by Mark N. Katz
Russia and Iran, as is well known, have been cooperating closely in Syria. The combination of ground forces from Iran and its various Shi’a militia allies plus primarily air forces from Russia have succeeded in helping the Bashar al-Assad regime maintain power, regain control over much of the territory that it had lost, and put particularly the Arab opposition to the government on the defensive. Russia, along with Iran and Turkey, is also dominating the conflict-resolution process both through the Astana talks and the de-escalation zones agreed to in May 2017.
The initial hopes of the Trump administration that somehow it could persuade Russia to work with the US against Iran were quickly dashed. This was hardly an attractive offer to Moscow not only because accepting it would undercut the perception of Russia as a loyal ally to its friends, but also because it would make Russia look subordinate to the US. And now that it’s prevailing in Syria, Russia has little incentive to move away from Iran at Washington’s behest. Even Iran’s continued presence in Syria is useful to Russia not just for making sure that the Assad regime remains in place and that its adversaries do not grow strong again, but also because the Iranian presence in Syria makes the Russian presence there more palatable to those who would be far less happy if Iran dominated Syria all on its own.
Still, there are signs of friction between Russia and Iran on some issues.
Along with Turkey, Iran is uncomfortable with Russian (and American) support for the Syrian Kurds. Further, Russia’s willingness to allow Turkey to play a role in Syria can be seen not just as part of Moscow’s hopes to exploit Turkish-Western differences, but also as bringing in another force that can balance Iran.
Prior to the upcoming Russian/Turkish/Iranian summit in Sochi, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan indicated that, with regard to the 12 observations spots in the de-escalation zones, “we show flexibility toward the demands of Russia and even of Iran. But we don’t take into account Iran’s demands on Afrin. Because Russia made us promises about withdrawal from Afrin at the G20 Summit in Hamburg.”
If true, this indicates that Moscow is willing to make an agreement with Ankara about Syria that affects Iranian interests but without consulting Tehran. The November 2017 US-Russia-Jordan agreement that Iranian forces, along with its Shi’a allies, would keep away from the Golan Heights is another such example.
On this, however, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov subsequently seemed to backtrack, stating that the Iranian presence in Syria could remain both because it was sanctioned by the “legitimate” Syrian government and because Iran is an ally against the jihadists.
Although Lavrov indicated that Iranian forces could stay in Iran, he didn’t seem to repudiate the understanding that they would not be present on the Golan Heights, which deeply worries Israel. Indeed, Russian willingness to accommodate Israeli concerns in Syria—including its targeting of Hezbollah forces in particular—is another instance of where Russian and Iranian interests differ.
None of this is reassuring to Tehran. According to one Iranian Russia watcher I spoke with, Tehran is concerned but cannot afford to break with Moscow over these differences. But now that Russia and Iran have succeeded in stabilizing the Assad regime, he does see the emergence of a quiet competition between them for influence in Syria. Further, he believes that Moscow and Tehran have different Syrian allies. Moscow, he claims, is in the stronger position due to its close ties with Syria’s armed forces and bureaucracy. But Tehran, he suggests, is closer to Assad and his entourage because they see Iran as more loyal supporters than Russia, which has indicated that it is not completely happy with Assad and could envision a power-sharing arrangement in which he plays a lesser role. In addition, Iran is building a Syrian Hezbollah and is also training Syrian Shi’a clerics in Iran. Iran’s competition with Russia while continuing to cooperate with it could play out over a long period of time, but he saw Iran as more likely to stay engaged in Syria than Russia in the long run.
For its part, Moscow seems less interested in trying to push Iran out of Syria than maintaining Russian influence there through balancing among the various other actors (Iran, Turkey, Israel, the Gulf Arabs, and America). Moscow does not seek complete dominance but, rather, a situation in which everyone else prefers Russia to some other external power there.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has managed this balancing act quite well so far. But with the near-defeat of everyone’s common enemy, the Islamic State, it may be more difficult to maintain this balance. Specifically, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence that his country will act forcefully to prevent an increased Iranian military presence in Syria may lead to an Israeli-Iranian clash that will undermine Moscow’s ability to maintain good relations with all the external regional states involved in the Syrian conflict despite the antagonisms among them.
Photo: Sergey Lavrov (U.S. Department of State via Flickr).