There has been much talk in recent months of Russia’s taking over the reins in Syria on conditions from the US, notably that Moscow undermines Tehran’s influence in Syria and brings about the withdrawal of pro-Iran Shiite Lebanese, Iraqi and Afghan militias.
However, it is difficult to confirm that Russia has promised the US to expel Iran from Syria, as reported after the Helsinki summit between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It is also difficult to confirm that the US trusts that Russia can do this, especially since Iran has deeply penetrated Syrian society and Russia alone cannot uproot it.
There are doubts that the Syrian regime can simply abandon its ties to Iran, especially since thousands of Iranians have been granted Syrian citizenship, key economic privileges have been handed to Iran and military bases across Syria given to it.
In January, Iran accused Russia of intentionally jamming air-defence systems during Israeli air strikes on military installations belonging to Iranian militias inside Syria.
Tehran said Russia had refused to allow regime forces to operate S300 air-defence systems given by Russia to the regime after Israel shot down a US fighter jet.
Iran viewed the Russian move as creating a conducive environment for the Israeli air raids. However, it is difficult to ascertain whether there is a real conflict between the two sides.
There were recently clashes in northwest Syria between Iranian-backed forces and Russian-backed fighters, namely the Fourth Armoured Division led by Maher Al-Assad, the brother of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, who is considered pro-Iran, and the Fifth Corps led by Suhail Al-Hassan backed by Russia.
The Iranian-backed troops suffered losses in this clash between the presumed allies who share common goals in maintaining the Al-Assad regime in power.
US policy in the Middle East has changed much since Trump took office, and the new US administration believes Iran is a serious threat to US interests in the region and must be expelled from Syria and Iraq.
If the White House has indeed handed over the Syrian issue to the Kremlin to solve, then a power struggle between Russia and Iran seems inevitable.
Russia may not succeed in expelling Iran from Syria, but it will try to downsize the Iranian presence. Iranian troops without Russian air cover will be targeted by Israel, and even though the two countries’ interests intersect right now, they will eventually clash as they each have different final goals for Syria.
Al-Assad will not abandon Iran’s support because it is essential for the regime to remain in power. Russia’s interests in Syria are strategic ones, and they do not exclusively rely on the incumbent regime.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said that Russia is not holding onto Al-Assad per se, though it will support any regime that allows it to stay in the country.
Strong ties between Syria and Iran began in 1979 when Ayatollah Khomeini took power in Iran and former Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad was the first head of state in the world to recognise the Islamic Revolution in Iran.
They began building strategic ties in many fields, especially military, security and economic. During the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, Damascus was the only Arab capital to side with Tehran against Baghdad. In 1982, during Israel’s war on the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) in Lebanon, the Syrian regime played a key role in facilitating the arrival of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in Lebanon.
Later, these formed the Hizbullah militias that marginalised the nationalist Lebanese forces and for decades held Lebanon hostage to Iran’s political and military agenda.
In 1991, Syrian troops fought alongside the US against Iraq to liberate Kuwait. After the US occupation of Iraq in 2003, relations between Syria and Iran grew stronger, dividing their roles in Iraq.
At the outset of the Syrian Revolution in 2011, Iran’s supreme guide Ali Khamenei said the demonstrations in Syria were a “US-Zionist conspiracy aiming to break the strong axis of resistance and boycott [of Israel] in the region.”
The Syrian regime would almost certainly have fallen had it not been for Tehran’s political, economic and military support. Iranian officials have said that supporting the Syrian regime is part of Iran’s strategic interest in the Arab region, stretching from Iraq, ruled by a pro-Iranian regime, passing through Syria, ruled by a pro-Iran strategic ally and ending in Lebanon where the Shia group Hizbullah is in control.
“If the enemy attacks and wants to occupy Syria or [Iran’s] Khuzestan Province, then we must defend Syria before Khuzestan,” said Iranian cleric Mahdi Tayeb.
Iran has spent tens of billions preventing the Syrian regime from toppling, which would have meant the toppling of Iran’s religious and sectarian influence in the Arab region.
It has suffered huge military losses while supporting the regime, formed more than 20 militia groups in Syria, and even represented the regime politically at regional and international conferences, including Astana.
Iran is not standing by silently, however, as the US ratchets up the tension on the regime in Tehran, and it has been trying to open a dialogue with the West and Israel through multiple parties.
Some believe the Iranian-Russian clash has already started, especially after the US announced the withdrawal of its troops from Syria and with the weakness of the Syrian opposition. Russia will likely win militarily, not least because its air force can eradicate Iranian militias in Syria.
However, it is more likely that Russia will work on curbing Iran’s role in Syria, which will mean not intercepting Israeli attacks on Iran-backed forces.
Moscow does not want to diminish Iran’s presence in Syria altogether because it does not want to lose a strong regional ally and a large economic market.
Russia will likely focus on repositioning Iran in Syria as a result without any political or military confrontation in the hope that it can complete this delicate task under US and Israeli scrutiny.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 31 January, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Russia’s difficulty with Iran