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Russia’s Relationship with Iran in Syria: A Compulsory Partnership Dominated by Competition and Concerns

The war on Gaza has cast its shadows on the Russian-Iranian partnership in Syria, through Israel’s precise and advanced targeting of Iranian leaders in Syria, indicating the resilience of the Russian-Israeli understanding there, despite their differing positions on the “Operation Guardian of the Walls” and the Israeli response to it. Consequently, regarding the boundaries of Russia’s relationship with Iran in Syria, the weakness of Russian control over the activities of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard therein is a significant factor in the agenda to expand the partnership between the two sides or to transform it into a subsequent alliance, according to Jamestown’s platform. After Tehran supplied Moscow with the “Shahid-136” drones, which some perceive as Iran’s attempt to solely obtain Russian technologies, given Tehran’s grand ambitions in the Middle East and its careful assessment of the intensity of confrontation with Washington, it realizes the futility of its relationship with Moscow within Iran’s perilous brinkmanship policy fraught with risks.

Initially, Dr. Mohammed Al-Saeed Idris, a political science professor and advisor at the Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, questions in his paper “The Imperative Alliance between Iran and Russia… The Interaction Debate between Text and Challenges,” the narrative of Russia’s intervention in Syria at Iran’s request, contradicting it by considering Russia an independent actor and Iran a subordinate one in the relationship between the two parties in Syria.

This opinion is reinforced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), discussing Moscow’s rejection of former Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani’s requests to travel to Moscow to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin of the seriousness of the situation in Syria. The center refers to Soleimani’s later meeting with Putin and his Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu to coordinate military operations in Syria. Perhaps the meeting came after Moscow made its decision to intervene, as the center points to Russia’s signing of a secret agreement with Syria, especially regarding the Hmeimim airbase, with the increasing presence of Russian personnel and military equipment on Syrian soil, in preparation for this military intervention, which was humiliatingly communicated to the American side in a manner far from diplomatic norms.

On September 30, 2015, a Russian general entered the US embassy in Baghdad to inform them of the need to withdraw their forces from Syrian airspace to avoid friction with Russian forces that are about to enter the Syrian arena, securing their supreme interests and protecting their only outlet to warm waters through their naval base in Tartus, with Moscow’s desire to expand it and deploy missiles within it to counter NATO’s missile shield in Eastern Europe (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, and other European countries). This base represents the first line of defense for the Black Sea and the Crimean Peninsula, according to researchers Dr. Salman Ali Hussein and Sahira Hassan Kreidi in their paper “The Status of Competitive State in Regional and International Conflicts… Syria as a Model.”

Moreover, Moscow sought to block Qatar’s project to finance Europe with gas, keeping the energy card in Moscow’s hands in confronting Europe. The conflict in Syria is linked to the conflict in Ukraine strongly, according to Maysoon Musa, in her paper titled “International Conflict in Syria and Ukraine.”

Syria’s strategic position within the intersection of trade and economic exchange routes of Europe, Africa, and Asia, and its inclusion in the American and European control plans over these regions, and their efforts to extend energy pipelines from the Arab Gulf countries to Europe via Syria to break Russia’s dominance on energy exports to Europe, in addition to the failure of all Russian initiatives to develop a good and stable relationship with America and European countries and their imposition of an economic blockade on it, after annexing the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

Furthermore, considering the overall developments in the region, from the strong surge of political Islam during the “Arab Spring” waves, to Moscow’s deception in the UN Security Council regarding Libya, which led to Moscow losing an ally and billions of dollars coming from arms deals with him, where the wide Western interpretation of Security Council Resolution (173) of 2011 contributed to overthrowing the regime of former Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi, by expanding the mission of NATO there. Moscow became convinced of the need for a strong and effective intervention.

With no supportive state for the Assad regime in Syria other than Iran, the interests of Moscow and Tehran met in supporting this regime, in a forced alliance expressed by Vladimir Sajben, an expert at the Middle East Institute, saying, “We have a joint work in Syria to support the Assad regime, although both countries take different positions on this.”

The Iranian intervention came as a result of ideological and geopolitical considerations, given Syria’s significance as a decisive ally for Iran in the region, and its great strategic value as a geopolitical bridge that allows Iran access to the Mediterranean Sea. This ambition by Iran surpasses Russian aspirations to access warm waters, based on historical factors.

On the other hand, the Russian intervention was driven by political, economic, and military security considerations, especially with the advancement of Syrian opposition forces in western Syria, which alarmed Moscow regarding its naval facilities in Tartus. Moscow hoped, primarily, to regain its status as a global power by showcasing its strength and capacity to influence the course of the Syrian crisis, while obstructing American solutions and demonstrating to the latter that it would not hesitate to intervene in areas where Washington was involved.

Moreover, Moscow sought to maintain Syria as a primary client for its military exports and to preserve a pivotal role in the Syrian energy sector, while obstructing energy supply projects to Europe, such as the Qatari gas pipeline to Europe, intersecting with the potential Egyptian-Israeli gas pipeline within Syrian territory.

Both states entered Syria with different objectives and perspectives, despite their participation in stabilizing the Assad regime’s authority, aiming to secure their interests, maintain Syrian territorial integrity, challenge American influence in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, and combat terrorist organizations, according to Dr. Mustafa Al-Ghanimi, a researcher at the International Institute for Iranian Studies. Thus, their coordination was limited to the military sphere, absent in other areas, with divergences on several issues, such as the fall of Aleppo in 2016 and the perspectives on Bashar al-Assad’s role in Syria’s future, with Tehran considering him essential to maintain its gains in Syria, unlike Moscow.

Furthermore, the latter emphasized the importance of a “political solution,” agreeing with Washington through the Vienna process, while Tehran prioritized a “military solution.” Their perspectives diverged on the roles of the Turkish and American actors in the Syrian settlement process, the Russian-Israeli understanding in Syria, and the equation of governance and the form of the new state, competing for military, political, and economic influence zones, particularly evident in their disputes over energy resources, phosphates, and ports. However, the deepest dispute between the two sides remains in the projects of the Shalamjah-Basra-Latakia railway between Iran and Syria via Iraq, and Iran’s efforts to acquire the port of Latakia as a final point for it, and the “Islamic” or “Persian” gas pipeline project, where Tehran hopes to export its energy resources to Europe from Syrian shores, an idea Russia would only accept if it buys Iranian energy and exports it to Europe itself, safeguarding Russia’s energy leverage against the West.

Consequently, the relationship between the two parties witnessed several frictions, during which Russian aircraft targeted Iranian forces in Homs, with repeated bombings of Hezbollah militias in Hama, Aleppo’s countryside (Nubl and Al-Zahraa), and its airport, in addition to clashes between the Fourth Division led by Maher al-Assad, loyal to Iran, and the Fifth Corps led by Suheil al-Hassan (The Tiger), loyal to Russia, in the Ghab area of Hama countryside. President Putin demanded the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Syria, interpreted by Putin’s special envoy, Alexander Lavrentiev, as directed at Iranian forces and Hezbollah.

In addition to that, and in reference to Iranian militias, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov stated, “Russia will strike anyone outside the army.”

With a mention of the lack of trust between the two sides, as Iranian and Russian sites in the region were targeted by strikes not claimed by anyone, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy quoted activists and tribal leaders in Deir ez-Zor accusing Russia of targeting its military headquarters and sites in Al-Bukamal.

According to the institute, Moscow’s suspicions toward Iran have increased since 2017 when prominent figures in the Syrian army supported by Russia, such as Issam Zahreddine and Suheil al-Hassan, known as “The Tiger,” were targeted.

Politically, Moscow excluded Tehran from most Astana conference meetings and its deputy foreign minister, Sergey Ryabkov, expressed reservations about Iran’s description of its relationship with Moscow as an alliance, saying, “Russia is not Iran’s ally in Syria, but the two parties work together within the framework of Astana talks on Syria.” Meanwhile, the chairman of the Iranian parliamentary national security committee, Hashmatullah Falahat Pishe, implicitly accused Russia of collusion with Israel, saying, “If the (S-300) system was working properly, Israel would not have been able to carry out successful attacks on Syrian territory.”

Aligning with Pishe’s statement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated, “There is an Israeli-American-Russian agreement that Iran must be removed from Syria, but we disagree on how to implement it,” illustrating the limits of the relationship between the two sides.

According to the Washington Institute, Russia has the capability to prevent Israeli strikes if it wishes but turns a blind eye to them to weaken Iranian influence.

Moreover, the International Institute for Iranian Studies, in its report for January, quoted Iranian media hinting at Moscow and Damascus’s responsibility for the security breaches against their leaders in Syria, with suspicions regarding direct Russian involvement in facilitating Israeli targeting operations against these leaders, either through leaking their movements or indirectly by turning a blind eye to informing Tehran in advance about these operations, amidst ongoing coordination between Moscow and Tel Aviv.

However, Russian engagement in Syria has largely prevented Iran from dominating Syrian decision-making. Tehran responded to this by obstructing any Russian path opposing its interests, as seen in its hindrance of Moscow’s efforts to normalize Turkish relations with the Assad regime, independently through the trilateral committee (Moscow-Ankara-Damascus), which became a quartet after Iran’s inclusion, ensuring non-interference. The latter fears Russian-Turkish bargains at the expense of its influence in Syria, within Russia’s policy of managing balance among active states in the Syrian file.

Therefore, it does not appear that Moscow is interested, unless satisfied, with the American-Israeli strikes targeting Iranian leaders in Syria, as long as they remain without a response that could lead to an escalation of conflict between the two sides, jeopardizing Moscow’s gains in Syria. Hence, it is not unlikely that Moscow may have exerted fruitful pressure on Assad to not allow room for increased Iranian presence in southern Syria under the pretext of supporting Gaza. This can be inferred from the departure of the Iranian President, Ibrahim Raisi, from the Arab-Islamic Summit hall in Riyadh before the speech of his ally Assad. This estimation further strengthens the notion that Moscow has begun to formulate new security arrangements in southern Syria as part of its efforts to manage the potential escalation between Israel and Iranian militias.

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