In Syria, Russia and Iran have different plans
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.