Tuesday,18 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1267, (22 - 28 October 2015)
Tuesday,18 September, 2018
Issue 1267, (22 - 28 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Russia marginalises Iran

Russia has excluded Iran from its military intervention in Syria, and Tehran will not take this lying down, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

For almost five years, Russia and Iran have been the Syrian regime’s key allies, providing political, military and economic support to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Now Moscow, after embarking on direct military action in Syria, is trying to curb Tehran’s role in the country.

Irrespective of its declared reasons for its support of the Syrian regime, it is easy to conclude that Russia is supporting the regime to maintain a military foothold in the Middle East. It wants to protect its geopolitical and economic interests in the region and restore its influential international role, lost after the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

Iran, meanwhile, is supporting the Syrian regime because of its sectarian religious ideology and to complete a “Shiite Crescent” that would allow it to impose itself as a major regional player.

Russia has followed a different path from Iran by defending the Syrian regime in the international arena, vetoing UN resolutions that could topple it, and sending in weapons and military experts. However, it did not intervene militarily on the ground until early September.

Iran, on the other hand, has been excessive in its support for the Syrian regime, sending in fighters and militias from Iran, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere. It has also participated in planning and carrying out campaigns against the opposition and has intervened to protect Al-Assad himself.

The Syrian president has allowed Tehran to interfere in his country’s political, economic and administrative affairs as the price for supporting and protecting him. Iran has taken control of political, military and even governmental decisions as a result, and the Syrian regime is no long capable of taking decisions without the approval of the Iranian military operations command in Damascus under the leadership of Qassem Sulaimani, commander of the Badr Brigade of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

Russia says it has intervened militarily in Syria to assist the besieged Al-Assad regime and to prevent the state from collapsing. It aims to weaken the opposition and pressure it into accepting what it calls a middle-ground political solution, to fight terrorist organisations in Syria, and protect its security and international interests.

It has not referred to the growing Iranian interference in Syria, though this is in fact one of the top reasons on Russia’s list of priorities.

While Iran and Russia both want to maintain Al-Assad in power, his possible defeat having serious repercussions for both countries, what has happened on the ground in the first weeks of the Russian military operations in Syria indicate a lack of trust by the Russians in Iran.

According to Haytham Manaa, a key Syrian opposition figure, Sulaimani carried out an “unsuccessful” visit to Russia days before the military intervention to try to convince Moscow that Iran should participate in the military operations as a full partner.

Manaa said that Russia “rejected the request and told the Iranian official that it would not accept the presence of any military forces in Syria that were not under the command of Russian officers or share military decisions with either the Syrians or Iran.”

Subsequent events have confirmed this story. Sources close to the Syrian regime have said that Russia asked the regime earlier this month, and only days after the military operations began, to dismantle the irregular sectarian militias that had been formed under the auspices of Iran, saying that these should join the Syrian army.

It also told Iran that it must subject the parallel security apparatus it had created from local militias and foreign Shiite rapid response forces from Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to the command of Russian military leaders. No weapons could be moved inside Syria without the approval of Russian commanders, it said.

The battles initiated by the Syrian regime to regain control of Aleppo include Lebanese Hezbollah militias loyal to Iran, as well as Iranian experts and officers. According to Hassan Ghaybour, commander of a Syrian army regiment participating in these battles, “We are not under Iranian command, but take our orders from the Russian military command in Syria.”

He continued, “The Russians do the planning and rely on Syrian officers on the ground trained in Russia over the past two decades. Russia does not want to remove Hezbollah from the battles altogether because of shortages in the regime forces.”

Russia has adamantly denied that it has formed an operational command composed of officers from Russia, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Such reports have been circulated by Iraqi officials loyal to Iran to give the impression that the Russian military operations in Syria are the result of four-way cooperation led by Iran.

But Iran will not surrender quietly to Russia’s asserting itself in Syria because it wants to preserve its own influence in the country. Losing Syria would be a strategic blow to all its plans in the region, so Iran is likely to toe the Russian line without abandoning its plans behind the scenes.

Iran wants to continue to change the demography of several regions in Syria to make them purely Shiite and Alawite areas stretching from Damascus and Homs to the Syrian coastline. These areas connect to regions under Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon.

Iran has also expanded the military draft in Iraq to recruit troops into Iraqi Shiite militias in Syria, among them the Imam Ali Brigades, Hezbollah Al-Nujabaa and Sayed Al-Shuhadaa Brigades.

Another factor is the warming of ties between Tehran and Washington after the signing of the nuclear deal with Iran. The US no longer objects to Iran playing a regional role, while Russia seems to be working to reverse the Iranian-US rapprochement by blocking Iranian expansionism.

Russia is hoping to make countries such as the Gulf States, Turkey and Israel choose between unlimited Iranian influence in the region and the Russian military presence as part of a new regional equation.

Not only does Russia want to promote itself as an alternative to Iran in Syria but, according to some analysts, Moscow also wants to send Tehran the clear message that drawing closer to Washington at the expense of bilateral relations with Russia will come at a high price.

No doubt Tehran is prepared to compromise its relationship with Moscow if it contradicts its plans, since this relationship is primarily built on opportunity not strategy and results from the US and Western sanctions against Iran. In the light of huge Western promises, it no longer needs Russia’s cooperation.

Syria remains its biggest problem, however. If it loses Syria, Iran will automatically lose its influence in Lebanon, and its grip over Iraq will begin to loosen.

Some Syrian opposition figures believe that Russia will succeed in resolving the Syrian crisis only if it reins in Iran and quickly initiates an understanding with the moderate Syrian opposition before all the Syrians become opposed to Russia.

By curbing Iran’s influence in Damascus, the sectarian incitement will stop and so will the demographic changes and the empowerment of the Alawites by Iran. The Syrian people would once again be in control of their own decisions, without which a political solution of the Syrian crisis will be impossible.

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