Sunday,19 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1270, (12 - 18 November 2015)
Sunday,19 August, 2018
Issue 1270, (12 - 18 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

A Russian- Iranian row?

There may be disagreement between Moscow and Tehran over the fate of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

A row may be brewing between Russia and Iran over the political future of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Recent statements from Tehran and Moscow betray a certain divergence of opinion, although the conflict has not yet come to a head.

Speaking recently at Tehran University, Mohamed Ali Jafari, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), said that his country is “totally committed” to supporting Al-Assad.

“Iran doesn’t see an alternative to Al-Assad and considers him to be a red line that must not be crossed,” Jafari said.

He then criticised Russia for being “displeased with the Islamic resistance in Syria,” a reference to the presence of pro-Iranian groups, including Hezbollah, which have been crucial to keeping Al-Assad in power.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later said that Russia does not see the continuation of Al-Assad in power as a “deal breaker.” His office issued a statement reiterating the Russian position that the future of Al-Assad must be “decided by the Syrian people.”

So are the two countries that have kept Al-Assad in power for the past four and a half years going their separate ways?

Analysts are divided, some predicting a widening chasm between Moscow and Iran, and others saying that the two have enough in common for them to overcome the differences.

What is clear is that Russia, unlike Iran, which acts as a revolutionary state with a penchant for needling the West, likes to come across as a respectable mediator and a country that puts institutions before individuals and promotes not only its own interests but also those of the international community as a whole.

While Iran has entered the fray, eager to make Syria a bargaining chip in its regional game, the Russians have played their cards close to their chest, allowing other players to make mistakes before making their entry and posing as a prudent saviour and end-game impresario.

Russia wants something out of the Syrian crisis, but it is not the same thing that Iran wants. Tehran has been using Shiite communities around the region to build up a Persian Crescent extending from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean.

The Russians want a foothold on the Mediterranean, but they don’t want to get involved in sectarian politics or thumb their noses at the West. A share of the cake, a place at the table, and the stature of a major power — these are the main motivations for Moscow’s intervention in Syria. The Russians are not going for broke, but they are after a deal.

Some Syrian opposition members equate the Iranian and Russian positions, feeling that the two countries have no regard for the Syrian people, but instead are only following their own interests.

Fawwaz Tallo, a prominent opposition member, scoffs at those who believe that Moscow and Tehran hold different views on Syria.

“Russia pretends that it doesn’t want to keep Al-Assad in power in order to appear flexible in the eyes of the international powers, and so that the international community will endorse its military intervention. Tehran keeps telling Moscow that Al-Assad is strong enough for no concessions about his future to be needed,” Tallo said.

Others, including Iyad Barakat, a Free Syrian Army commander in southern Syria, believe that the Russians and Iranians may be on a collision course.

“Last month, Israeli planes entered Syrian airspace, flying over an area where Russian warplanes also operate and bombing an army convoy in the Qalamoun area, close to the border with Lebanon,” he said.

According to Barakat, the Israelis managed to destroy a major consignment of arms that Iran was sending to Hezbollah. “Such an attack could only have taken place with Russian knowledge,” he said.

For Iran, keeping Al-Assad in power is crucial, and it has done everything possible to ensure this. It has sent him mercenaries and experts, fighters from multiple countries, and taken charge of his personal safety. Al-Assad is so in Iran’s debt that politicians in Tehran are unlikely to abandon him.

But can the Iranians stand up to the Russians? Iran may have supported Al-Assad to the hilt, but without Russian support, it may find itself on thin ice in Syria.

Sayed Muqbil, a prominent Syrian opposition figure, believes the differences between the Russians and the Iranians are trivial.

“There is no difference in strategy between the two countries,” he said. “As a major power, Russia favours a rhetoric that suits its image. It wants to be seen as a country that acts on the basis of institutions, not individuals, but Iran doesn’t care much for institutions or for placating the international community.”

While Russia wields enough international leverage to pose as a mediator in Syria and a major power with far-reaching influence, Iran is not above acting as a rogue state when it suits its purposes. It dwells on the periphery of international respectability, and its eagerness for acceptance has so far been eclipsed by its appetite for promoting the Shiite cause across the region.

In short, Russia is seeking the middle ground in international politics, while Iran is hovering on the sidelines, taking chances and maintain a perilous balance.

As things stand, the Iranians and the Russians need each other. The Iranians cannot continue to operate in Syria without Russian air cover, and the Russians, as wary as the Americans of putting boots on the ground, want to have the pro-Iranian militias on their side.

But the alliance that had been going more or less smoothly is now showing signs of cracking. If push comes to shove, it will be the Iranians rather than the Russians who will have to make adjustments.

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