Developments over recent weeks indicate that Russia is abandoning its alliance with Iran in Syria. It stood on the sidelines as Iranian and pro-Iranian forces in Syria came under brutal air attacks by international forces and then by Israel.
Many analysts now believe that Russia is distancing itself from Iran in order to avoid being dragged down into the vortex the international community is preparing for Iran.
On 17 May, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad made an unannounced visit to Sochi in Russia to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin, who announced that his country expected all foreign forces in Syria to withdraw as part of the settlement process to the protracted Syrian civil war.
What Putin meant by “foreign forces” was not clear, since Russia, Iran, the US, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, the Kurds and others have troops or militias in Syria.
Some observers said the Russian president wanted to join the Western drive to curtail the Iranian presence in Syria and that he had Iranian military forces and militias in Syria in mind.
Putin’s statement also coincided with mounting US and Western pressures on Iran following US President Donald Trump’s decision to renege on the Iranian nuclear agreement.
Some members of the Syrian opposition say the reason Putin summoned Al-Assad to Sochi was to tell him not to conclude economic agreements with Tehran and to reject Iranian requests to establish a naval base south of Tartous on the Mediterranean.
However, the Al-Assad regime is unable to stand up to the Iranians who have acquired considerable power over the Syrian government.
Russian Presidential Spokesman Dmitry Peskov explained that military personnel from many countries were on Syrian soil and that they were all there illegitimately under international law. Russia was the sole exception, he said, since Russian forces were in Syria at the request of the Syrian leadership.
Russian Special Envoy to Syria Alexander Lavrentiev stirred speculation when he said that Putin had been referring to “all foreign troops in Syria, including the Turks, Americans, Iranians and [the Lebanese Shia group] Hizbullah.”
He said the remarks should be viewed as a “political statement” since the question of troop withdrawals from Syria was “a complex matter because such measures must be implemented collectively in parallel with a stabilising process.”
The chief source of tensions between Russia and the US (and Israel) with regard to Syria has been the Iranian presence for some time. Movements of Iranian-affiliated forces in southern Syria and the possibility of their approaching the Israeli border worry Israel, which fears a collapse of the US-brokered ceasefire.
According to the ceasefire provisions, militias affiliated with Iran must withdraw 25km from the border with Israel.
Iran has prodded the Syrian regime to move its forces southward, however, and into areas Israel regards as a national security zone. Iran has also intimated that it could deter Israel in the event that the confrontations escalate.
The Israeli response has been to launch a spate of stinging assaults against Iranian military targets in Syria, such as airports used by auxiliary forces allied with Iran, and Syrian army camps that have become facilities for Iranian-affiliated militias.
In tandem with the Israeli military escalation against Iran in Syria, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assured ruling Likud Party officials that “we believe there is absolutely no room for any Iranian military presence in any part of Syria,” according to a statement from his office.
Russia might also agree on the need to eliminate Iran from the Syrian arena, and it may not object to Israel striking Iranian targets in Syria. However, it would prefer any such strikes to be limited.
The Kremlin likely believes it necessary to prevent Iran from entrenching itself in southern Syria, not just for Israel’s sake but also because too deep an Iranian political, military and economic expansion in Syria would run counter to its own strategy in the country.
The Israeli strikes in Syria followed soon after the international powers began their escalation against Iran, starting with tripartite US, French and UK strikes on 14 April against locations probably connected with Tehran’s military activities in Syria.
The strikes came within hours of Trump announcing his country’s unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Tehran and his intention to re-impose economic sanctions “at the highest level” against Iran.
Moscow remained mute in reaction to the tripartite strikes, even though it had been informed in advance of the targets which seemed closely linked to Iran.
It remained equally silent following the Israeli air attacks against Iranian targets in Syria, suggesting that the US and Russia are coordinating to up the pressure on Iran.
Iran has long been a close ally of Russia in Syria, with both countries committed to supporting the regime in Damascus and destroying the Syrian opposition.
However, their alliance was tactical, since Russia wanted military forces on the ground, which the Syrian regime was no longer able to guarantee, and Iran wanted air support and Russian cover for its expansionist plans in Syria.
However, Russia is also wary of potential Iranian reactions, and it has therefore chosen to scale down its relationship with Iran gradually while silently welcoming the interventions by regional and international powers to destroy the Iranian presence on the ground. It has also welcomed the new economic sanctions against Tehran.
The Russian-Iranian break-up cannot be quick or easy. Tehran will not readily sacrifice the military, social, economic and security inroads it has achieved in Syria, and it will not hesitate to cause problems for Russia if Moscow takes a direct and open stance against Tehran.
Iran controls numerous sectarian militias such as the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah, the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces, and the Houthis in Yemen, all of which could stir up trouble when Iran asks.
It could also form jihadist movements targeting Russian and other interests and sowing instability in the Middle East.
Tehran is said to be brilliant at masterminding conspiracies, and it may have calculated on just such developments in its relationship with Moscow from the moment Russia intervened directly in Syria in 2015.
It has previously expressed its mistrust of Al-Assad, with media close to the Iranian president describing him as “ungrateful” to Iran.
On 21 May, Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Qassemi said that Iranian forces would remain in Syria “as long as terrorism exists and the Syrian government wants them to” and that “no one can force Iran.
” Those who should leave Syria “are the ones who entered the country without the government’s permission”, he said.
Russia sees Iran as a competitor for Syria’s natural resources, reconstruction deals, and other economic projects. Iran is also competing with Russia over spheres of military and security influence, and it is militarily present everywhere the Russians are in areas under the Syrian regime’s control.
Moscow is now using Al-Assad to pass messages to Tehran. Most likely, it, like the US, will work to prevent Iran from becoming a major regional power and keep it from posing serious competition to it in this important and volatile region.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 May 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly with headline: Syria, Russia and Iran