What does Russia’s presence in Syria mean for Iran?

Salman Rafi December 10, 2015 12:05 PM (UTC+8)
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The Syrian crisis has undergone considerable transformation since Russia’s “armed entrance” in the conflict. As it stands, it no longer is a simple conflict between “rebels” and Assad. Nor can it be simply resolved by ‘killing’ all ‘terrorists’ or by removing Assad from the presidency. For the conflict to end, a major compromise will have to be reached by all players.  However, the current ground situation suggests that compromise is a distant possibility and immediate conflict-resolution an improbability.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Iran's Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei in Tehran in late November
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Iran’s Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei in Tehran in late November

While Russian presence in Syria is clearly a source of consternation for the West and its regional allies, it does have some repercussions for Iran too. It is likely to affect, if not change altogether, the course of its foreign policy vis-à-vis Syria, Russia itself and the West on the whole.

That the Russian presence has so far been beneficial for Iran is evident from the West’s recognition of the role Iran can play in reaching a political settlement in Syria. But how has the Russian presence in Syria contributed to the elevation of Iran’s regional position?

As it stands, Russia’s presence is now directly linked to Iran’s future prospects. Russia’s new regional role has also become inextricably bound to the Syrian crisis with all its domestic and regional ramifications and its has become a major international issue.This has forced the West to substantially broaden its diplomatic channels to Iran in order to reach a settlement with Russia.

Nuanced political ballet underway

It is, therefore, an oversimplification for some to assert that Iran is being courted by the West in the latest Vienna talks because Russia wanted it so. On the contrary, a more plausible explanation of Iran’s inclusion in the talks can be found in the West’s own political compulsions as well as strategic requirements.

Iran, moreover, has certainly got leverage vis-à-vis the West. In the wake of the US-Iran nuke deal, the Russian presence in Syria has turned out to be yet another boost to Iran’s position vis-à-vis its chief rival states. Among other things, these rivals have become fixated on seeing the Russian presence through a narrow Iranian prism that shows Russia as a potential game spoiler.

One example is that the Russian presence will help Iran increase its involvement in Syria and Yemen as well as bolster its military capability. Already, Russia has bolstered Iran’s defense system with its S-300 missiles — a big reason for Saudi Arabia’s more flexible change of heart towards Russia.

The central issue between Russia and Iran, however, continues to be Syria. Much still remains to be resolved and until it is, both countries’ policies will continue to be shaped by such issues.  This was made clear during Putin’s recent visit to Iran.

Russia and Iran have “unity of views” on Syria, a spokesman for the Kremlin said after President Vladimir Putin recently held talks in Tehran with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Describing the meeting as “quite constructive,”the spokesman further said that both Iran and Russia were against “external attempts to dictate scenarios of political settlement in Syria.” They also said that any change in leadership should come through elections.

The emphasis on political resolution of the conflict has, in fact, much to do with Iran’s regional position. Given Iran’s precarious economic situation and its consequent inability to fight a protracted war, Russia’s assumption of military responsibility for the crisis in Syria could only have come as a “blessing” for Tehran.

Military coordination means strength

Taking advantage of the Russian airstrikes, the Iranians and their Hezbollah units have spearheaded, along with the Syrian army, the ongoing Syrian offensive intended to win back some ground after a string of losses earlier this year. Moscow has closely coordinated its air campaign with Tehran, backed ground forces and have, ever since the beginning of the Russian campaign, been working on extending their co-operation beyond mere information sharing.

A major indicator supporting the above notion is that Russia does not seem to be replacing the “Iranian-Hezbollah axis” in Syria, but rather complementing and strengthening this axis. This axis has gained momentum out of the fact that the Russians cannot do things that Iran-backed organization can do. This includes putting Russian troops on ground — an idea that remains a subject of heated debate in Russia.

Notwithstanding this debate, certain reports have emerged that strongly indicate that Russia has been going all out to co-ordinate its air-operations with Hezbollah’s ground offensive. As a matter of fact, this co-ordination began even before actual Russian operations started in Syria.

On Sept. 26, 2015, the Iraqi army officially announced that “it is to begin sharing security and intelligence” information with Russia, Syria and Iran to help combat the advances of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group.

A Hezbollah official also recently disclosed the level of co-ordination between the three allies. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, underscored that they — and their allies in Syria — were now receiving “support from a superpower, and Hezbollah [along with the Syrian army] was providing intelligence to Moscow in the air raids being conducted.”

But there are also pitfalls. While cooperation, joint operations or information-sharing between Russia, Syria, Iran and Iraq is nothing new, and while the Russian presence in Syria has certainly boosted Iran’s and Iran-backed actors’ position, all this doesn’t necessarily ensure materialization, protection and enhancement of Iran’s critical interests.

On the contrary, the intense pressure Russia’s presence has created may lead to an eclipse of Iran’s erstwhile as well as current position in the region. Notwithstanding the crucial need for co-operation against ISIS, an overwhelming reliance on Russia may very well mean marginalization and partial weakening of Iran’s own political role in the Syrian crisis. Such a situation will not be to Iran’s benefit in Syria’s future political transition.

This is not to suggest that Russia and Iran will ultimately fall out. What must be taken into account is that both of them have somewhat different interests in the region. For Iran, Assad’s Shia-dominated regime means that Syria will be its ally as long as Assad is there, or as long as Syria’s government remains in the control of the Alawities—a Shia sub-sect. The sectarian element, therefore, deeply underscores Iran-Syria alliance — an element completely missing  in either the Iran-Russia or Russia-Syria bilateral relations equation.

Their mutual relations of these three allies are, therefore, determined by a different set of equations. While it may be possible for Russia to negotiate a “minus- Assad” Syria if it can keep its port in Syria under its control, Iran stands to lose vitally from such a scenario. When all factors are considered, it’s difficult at this stage to imagine a political transition in Syria that could strengthen Iran’s position. A “minus-Assad” scenario would imply, among other things, diminishing Iranian influence in Lebanon — a situation that would critically affect its regional standing vis-à-vis Israel too.

Though Iran enjoys a dominant position in Iraq (a gift of the George W. Bush  administration) losing Syria in the wake of any “political transition” would negatively counterbalance that achievement. Syria is key to Iran’s influence in Lebanon through the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, to which it supplies arms and funds. As such, among all the outsiders involved in Lebanon, Iran has the most at stake. Much of the fighting on Assad’s behalf is done by combined Syrian and Iranian fighters, Many of these have been sent via Iraq.

Why Iran’s road always leads to Assad

On a larger stage,  inclusion in the Vienna talks is a positive sign for Iran. It can represent and project its national interests as a global political player. But at the same time, it has to tread a cautious path in terms of setting  the broader contours of any future political settlement.

This is probably the reason why, amid the extremely heightened Russia-centric debate on Syria, Iran continues to maintain its Assad-centric position. “Bashar al-Assad is the Islamic Republic of Iran’s red line because he was elected president by the Syrian people,” said Ali Akbar Velayati, the top foreign policy adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on Dec. 5, 2015.

On the other hand, Russia has been trying to carve out a more balanced position for itself. Unlike Iran, it has shown considerable flexibility vis-à-vis Assad’s future. Not surprisingly, at international peace talks in Vienna last month, Russia clearly said it wanted the opposition to be part of any future discussions and handed Saudi Arabia a list of 38 individuals it would like to see take part in negotiations. Important names mentioned in the list included Khaled Khoja, the president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, and Moaz al-Khatib, one of his predecessors.

Contrary to Iran’s often stated position vis-à-vis Assad, Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, said after the Vienna talks that Assad’s survival is not a red-line issue for Russia.

In the wake of such subtle, yet significant, differences between Iran and Russia, Iranian diplomats are certainly facing an uphill task of securing their interest. While it seems too much to say that Russia and Iran might, at some point, part ways, its a probable and realistic expectation that their differing positions vis-à-vis Assad’s future will certainly affect the overall course of the Syrian crisis.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at salmansheikh.ss11.sr@gmail.com

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Salman Rafi
Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at salmansheikh.ss11.sr@gmail.com
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