Syria: Competition for Influence Between Moscow And Tehran

The Kremlin has decided to follow to the end the logic of its support for Bachar Al-Assad. Since the beginning of the year Russian aircraft have been bombing Idlib, the last demilitarised zone in Syria, while Damascus’ troops and Iranian militias are advancing on the ground. And Recep Tayyip Erdoğan keeps raving on. Yet in Moscow there is less fear of the wrath of the Turkish president—with whom Vladimir Putin concluded a ceasefire agreement on March 5—than of the future of the agreement with Iran in Syria.

In Moscow, Russian political observers of the Middle East are not especially impressed by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ranting. As far as Syria is concerned, they seem mostly worried about Iran. Of course the Turkish president’s anger was perfectly sincere following the death of some forty soldiers in the Idlib pocket and the prospect of a defeat which would marginalise of Ankara in the negotiations over the future of Syria. Not to mention Erdoğan’s obsessional determination to prevent the formation of a Kurdish entity on the Turkish border. However, despite the extreme tension which arose at the end of February 2020, it is generally believed in the Russian capital that Moscow and Ankara will go on talking. What the 5 March agreement on Idlib between Putin and Erdoğan confirms. “The Kremlin still manages to deal with Turkey. In particular, because their exchanges also have to do with economic, energy and strategy issues. With the Iranians, it’s more complicated, Syria is central to their strategy and for them the crisis is not over” says Leonid Issaev, a Middle East expert with the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

In Idlib, “Moscow is keeping its original commitments to support Bachar Al-Assad and fight Hayet Tahrir Al-Sham1 to the bitter end” Kiril Semenov explains. He is a columnist for Al Monitor and expert with the Russian International Affairs Council. A determined commitment indeed: in Idlib the Russian air force is contributing what may well prove to be decisive support for the Iranian and loyalist Syrian troops on the ground. Moscow and Ankara are in dispute over the legitimacy of their interventions in this North-Eastern part of Syria. The former accuses the latter of having failed to keep its promise to disarm Hayet Tayir Al-Sham, while the Turks denounce the recapture, one by one, of the zones of de-escalation created in May 2017 in Astana (Rastana, Deraa and Eastern Ghouta). Idlib is the last of these zones, where the rebels defeated in the other pockets were allowed to find refuge with their families.

Earning their stripes as a major power

Idlib may well turn out to be the last major battle in the Syrian civil war. Which is why many in Moscow are focused on its aftermath. “In a way, we’re already there. President Putin has achieved his goals in Syria, which mainly consisted in restoring Russia’s front-stage role on the world scene. So the Kremlin will know how to reach a compromise with Turkey if need be, especially since Syria is no longer an absolute priority, despite the firm intention of maintaining a permanent presence there.” Leonid Issaev opines. The relationship with Europe, the construction of the Nordstream 2 pipeline or the resolution of the Ukrainian crisis are issues which Putin now deems more important than Syria. Not that there is any question of withdrawing. A political settlement of the conflict must be found in order to complete the initial ambition which was to earn a reputation as a responsible world power. And that must happen in collaboration with the Iranians.

The Moscow-Tehran connection is essentially tactical. Not strategic, even though both capitals have the same basic goal: to bring about the emergence of a multi-polar world, to counter American and Western hegemony. “Interestingly enough, the assassination of the Iranian General Qassem Soleimani elicited few comments in Moscow. Russia carefully avoided overplaying its support for Iran and giving it too much of a free hand in Syria.” The observation was made by Alexey Khlebnikov, an expert consultant, specialising in the Middle East.

And Issaev went even further: “Though Moscow certainly does not rejoice over Soleimani’s death, it is not felt to be a problem in itself. In fact, it is rather to its advantage insofar as the Iranian general was implementing on the ground Tehran’s diehard policy for Syria.” And little does it matter that in 2015 it was Soleimani who convinced Vladimir Putin to intervene in Syria, mostly with the Russian air force in support of the ground troops of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, dozens of Militias supervised by Tehran (Lebanese Hezbollah, Liwa Al-Zulfikar and Abu Fadl Al-Abbas from Iraq, etc.) and the troops loyal to Damascus.

Reforming the Syrian army

That enormous military presence is why Iran will be in a position to make considerable demands in the future, in view of the enormous human and financial cost of the Syrian war to the Islamic Republic. According to Russian Middle East experts, the Syrian government is heavily infiltrated by the Iranians, no doubt because Tehran’s ambitions concur more closely with those of Damascus than Russia’s. The Iranians are especially present in the entourage of Maher Al-Assad, Bachar’s brother who is in charge of a large share of the military and security apparatus. Which might prove an obstacle to Russian plans for reforming the Syrian State and particularly its army.”It’s not a problem I would describe as ’political’ properly speaking” Kiril Semenov tempers. “Iranians and Russians agree to keep Bachar Al-Assad in power. It’s more a matter of the kind of influence they would have on him.”

Russia places great store by that reform of the army. “Moscow’s idea is to make the army more professional and autonomous in order, among other things, to diminish the Iranian influence. Russia intends to establish a long-term presence in Syria with its military and naval bases there. The Kremlin feels that the only way to stabilise the country and create the conditions for a political solution to the war is by rebuilding the Syrian army and incorporating a bunch of disparate groups — some of which have even for a time fought the Assad regime. It is for all these reasons that Moscow has already begun training a 4th Corps, associating various militias and armed groups around Latakia, and then a 5th Corps, with troops from the National Defence Force,” Alexey Khlebnikov explains.

It is also thought in Moscow that behind that the underlying issue is the future of the Assad clan. Although not particularly attached to keeping Bachar in power—many realise that he has lost all legitimacy—the Russian decision-makers say to themselves that unlike his brother Maher, he at least is not completely under the Iranian thumb. “On the ground, in terms of actual operations, there are Russian military advisors in almost every brigade and division of the Syrian army,” Kiril Semenov points out.

Russo-Iranian relations might also be strained when it comes to the reconstruction of Syria. “I think that issue is pretty much settled now. Iran is promoting its SMEs, Russia its big corporations,” is Kiril Semenov’s point of view. “But what might raise problems is Moscow’s insistence on Western countries contributing to the cost of reconstruction. If there are too many Iranians around Assad, this could act as a foil for Europeans or Americans,” Issaev remarks. At all events, his image in the West is so negative today that it is hard to imagine Westerners participating in anything to do with a Syria under his rule.

1Formerly Al-Nosra, affiliated with Al-Qaida.