Despite the significant losses and damages it sustained both internally and externally, Iran continues its efforts to support its geopolitical project in Syria. While some regional and international actors bet that the deteriorating economic conditions as a result of US sanctions and the effects of the coronavirus crisis will restrict the effectiveness of Iran’s policies and regional interventions, particularly in Syria, Iranian behaviour reveals the inaccuracy of those bets because they are based on the assumption that policy-making in Iran is not different from how it is in normal countries and that therefore Iran will necessarily be affected by changes and forced to adapt to them.

Recent indications in Syria about Iranian activity confirm that a more accurate understanding of Iranian policies requires dealing with them as an exception in policy management. A recent report by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs explains how Iran has recently been intensifying efforts to build a “land corridor” to Syrian ports. Other reports refer to an increased activity and mobilization by Iranian militias in northern Syria in an attempt to undermine the ceasefire deal between Russia and Turkey in Idlib.

What is certain is that this policy puts Iran in direct confrontation, not with the system of its adversaries which comprises the US, Israel and the group of Arab countries whose security interests are connected to the situation in Syria, but with its closest ally on this scene, namely Russia whose involvement in the Syrian war contributed to enhancing Iran’s regional status and strengthening its influence in that country.

Syria’s centrality in both Russian and Iranian strategies

The Russian-Turkish deal of 5 March 2020 over Idlib revealed the shortcomings of the relationship between Moscow and Teheran. Iran saw the deal as an attempt to bypass it and a systematic plan to get it out of Syria. It considered that Russia treated it as a secondary player on the Syrian scene and therefore it was unnecessary to involve it in deals relevant to arranging the Syrian situation. This explanation confirms an Iranian concern that was previously expressed by multiple political quarters in the Iranian parliament and other institutions which spoke more than once of Russian intentions to take over Syria and marginalize Iran.

This reveals the centrality of Syria in the strategies of the two contending friends. For Russia, Syria has represented an opportunity to assert its strength internationally and redefine its position as the world’s second most powerful nation. The field “victories” that Russia has achieved over the opposition factions do not seem to be sufficient since no clearly-defined political deal has yet been reached that involves an international recognition of Russia’s role in the creation of this transformation, that is shifting Syria from a state of war to a state of peace, based on Russian will and plans. This necessarily requires the gradual reduction of Iran’s role and effectiveness and minimizing its influence in the Syrian domain as a whole.

On the other hand, Iran thinks that it has provided Russia with an opportunity to improve its position within the international system, not just through inviting it to interfere in the Syrian dispute, but also by doing its best to make this mission successful. It has provided militias and land forces and deployed huge resources to prevent the fall of the regime and maintain state institutions. Russia made considerable gains for a low cost. This was admitted by the Russians themselves who have always confirmed that the Russian task in Syria was costless. In addition, Syria represents the pivot of strategic communications of the Iranian geopolitical project in the region, and therefore the issue of exiting Syria is not under consideration for the Iranians.

Iran continuously strives to augment its regional and international weight by putting its relationship with Russia on the track of fighting for the emergence of a multi-polar world and countering US and western hegemony. However, what the Iranians find hard to overcome is Russia’s attempt to be the sole determiner of Syria’s future and to formulate a peace process that serves its purposes in agreement with the US, Turkey and Arab countries. This would undermine the whole structure that Iran has built over the years and in which it has invested tens of thousands of its militiamen, many of whom were killed or injured, in addition to tens of billions of dollars of its wealth.

Iran fears that the recent Turkish-Russian deal in Idlib would become a model for dealing with other players so that Iran would be excluded from the sphere of influence in Syria and eventually totally marginalized. That is why it is keen to convey a clear message to Russia that is capable of reversing developments to its benefit and obstructing any arrangements that do not adequately consider its influence and weight.

Potential points of clash between Russia and Iran

Russia and Iran have concurred on the issue of Assad’s stay in power, although Russia has attempted to show some flexibility with regard to limiting his powers or removing him in the long run, while Iran insisted on maintaining Assad and his powers as a strategic goal that would serve its interests in the foreseeable future.

The two sides have also concurred in their antipathy against Islamists. Russia classifies Islamist groups among sources of threat to its national security in view of the link between those groups and counterparts in Caucasia and countries of central Asia. While Iran has relatively adapted to Islamist groups, its disagreement in Syria was with a specific case, namely the groups that emerged during the Syrian Revolution and whose objectives included forcing Iranian influence out of the country.

These agreements drived the two sides to show a consistent performance in Syria. Deciding their points of difference, some of which emerged occasionally, would be postponed. However, the accelerating developments and approaching end of the crisis have again pushed those silent discrepancies and differences into the surface, mainly:

  • The identity of the Syrian state and the future of its regional relations: Iran seeks to draw Syria to its orbit once and for all and provide it with a new identity structure under the title of “Resistance” because Iran recognizes that this identity is capable of breaking Syria’s Arab identity. Iran has deployed a substantial amount of effort and money to pass that identity. On the other hand, Russia is not very much concerned with this issue; in fact, preserving Syria’s Arab identity would bring Moscow important benefits through strengthening relations with other Arab countries.
  • The future of the Syrian army: the Russians seek to build and re-institutionalize the Syrian army because it is the institution capable of establishing the peace foreseen by Russia, and because, as an institution that is constitutionally subject to the political authority, it is a catalyst for the stability of Russian influence in the long run. In contrast, Iran sees the regular army as a source of threat to its presence in Syria. An independent national army that is free of Iran’s influence would clash with it, reject the actions of its militias and resist the occupation by those militias of Al-Bukamal and Al-Qusayr and their projects of demographic change.
  • Deployment of Syria’s geopolitical status: the leading substantive disagreement between the Russians and the Iranians is perhaps geopolitical. It is imposed by Syria’s geographical position as mainland Iran’s closest port to Europe and the necessary crossing of its energy imports to Europe’s markets that Russia attempts to monopolize. Thus, Russia puts obstacles to the “land corridor” that Iran seeks to build with a view to reaching the Mediterranean.

Conclusion

Syria represents a substantive issue for the strategies of both Russia and Iran. With the approach of an ending to the dispute, signs of discrepancy between them have started to emerge in terms of the method that each should follow to achieve the envisaged strategic goals. While it is illogical that Russia and Iran would get into a direct clash in view of the interconnected and complicated relationship between them, it is likely that the conflict over Syria will be of a silent nature, with proxies, intelligence services and perhaps some contending alliances among its main tools, before they reach a “reasonable” settlement from the perspective of their interests that would determine the status of each in the Syrian equation and their respective margin of manoeuvrability in that country in the future.

 

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