shown in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, they tend to expand their power in Arab countries by keeping their socie­ties divided. Tehran’s backing for sectarian militias in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon all suggest that it prefers working through groups allowing it to circumvent Arab governments while exploiting sectarian rifts in Arab states.

This frequently means that Iran places pro-Iranian groups or other allies in the firing line of sectarian conflicts, in the process degrading their capabilities and increasing the hostility directed against them from other sectarian groups.

This has been true in Iraq, for instance, where sectarian Shia militias have alienated the Sunni community, provoking a strong counter-reaction even from Shia Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a defender of the Iraqi state and sovereignty. In Syria, the Assad regime has fought Sunnis without pity but the result has also been heavy loss of life among the minority Alawite com­munity.

Iran has used Hezbollah and other Shia militias with abandon in Syria, slowly grinding them down. This has provoked anger in Leba­non’s Shia community, stuck in a quagmire.

If the Assad regime prefers the Russian approach, that’s not sur­prising. For one thing, its own legitimacy was always based on portraying itself as an Arab na­tionalist regime, which permanent subordination to Shia Iran hardly allows.

Secondly, Russia’s ultimate end­game is probably to reunite the Syrian state under Assad, while Iran would be satisfied with a Syr­ia that remains in pieces, which would be easier to control.

These differences notwithstand­ing, what is likely to occur is a di­vision of labour between Iran and Russia. The current Russian mili­tary intervention was, at least part­ly, confirmation that Iran’s strategy has not worked.

In June, amid reports that Iran would deploy forces to Syria, Qas­sem Soleimani, head of al-Quds Force of the Islamic Revolution­ary Guards Corps, declared: “The world will be surprised by what we and the Syrian military leadership are preparing for the coming days.” Nothing happened and the rebels gained ground.

Today, Russia has taken the lead in Syria, while Iran will continue to be the major player affecting Leba­non, Shia militias on the ground, and the Golan. Both will collabo­rate to bolster Assad but only one of them may determine what kind of Syria emerges from the terrible carnage of the war.