Russian-Iranian Agreement in West of the Euphrates: Objectives, Interests and Outcomes

EPC | 11 Jan 2021

For the first time since their intervention in Syria, the Russian forces have reached the Iraqi borders at the Albu Kamal crossing in December 2020. This area is considered to be purely under Iranian influence since control over it was regained from the Daesh (Islamic State, ISIS) organisation in 2018. There are indications of an unannounced Russian-Iranian agreement, many of whose details are unclear. This raises questions about the considerations that prompted the two countries to conclude this agreement, and whether it constitutes a prelude to changing the conditions of the players in the Syrian-Iraqi border area.

This paper sheds light on the current developments in the region of West Euphrates and explores the potential prospects for them.

Russian deployment

Forces of the Fifth Corps, the Palestinian al-Quds Brigade and the Republican Guards, accompanied by a number of Russian officers and protection groups belonging to the Russian Military Police, were deployed in the Albu Kamal area near the Syrian-Iraqi border in the second week of December 2020. This deployment is believed to be a prelude to wider deployment operations in those areas. The Russian forces established a military headquarters in an Albu Kamal hotel with the aim of converting it into a command centre. They also set up military checkpoints at the villages near Albu Kamal, especially at the oil fields in the area.

The Russian deployment is being carried out on the pretext of fighting the Daesh organisation, whose activity has increased recently. Therefore, new forces are expected to be brought in from Aleppo, Hama and southern Syria. The elements and groups of the “reconciliation factions” will be actively participating in the deployment operations in the Deir Ezzor Governorate.[1]

On the other hand, the militias of the Iraqi Kataib Hezbollah (Battalions of the Party of God), Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba (Movement of the Party of God’s Nobles), Harakat al-Abdal (the Replacements Movement) and the Liwa Fatemiyoun (Fatimid Brigade) withdrew from those areas. According to Syrian sources, part of those militias entered Iraqi territories from the al-Qaim side. The Iranian-affiliated militias had expelled the Russian-backed al-Quds Brigade from the Albu Kamal area in early 2021.[2]

The city of Albu Kamal is of great importance and serves as a bridge for Iran, considering that it houses the only land crossing between Syria and Iraq, after the Syrian Democratic Forces (QSD, SDF) took control of the al-Yaroubia border crossing with Iraq as well, and the US controlled the al-Tanf crossing in Deir Ezzor. Al-Bukamal constitutes an important land transport node, as it is considered an extension of the Iraqi Anbar desert, and is also linked to the desert of Suwayda, Daraa, Tadmur and Deir Ezzor.

The Deir Ezzor Governorate is witnessing a sharing of influence between Iran and Russia, given that the Russian influence is concentrated in areas rich in phosphate and oil, especially in the southern desert of Deir Ezzor. Russia also has air control in the region. On the other hand, Iranian militias have control of the western and eastern neighbourhoods of the city of Deir Ezzor, and absolute control over part of the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor, south of the Euphrates River, extending from the city of Mayadin in the west to the city of Albu Kamal on the Syrian-Iraqi border in the east, with a length of more than 50 kilometres.[3]

According to information reported by local news networks,[4] the Russian deployment and the Iranian withdrawal from Albu Kamal came in the wake of a closed meeting that was held between Russian officers, a number of leaders of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Syrian regime officers, in the vicinity of Albu Kamal. On the other hand, US sources reported that the deployment of the Russian-backed forces took place as a result of an agreement with the Iranian militias.[5]

Russian goals and interests

The new Russian move in Deir Ezzor Governorate, west of the Euphrates, reflects a set of interests and goals, as follows:

  • New arrangements: Russia’s move in the regions west of the Euphrates comes in the context of the field arrangements made by Russia in areas in eastern Syria in preparation for the assumption by the Biden administration of its duties on 20 January 2021.[6] It is clear that Russia aims to impose a fait accompli in the eastern region with the aim of consolidating its negotiating cards with the US administration, given that Russia seeks, through its move in this region, to send a message to the new US administration of its capability to contain Iran in those areas, control the border strip with Iraq, and control the movement of the Iranians, thus preventing any possibility of a US-Iranian clash, as well as convincing the Americans of Russia’s seriousness in the fight against Daesh. The Russian forces drove away the Iranian-affiliated militias (al-Qatirji and Fatemiyoun) from the al-Qaim crossing in Albu Kamal, and took up positions in their place after information was received that there was a possible US military action to be launched from the US base in the Tanf region to expel Iranian militias that control the strategic border point between Syria and Iraq.[7] In this context, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif surprisingly announced that his country has evacuated more than half of the Afghan Fatemiyoun militias, amounting to nearly two thousand operatives, from Syria. Meanwhile, Syrian sources in the area west of the Euphrates confirm that the Fatimid militia did not withdraw, but rather repositioned its forces in the area.[8]
  • Building new consensuses with Iran: given Russia’s awareness of the difficulty of dismantling the organic relationship between the Assad regime and Iran, Russia is moving towards building new consensuses with Iran through which it can limit the latter’s role, just as it did with Turkey after it greatly reduced its spheres of influence in Syria. In this context, there is talk of a Russian attempt to persuade Iran to reduce the size of its presence in Damascus, and to involve it in an agreement that is sought by Moscow with the regime and Israel.[9]
  • Fighting Daesh: Russia has initiated a military build-up to eliminate Daesh cells, which are heavily deployed in the areas west of the Euphrates, and to establish a central base to control military operations. The Iranian militias in that region had received strong blows from Daesh, which showed their inability to confront the organisation. Before sending the forces allied to it, Russia deliberately stopped its air strikes, leaving the Iranian militias without air cover. It is no secret that the Russian intent from this is to reduce the objection by those militias to the entry of the forces allied with Russia, after that region witnessed many clashes between the two sides in the past.[10] Daesh has become a threat to Russian interests recently, after it approached the phosphate and oil fields in the areas of western Syria.
  • Control of wealth: the Russian deployment in the regions west of the Euphrates supports Russia's strategy of expansion into areas where wealth is concentrated, and blocking the road for Iranian companies, given that the region houses oil and phosphate fields. Since 2018, Russia has started to carry out geological exploration work by the companies Zarubezhneft, Zarubezh Geology, STG Engineering, and Technopromexport. According to sources specialised in geological survey, Russian studies and exploration discoveries indicate that the phosphate reserves are double the announced quantities. The new discoveries are concentrated in the southern desert of Deir Ezzor.[11]
  • Winning over the clans: Russia seeks to win over the clans in the areas of eastern Syria. According to sources in that region, Russian officers met with tribal leaders in the region in the days before the deployment of their forces, and promised them to change the situation in the stage ahead. Russia clearly sees in building strong relations with the clans west of the Euphrates a gateway to reach the clans of the regions east of the Euphrates, with the aim of using them as a pressure card against the US presence.[12] Russia is aware of its capability to achieve breakthroughs with the clans of the west of the Euphrates which view the Iranian presence as a threat to them, considering that their areas are constantly exposed to air strikes carried out by Israel and the US, as well as a threat to their identity in view of Iran's insistence on Shiitising the region's clans. Perhaps what encourages the Russians to take this step is Iran's declining financial capabilities, and its failure to pay the salaries of some militia members of the clans in the countryside of Deir Ezzor and Raqqa.
  • Russian political consideration: the Russian move in the regions west of the Euphrates appears as a Russian endeavour to limit Iranian influence. This is an issue that corresponds to the desires of regional and international countries, and comes in the context of Russia’s attempts to deliver messages to foreign players that things in Syria are heading towards stability. Thus, Russia would invalidate the excuse of Iran's control of the Syrian domain, which is an obstacle to the restoration of relations with the Syrian regime by many countries and governments. Within the framework of this plan, the "border guards" of the Syrian regime are being returned to the border areas with Iraq after a continuous absence since the beginning of the events in Syria, given that those forces are strengthening their outposts and border points with Iraq, which number nearly 100 points and outposts, and rehabilitating the destroyed ones among them.[13]
  • Competition with the US presence: Russia seeks to place the US forces in Tanf and the areas east of the Euphrates in a state of siege from the east and west with the aim of weakening their strategic position and pushing them to search for other alternatives, such as withdrawal from the region.

Iranian goals and interests

The Russian-Iranian agreement in Albu Kamal appears also to express Iranian interests and goals, the most important of which are the following:

  • The need for Russian political support: Iran prepares to negotiate again with the Biden administration about its nuclear programme and it needs Russia’s support in this domain, given that Russia seeks to include its deployment on the Syrian-Iraqi border as part of a plan aimed at pushing the US and the West to re-assess their positions on the Syrian situation. Iran wants to benefit from this scenario by appearing as a cooperating party.
  • Protecting Iranian militias: at this stage, the Iranian militias suffer from a state of exhaustion as a result of the Israeli and US strikes, and are going through complicated situations as a result of financial crises and logistical problems, as well as the complexities of the Iraqi arena. The Russian deployment constitutes a suitable cover for those militias that protects them from Israeli and US strikes due to the overlapping of their positions with the positions of deployment of the forces allied with Russia.[14]
  • Concealing the Iranian presence: this is done by removing the dangerous contact points that may lead to the outbreak of confrontations with the US forces, and putting an end to the Iranian presence, at least formally, which would constitute a step to bring over the new US administration to practical talks about the Syrian crisis. This does not mean that Iran is easily ceding its areas of influence to Russia. The process can be described as "mutual service", meaning that Russia is strengthening its cards in any upcoming negotiations with the US on the Syrian situation in exchange for securing protection for Iranian militias and passing a difficult stage during which Iran feels the possibilities that its militias would be targeted by Israel and the US.

What reassures Iran about the safety of its position in Syria are two factors:

The first is Iran's awareness that its influence in Syria is too deep that it would not be affected by influence-sharing with the forces supported by Russia in the Syrian border areas with Iraq. Furthermore, Iran would not concede to Russia the supply route of its militias in Syria, which is not required by Russia at this stage.

The second is Iran's awareness of the need by the Russian forces to support their militias in their continuing wars in Syria on more than one front, given that Iran has more forces than Russia that would have to mobilise the forces that have its support in the next stage in the process of clearing the Badia (Desert) from Daesh, at the expense of other fronts in Idlib and the east of the Euphrates, and would then be in need of the assistance provided by the Iranian militias.

Conclusion

The war against Daesh constituted the front for Russian action in the areas west of the Euphrates and changing the situation of control in that region. Daesh has come to constitute an explicit threat to Russia’s interests in the Badia, especially its investments in the field of oil and phosphate. However, this move also comes in the context of a broader plan that is implemented by Russia in Syria, aiming mainly to maximise its cards in the face of the next US administration, and to bring about a change in the positions of regional and international players by presenting a different picture of the situation in Syria and proving that things are moving in the direction of besieging and curtailing Iranian influence, especially in its most critical position, namely the Albu Kamal crossing which is the gateway for Iranian weapons and militias to Syria and Lebanon.

The military presence in the areas west of the Euphrates gives Russia important strategic advantages, mainly by weakening the US influence in Syria through its proximity to the Tanf base, and its contact with the clans of the Euphrates regions which complain about US support for the Kurdish Autonomous Administration and the marginalisation of the Arabs. This plan corresponds with Iran’s desire to reduce the intensity of strikes against its militias in Albu Kamal and all areas west of the Euphrates, allowing Iran to appear as the party helping to restore the authority of the Syrian state over the border areas, which is a card that can be used in negotiations with the new US administration.

Those changes are unlikely to affect the conditions of the actors in the eastern regions, given that Russia is not expected to seize the border crossing to the point where Iran is prevented from transferring weapons and personnel to its militias that continue to deploy heavily in various Syrian regions. In such cases, the crossing is usually divided into two lines, one for the purpose of trade where Iran may accept a Russian partnership in its management, and a military line whose administration would be purely Iranian.

On the other hand, it would be difficult for Russia to give up the services of the Iranian militias, especially in the Syrian Badia, where it does not have sufficient numbers of either Wagner mercenaries or of the militias that are allied to it. At the same time, Russia does not wish to sink in the quagmire of the Badia, and its air campaign against Daesh, despite its intensity for more than three months, has not achieved significant results. In addition, Russia will not reap the expected political returns from entering the areas west of the Euphrates, nor will it be able to convince the US and Israel of its ability to control Iranian movement in that region, as long as Iran's militias are present in huge bases, such as the Imam Ali base.

This consensus will remain largely provisional, being governed by external circumstances. Indeed, a proxy conflict between the two sides is expected to break out after some time, as was the case between them in southern Syria.

References

[1] Khaled al-Khateeb, “Russia fights Iran in its Syrian backyard”, Al-Modon website, 16 December 2020.

[2] “A source to al-Bawaba: Iranian forces withdraw from the Albu Kamal crossing, fleeing Daesh and Israeli raids”, Al-Bawaba, 17 December 2020.

[3] “Deir Ezzor: power struggle or interest-sharing between Russia and Iran”, Al-Modon website, 31 December 2020.

[4] “Russian officers meet with leaders of the ‘Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ in Deir Ezzor”, Jesr Press newspaper,

[5] Diaa Audi, “Russia sets its foot in the ‘Iranian Corridor’ in Syria”, Al-Hurra website, 18 December 2020.

[6] “Russian forces in the depth of Iranian influence: a conflict, an agreement, or messages? and to whom?”, Kurdish Hawar News Agency, 29 December 2020.

[7] Yahya al-Haj Nasaan, “Withdrawal or a manoeuvre: a special photo by Orient shows a new Russian move in Deir Ezzor”, Orient News Net, 23 December 2020.

[8] Khaled al-Khateeb , “The ‘Fatemiyoun’ Brigade did not withdraw from Syria, and its numbers are on the increase”, Al-Modon website, 27 December 2020.

[9] Raghida Dergham, “Russian offers of Syrian-Israeli-Iranian understandings”, Annahar al-Arabi, 20 December 2020.

[10] “Russia fights Iran in its Syrian backyard”, op. cit.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Khaled al-Khateeb, “Deir Ezzor: Russian expansion is racing against Iran over the clans”, Al-Modon website, 24 December 2020.

[13] Raid al-Mostafa, “A Russian-US race towards the Syrian-Iraqi borders: a new era in which Iran is the loser”, Orient News Net, 25 December 2020.

[14] Abdullah Raja, “Iran and Russia: areas of clash and accord in Syria”, al-Bayan newspaper, 22 December 2020.

 

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