Understanding the Russian-Iranian relationship in Syria

BASEL HAJ JASEM
Published 08.03.2019 00:59

In the last few months, slight changes in the rhythm of the military scene in Syria have been observed in parallel to tranquility and a decline in the pace of military action.

But the most important thing is the Russian-Israeli talks, where Israel demanded the removal of Iranian militias from the Syrian border. At that time, the Russian foreign minister said that "only the Syrian army should protect the south of the country," as if he was telling Iran, who supported the Syrian regime for years beside Russia, to leave the south. Immediately afterward, news of an agreement between Israel and Russia came out under which Iran would withdraw from southern Syria and the Bashar Assad regime would take control over the region.

And in an interview with the Tass news agency, the Israeli Ambassador to Moscow asserted that Israel was satisfied with Russia's position on the Iranian military presence on the Israeli-Syrian border. He pointed out that Israel and Russia are engaged in intensive discussions on this issue, while stressing that the presence of Iranian forces in the region is "targeting Israel."

Many believe that the relationship between Russia and Iran may rise to what might be called an alliance, but with detailed analysis it appears to be inaccurate. Russia and Iran are trying to hide their differences as much as possible, but some differences come up from time to time.

A new round of confrontation with Iran began in September 2015, when Russia decided to launch a military operation in Syria. Although Assad is also an ally of Iran, views in Moscow and Tehran differ on post-war arrangements in Syria. The Russian military presence in Syria has also made Iran move to a rear position.

Contrary to the expectations of the Russian side, Iran has not bought Russian aircraft since the lifting of sanctions on Iran, preferring European Airbus aircraft in a deal worth $25 billion. Additionally, Russia was badly affected by Iran's desire to achieve a significant increase in oil exports after the lifting of sanctions.

Gas politics

Russia was stabbed in the back approximately two years ago during Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's visit to Turkey when he declared that Iran was ready to become the guarantor of energy security in Turkey. Many experts believe that these words were directed at Moscow, rather than Ankara, and that Iran was ready to strike the gas market. A mere look at Ankara by Tehran can be understood as a way of showing that Iran is capable of replacing Russian gas in the Turkish market. This would deprive Russia of massive financial flows, and Moscow would lose the only tool to pressure Turkey, which is considered the second-largest consumer of Russia's gas after Germany.

In fact, Iran has never been a close ally of Moscow. The two countries have worked together to support the regime in Syria to protect their interests in that country. And that was almost achieved for Moscow, and Russia seems to be trying to break away from Iran.

It is no secret that Iran is a regional competitor of Russia, as well as a major target for Washington and Tel Aviv, and Moscow knows well that this tension will escalate, as long as Iran stays in Syria, which is considered a major threat to Russian interests.

In addition, no one can ignore the situation of many major countries and regional countries that reject Iranian influence in Syria and the region. This is what puts Russia in an enviable position; it has major worries about its strong political and economic relations with those countries that are annoyed by the Russian-Iranian rapprochement.

Israel's frequent attacks on Iranian positions inside Syrian territory, in addition to pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump on Iran, increases Iran's ties to Russia, which makes Moscow stronger than in the previous stage in confronting Tehran in Syria.

For Turkey, Iran may appear to be an ally in Syria on the one hand, but in fact it is a regional competitor on the other hand. It is no secret that Ankara is alarmed by Tehran's expansionist policies. Therefore, any curbing of Iran's role in Syria is in the interest of Turkey.

One cannot ignore the observations of many experts that Iran's invitation to participate in the Astana talks was an attempt by Ankara and Moscow to push Tehran to meet its obligations; otherwise, it would be difficult to control its own militias.

In the past few years, the difference (which has not yet reached a crisis level) between Russia and Iran in Syria has been reflected in three situations. The first at the beginning of direct Russian intervention in Syria two years ago, which led Iran to retreat to the second row as a silent ally of the regime, while Moscow took the lead. After Iran failed to make the Assad regime achieve victory during the years of its intervention.

The second difference between Moscow and Tehran came after the agreement between Turkey and Russia to evacuate civilians from eastern areas of Aleppo, which was done at the end of 2016, because Iran refused any agreement in this region and insisted that no one could leave because it wanted to implement a military solution in Aleppo; here it must be noted that the agreement of Aleppo (Russian-Turkish) is the only agreement in the six years of the Syrian war, which succeeded and was steadfast, whether we agree or disagree with it.

The third difference became clear recently during the start of the Astana negotiations. Iran wanted to take revenge and push Washington away from the talks, while Russia called for the participation of Washington, which was merely an observer.

* Researcher in Russian and Turkish affairs, political adviser

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