Battles have broken out using heavy weapons between Russian-backed militias and Iranian-backed groups in Syria amid disputes over areas of influence, with fighters on both sides being killed in battles between the Fifth Corps and Eighth Division backed by Russia and the Fourth Division supported by the pro-Iranian Syrian Republican Guard.
The fighting took place in the suburbs of Hama after the Fourth Division refused to hand over areas under its control to the Fifth Corps and extended to checkpoints controlled by this group headed by Maher Al-Assad, brother of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, who is pro-Iran.
Both sides brought in military reinforcements in preparation for future more extensive battles.
Fourth Division militias redeployed on battle fronts in areas under the control of the Fifth Corps at the expense of Iran-backed groups located in the area between seven Russian monitoring posts. Fourth Division fighters returned to their barracks and were replaced by Fifth Corps militias (Tiger Forces) led by Suhail Al-Hassan, who is close to Russia.
National Defence forces and Fourth Division fighters backed by Iran no longer have the influence they once did in the area because many are from a region targeted by the Fifth Corps for Russian-backed expansion.
The fighting broke out, according to local sources, after an argument between the two groups about taking control of roads to move goods and the requisition of abandoned homes.
Russia succeeded in loosening the grip of the pro-Iran forces and attempted to end the fighting before it spread without dismantling all the pro-Iran forces and expelling them from the area. Although Moscow does not want the forces to remain in the area, it needs them in case it decides to fight the opposition factions.
Russia believes that the fighting among the militias will not impact the possible battles that could erupt with the remaining armed opposition in northern Syria.
As tensions between Moscow and Tehran rose in northwest Syria, forces affiliated with the Syrian army, including members of the Lebanese Hizbullah militias affiliated with Iran, were forced to leave their positions in Al-Qalamoun in central Syria as part of Russian plans to undercut Iran’s military role in Syria.
The Hizbullah forces did not withdraw to Lebanon, however, and only redeployed to southern Syria, an area closer to the border with Israel. According to Lebanese military sources, redeploying the forces to the south was ordered by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard led by Qassem Suleimani.
At the same time, Russian forces in Deraa asked Syrian State Security to withdraw its agents from the suburbs of the city after it became apparent that it had facilitated Shiite expansion in southern Syria by recruiting local men into Iranian militias.
After the clashes, Syrian opposition groups said that Russia had already begun criticising the Al-Assad regime and militia commanders, reflecting a Russian-Iranian conflict in areas under regime control and the control of shabbiha (thug) militias.
Media reports quoted the spokesman of the Al-Nasr Army, one of the armed opposition groups in northern Syria, as saying that there was an ongoing Russian-Iranian battle for control of the regime.
He said that Russia did not want pro-Iranian military forces on the front line with the Syrian opposition, due to its desire to prevent Iran’s domination of the regime army, especially after Tehran had sent thousands of foreign fighters into Syria.
Russia is trying to control key elements of the regime’s army, intelligence and militias and exclude the Iranians, leaving many army officers divided in their loyalties between Russia and Iran.
In 2016, Russia gave Al-Hassan its second-highest medal during a military parade at the Hamim military base, and the regime quietly promoted Maher Al-Assad to major-general in early 2017 and later commander of the Fourth Division.
Unlike his brother Bashar, considered to be Russia’s arm in Damascus, Maher is believed to be loyal to Iran, and his Fourth Division includes Iraqi militias known as the Imam Al-Hussein Brigade led by Iraqi national Asaad Al-Bahadli composed of Iraqis and Iranians.
There is close coordination between the Fourth Division and Hizbullah in central Syria and areas surrounding the Beirut-Damascus highway, while most of Hizbullah’s depots are along the Syrian-Lebanese border where they are positioned near or inside military and security facilities belonging to the Fourth Division or Maher Al-Assad.
“An indirect Russian-Iranian conflict has already been triggered, as can be seen in events such as Iran’s assassination of several pro-Russian figures,” said military analyst Ahmed Rahal.
“Al-Hassan, who is considered pro-Russian, is accused of killing Essam Zahruddin, who is close to Maher Al-Assad. He is also accused of poisoning 23 soldiers of the Fourth Division, which is supported by Iran. Russia also took away its T90 tanks from the Fourth Division and gave them to the Fifth Corps after the Deraa battles,” he added.
Russia and Iran have cooperated in Syria since Russia’s military intervention started in September 2015. Russia believed that air coverage for the Iranian militias was necessary at the time, but it later announced the formation of the Fifth Corps last year and supported Al-Hassan and the Tiger militias at the expense of the Iranian militias.
However, the tensions may not escalate between the two sides since each needs the other. The Iranian militias and Russian air coverage have resulted in advances on the ground, making it likely that this military alliance will remain in place for the time being.
“Russia is confronting Iran in Syria for two reasons,” Rahal said. “First, there is the Israeli-US pressure and the insistence that Iran has no place in Syria. Second, there is the fact that Russia does not now need Iran since the fighting in Syria is almost over.”
The Iranian-Russian rift spilled over into the public domain after statements by Heshmat Bishah, chair of the National Security and Foreign Policy committee in Iran’s Shura Council, last week.
Bishah accused Russia of conspiring with Israel by disabling the S300 missile system in Syria during Israel’s air strikes against Iranian locations. “There is clear coordination between Moscow and Tel Aviv whenever there are strikes inside Syria,” Rahal said. “If Russia had enabled the S300 missile system, Israel would not have carried out these attacks so easily.”
It is likely Russia will try to pressure Iran to absorb the anger of the US, Israel and the Arab countries at the situation in Syria, and it may try to curb Iran’s influence without open military confrontation through skirmishes or soft war.
It will be difficult to predict what will happen next, especially due to expanded US sanctions against Iran and Syria, the growing economic crisis in the areas under regime control, Iran’s efforts to infiltrate Syrian society, growing instability in areas where pro-Iran militias are present and disputes among militias in areas under regime control.
Both sides may want to hide the tensions between them, but if matters escalate it will likely be in favour of Russia more than of Iran.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Syrian clashes between partners