Friday,24 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1266, (15 - 21 October 2015)
Friday,24 May, 2019
Issue 1266, (15 - 21 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

A threat to Iran’s influence

Despite welcoming Russia’s military intervention in Syria, Iran will be worried about the potential repercussions, writes Mahan Abdin

Al-Ahram Weekly

After a week of Russian air strikes on militant and rebel positions in Syria, the international community is still struggling to understand Russia’s strategic plan in the country.

Unsurprisingly, the West accuses Russia of a shortsighted strategy to shore up the Syrian regime at the expense of a putative negotiated settlement to the conflict. While Russia’s tactical strikes on an assortment of rebel groups makes a political settlement harder, the reality is that the disparate forces ranged against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad have until now shown little appetite for compromise.

More broadly, while Russia’s surprisingly robust entry into the Syrian conflict threatens to undercut Western, Turkish and Gulf Arab positions, the intervention places enormous strains on Russia’s nominal ally, the Islamic Republic of Iran. Despite agreeing on the bigger picture, there are important points of divergence in the Iranian and Russian positions and outlook on Syria.

Russia seeks to gain a foothold in the Near East and cares little about local and regional dynamics, foremost among them the sectarian balance. Iran, on the other hand, is deeply invested in the region’s political and sectarian fault-lines.

For the time being, the Russian intervention has exposed the limitations of Iranian influence and capabilities. In the longer term, Moscow’s intervention, especially if it intensifies into ground operations, will inevitably demand greater commitment from Iran, with all its attendant risks and unintended consequences.

Iran has welcomed Russia’s military intervention and justified it on legal and diplomatic grounds by pointing to Syrian government requests for Russian military assistance. This reminder is of course an implicit swipe at the US-led coalition against the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, whose warplanes and drones fly over Syria on a daily basis without permission.

However, beyond diplomatic posturing and official positions, Iran has only welcomed the Russian intervention in so far as it relieves intolerable pressure on Syrian government forces and their allies. In recent months, the rebels have made important gains, particularly in Idlib province, and they have threatened the edges of the Alawite heartland of Latakia.

The latter is a clear red line for the Syrian government whose upper reaches are dominated by Alawites. It appears that the rebel advance, spearheaded by the Al-Qaeda affiliate, Al-Nusra Front, at least in part speeded up the Russian intervention.

A close analysis of the Russian air strikes over the past seven days shows that the majority of targets have been located in the northwest and west-central regions of the country, with a few strikes further east in IS-held territory.

The strikes in Idlib province have clearly been targeted at the so-called “Army of Conquest” (led by Al-Nusra Front), and as such have been likely to elicit wholehearted support from Iran and possibly qualified support from the United States, provided the focus is limited to Al-Nusra Front and its satellites.

The US is unlikely to support strikes on the Ahrar Al-Sham group and its extensions, which are loosely affiliated to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and have received generous funding from some Gulf Arab states. And of course the Americans are strongly opposed to air strikes on rebel positions in the west-central Hama and Homs provinces, where the so-called “moderate” rebels are concentrated.

The air strikes in Homs, Hama and on Al-Ghab Plain appear to be in preparation for an impending Syrian Arab Army (SAA) offensive in these regions. A breakthrough in the stalemated battlefields of the west-central regions would not only be a much-needed morale booster for the Syrian army, but could potentially restore an uninterrupted link between the interior of the country and the Mediterranean coast.

But it is unclear to what extent if any the Iranians will contribute to this offensive. There are unconfirmed reports that Iran has already dispatched “hundreds” of troops in preparation for a major ground offensive. Notwithstanding the accuracy of these reports, however, a renewed focus on the west-central regions is unlikely to be wholeheartedly welcomed by Iranian strategists and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which in recent months have concentrated their resources on the regions bordering Lebanon and the Golan Heights.

Moreover, the Russian offensive in Syria threatens to intensify the splits in the Iranian establishment, specifically between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s administration and the IRGC. While strongly committed to the survival of the Syrian government, the Rouhani administration is not keen on escalating Iranian involvement in the conflict.

More importantly, it sees potential points of convergence with the US position on Syria, specifically the strong desire to contain Sunni militancy. The Iranians are not entirely unsympathetic to the Western view that the Russian offensive, particularly if it escalates into a ground campaign, may well spark an unprecedented militant mobilisation.

There are already flickers of this potential scenario, with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood effectively closing ranks with hardline armed groups in calling for jihad against the Russian forces in Syria.

By contrast, the IRGC would never acknowledge points of convergence or mutual interest with Washington. While fearful of a permanent Russian presence in Syria, inasmuch as that would eclipse the Iranian influence, the IRGC is prepared to ramp up its involvement in the Syrian conflict to keep up with events on the ground.

More broadly, the Iranians will be concerned that the Russian offensive potentially decreases the prospects for de-escalation, even in the medium to longer term. Short of deploying tens of thousands of quality troops, the Russian air campaign is not sufficient to decisively turn the tide of war.

While the Syrian army may score major gains with the help of the Russian air strikes, a strategic breakthrough is unlikely as Russia’s regional and global adversaries step up their support for rebel groups to neutralise the Al-Assad government’s new advantage.

In the final analysis, despite their nominal alliance, Iran and Russia cannot act in concert in Syria. Their strategic calculations, operational priorities and even desired outcomes are insufficiently convergent to allow for sustained joint planning.

From the Iranian perspective, the Russian air campaign intensifies the uncertainty in Syria and makes a renewed Iranian effort to strengthen the Syrian government position all but inevitable.

The writer is an Iranian political analyst and director of the research group Dysart Consulting.

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