Some analysts argue Russia intervention may be subtle power play against Tehran. Others are unpersuaded.
Russia’s decision to commence air strikes in Syria against militants opposed to President Bashar al-Assad met, perhaps unsurprisingly, with a warm official reception last week not only from the beleaguered Syrian regime, but also its regional backers, at the head of them Iran.
“Iran welcomes Russia’s efforts against the ISIL,” said Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, using an acronym for the Islamic State (ISIS) group that controls much of eastern Syria. “The Russian airstrikes in Syria will strengthen the power of the resistance axis in confronting the takfiri project,” said Nabil Qaouq of Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese paramilitary ally that has fought rebels in Syria since 2012. “The equations being established in Syria today are entirely in favor of the resistance axis,” Qaouq added, referring to the loose anti-American coalition comprising Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and other Islamist factions such as Hamas.
Beneath this pomp and triumphalism, however, some observers believe the picture is more complicated. One hypothesis holds that Russia’s intervention is in fact partly motivated by a quiet rivalry with Iran for primacy within the pro-Assad camp. While Moscow’s alliance with Damascus, which dates back to the Cold War, is older than Tehran’s, since the outbreak of the Syrian war Iran’s substantial paramilitary and financial support for the Assad regime has seen its influence in Syria skyrocket, to the point that it is viewed by many as the new de facto master of the country. When a ceasefire agreement was brokered between rebels and loyalist militants in the Qalamoun and Idlib regions in August, for example, it was Tehran, not Damascus, that negotiated on the latter’s behalf. One Russian diplomat previously based in Damascus told Der Spiegel Tuesday that these developments had made Assad wary of the Islamic Republic, and grateful today to see Moscow reasserting its status. Other reports speak of additional disagreements between Moscow and Tehran regarding the post-war fate of Assad, while some analysis goes further, arguing that an emboldened Russia may actively curb Iranian regional ambitions and even wean Assad away from the ‘resistance axis.’
While acknowledging that Russia – which, as recently as 2010, supported tightened sanctions on Tehran at the UN Security Council – does not have an identical agenda to Iran in the Middle East, analysts with whom NOW spoke were nonetheless unconvinced that Russia’s Syria intervention would work at the expense of Iranian policy.
“Russia and Iran are traditional rivals. There’s always an underlying competition in their relations. Having said that, Russia’s and Iran’s government-to-government ties haven’t been this close in, I would say, about 500 years,” said Anna Borshchevskaya, Ira Weiner Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “There’s still competition, but when it comes to Syria, it looks like they’re acting in parallel. They both have a mutual goal, and that is to keep Assad in power.”
Michael Weiss, co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, editor-in-chief of the Institute of Modern Russia’s The Interpreter journal, and a former NOW contributor, concurred.
“I’m very skeptical of this argument that they’re competing,” Weiss told NOW. “Frankly, I think Russia is providing the air cover that Iran cannot provide, and Iran is providing the ground forces […] From [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s perspective, he has very simple objectives: keep Assad alive; go after any credible opposition force on the ground, FSA or otherwise; pretend to be bombing ISIS; block the Americans from doing anything along the lines of mission creep […] He wants to smash anything that could possibly force Assad out, either at the military or diplomatic level. And that I don’t see as at all incongruous with what Iran wants.”
Beyond these factors, Borshchevskaya argues Russian domestic considerations may be just as operative as foreign policy goals.
“Putin wants to look like a great leader, like a powerful leader. And in part he’s doing this because he’s not; he’s a weak leader. Russia is doing terrible economically; socially they’re in a downward spiral; the military forces have a lot of problems. All of these domestic problems undermine him. How does he keep power, as an authoritarian? He points to external enemies” – above all, the United States.
As for the contention that Russia is trying to stay diplomatically relevant; to “ensure [it] has a place at the table when Syria’s future is ultimately decided,” as one analyst phrased it, Weiss counters that the permanent Security Council member’s position at that table was never in doubt.
“A [hypothetical] peace conference with any kind of UN Security Council certification requires Russia,” Weiss told NOW. “Iran is not going to be the driving force for any kind of peace settlement in Syria. Russia will do that, at least according to the parameters of the US State Department, and they’ve been seen as that since 2011.”
Nor is Weiss persuaded that, as at least one report in the last week has claimed, a Russian victory against rebels on the Syrian battlefield would herald the exit of Assad from power.
“I’ve been hearing for five years that Russia’s not wedded personally to Bashar al-Assad, it just wants a client, it just wants its interests maintained. But the fact is if Russia was not wedded to Bashar al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad would no longer be president of Syria,” Weiss told NOW.
“Could I imagine in several years down the road that Russia would come to the US and say, ‘Right, so we’ve destroyed all the Syrian opposition that posed a real threat to Assad, and now let us negotiate the terms of Assad’s surrender’?”