The Syrian conflict brought Russia and Iran together, but finding a solution to the war could drive them apart
Securing the Assad regime and preventing its collapse brought both Russia and Iran together in Syria. The division of tasks among the regime allies and their independence of one another allowed them to create a unified front both militarily and politically.
A struggle for influence in the country post-conflict and a separation between their competing long-term agendas seem inevitable
Their mutual interest, however, seems to gradually diverge as their short-term goal in safeguarding the Syrian regime has been achieved.
A struggle for influence in the country post-conflict and a separation between their competing long-term agendas seem inevitable.
The internationalisation of the Syrian conflict made it a proxy war between different camps. Finding a solution will prove to be more difficult as it creates new divisions among the same alliances as well as across them. Acknowledging the differences among the regime’s main backers, at an early stage, helps us understand the possibilities and challenges ahead of ending the six-year conflict.
Restoring order vs maintaining influence
Iran intervened in Syria for strategic reasons: these included maintaining its influence and securing a supply route through the country for its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Its intervention also has ideological aspects alongside the broader Sunni-Shia struggle. The Syrian regime’s lack of manpower made it reliant on Iranian-backed militias and granted Tehran a dominant role in Syria.
Iran has been essential in providing the manpower and resources that have helped Assad’s government hold its grounds.
Thousands of Iranian-trained Shia militia fighters from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere have been sent to Syria, on top of thousands of Iranian-trained and funded local militias.
Moscow, however, intervened to maintain its influence in Syria by preserving the regime and the state institutions. But more importantly, it did so to be recognised as a superpower and to use that to leverage its interests elsewhere, namely in Ukraine.
Moscow’s interest lies in ending the Syrian conflict as soon as possible, to collect its rewards and win both the war and the peace
Russia has largely supported the Syrian regime politically by vetoing any anti-Assad resolution in the UN Security Council. This role evolved in September 2015 into a direct military operation to safeguard the regime, which was about to collapse.
Moscow’s interest, after securing the regime, lies in ending the Syrian conflict as soon as possible, to collect its rewards and win both the war and the peace.
The Kremlin seems keen to benefit from its victory in Aleppo to transfer its role in Syria from a military actor into a peacemaker as a way to maintain a long-term leverage.
Unlike Russia, Iran believes that its victorious military operation in Syria should continue to be able to dictate the conditions of a solution that secures its influence and interests post-war.
In the long term, Moscow’s objective is to restore a strong state with functioning institutions and a monopoly over arms.
In contrast to that, Iran’s long-term vision is to maintain strong proxy militias, similar to those in Lebanon and Iraq, although they might take a different shape, to protect its interest in Syria and the region in the long-term.
Shift in strategy
Iran, on a number of recent occasions, has frequently instructed its allied militias to act against Russia's instructions, which indicates that the interest of the two countries is slowly diverging. During the regime’s latest offensive to capture the rebel-held part of eastern Aleppo, Russia, in cooperation with Turkey, brokered a deal to allow civilians and rebel groups to be displaced to other rebel-held areas in northern Syria.
Iran, which was allegedly not consulted, was not happy with the deal, which does not benefit it, and pushed its allied militias to sabotage it.
The deal was then revised to include Tehran’s demands of evacuating people out of the two rebel-besieged Shia towns of Fua and Kafraya in Idlib.
Moscow also built on its victory in Aleppo and its rapprochement with Turkey and brokered a ceasefire with rebel groups to pave the way for peace talks. The ceasefire was Russia’s attempt to present itself as a mediator and sideline both Obama’s administration and the UN.
Iran is one of the three sponsors of the peace talks led by Russia: however, it did not ratify the cease-fire agreement.
Iranian-backed militias, namely Hezbollah, continued their attack on the town of Wadi Barada in rural Damascus, which also encouraged the regime to continue its air strikes across the country. Despite these violations, which could have hindered the Russian-led peace talks, Turkey was able to pressure rebel groups not only to abide by the ceasefire but to also agree to go to the peace talks.
Russia on top
The emerging differences between the Syrian regime’s allies were not only limited to issues related to the situation on the ground but also extended to the political sphere.
Iran does not seem to be aligned with the Kremlin's attempt to negotiate with opposition factions in northern Syria and to find a consensual solution.
Assad will have to share power with some of his opponents, which offers a challenge to Iran’s long-term interest and presents it with an uncertain future
This process, if successful, could mean that Assad will have to share power with some of his opponents, which offers a challenge to Iran’s long-term interest and presents it with an uncertain future. It could also mean that Iran has to withdraw its allied foreign militias from Syria, as it is an essential demand for the rebels and their backers, which will reduce its influence.
Tehran also opposes Moscow’s strategic decisions with regards to improving relations with Turkey and the Trump administration. Such relations further increase Iranian concerns about a shift in the balance of power in Syria.
The empowerment of Syrian officials, who represent both Iran and Russia's interests, only increases the rivalry between the two allies as they put them in decision-making positions. This likely includes selecting the Syria regime’s official negotiating team members.
Moscow has been able to sort out the emerging differences with Iran through negotiations, which successfully secured both countries' interests. But it will be difficult for Russia to continue to avoid addressing the elephant in the room - Iran's divergent goals in Syria - if it wants to achieve tangible results in peace talks in Astana.
Russia has been able, through Turkey, to pressure rebel groups to compromise, but these groups will at some point resist unless they get something in return.
Therefore Moscow is taking strategic decisions, some of which depend on Trump's policies towards all parties involved. The rest depends on how serious Russia is in becoming a peacemaker, not only in Syria, but in the wider region.
Iran also has to make a decision about whether continuing its war in Syria is its best option - or if the same results could be achieved by different means.
- Haid Haid is a Syrian columnist and researcher and a Chatham House Associate Fellow. Focus: Security policy, conflict resolution, Kurds and Islamist movements. He tweets @HaidHaid22.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin meet at a press conference following the Gas Exporting Countries Forum summit in Tehran on 23 November 2015(AFP)
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.