Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1284, (25 February - 2 March 2016))
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1284, (25 February - 2 March 2016))

Ahram Weekly

Jockeying between Russia and Iran

There are fears that Russia and Iran now hold the reins of power in Syria, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Russians think they now hold the key to a political and military resolution of the crisis in Syria.

They claim to have destroyed 60 per cent of the Islamic State (IS) group’s capabilities in just 30 air strikes. According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the Russian military intervention in Syria has changed the situation on the ground and reduced the amount of territory controlled by those he dubs opposition “terrorists”.

A few days ago, the deputy commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Hossein Salami, said that Iran now holds the reins of power in Syria on behalf of “the legitimate political authority”.

He added that negotiations could remodel the “distribution of power in the world” and said that Iran now sits “at most of the world’s negotiating tables with the major powers”. Salami’s comments have been seen as a suggestion that Iran is not only now the deciding factor in Syria, but also in other major Arab issues.

It is not only Russia and Iran that think they hold the reins of power in Syria. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has claimed in recent interviews that the crisis in the country is “nearing a conclusion” and that regaining control of all the country is just a matter of time.

The regime believes that a decisive victory is imminent and that its violence has borne fruit. Iran thinks that it has prevailed and now holds the keys to the Arab world or, at least, the Middle East. Russia believes it has accomplished what it has not achieved since World War II, and that its return as a global superpower is inevitable thanks to its victories in Syria.

But such aspirations for victory in Syria are running into problems. The Iranians have found themselves faced with a relentless Russian force that wants to sideline Iranian influence. And the Russians have insisted on being the dominant military force in Syria, seeing others as simply tools in their military plans.

Iran has been compelled to yield because of its inability to take on the Russians, and the regime has welcomed the Russian intervention as this has saved it from otherwise almost certain destruction.

Since the Russians started their military intervention in Syria last September, the Iranian influence over military decision-making in the country has declined. Iran has turned over bases controlled by its militias to Russia, and it is no longer a major factor in the regime’s decision-making.

However, Iran has not so much yielded as bent with the prevailing winds. It is unlikely to easily relinquish its regional aims, which see Syria, Iraq and Lebanon as part of its sphere of influence in the Arab world and its source of strength.

One Syrian government official told Al-Ahram Weekly that the Syrian regime is “trying to walk the narrow line between Russia and Iran, betting on the latter’s game in the region despite the dangers. It believes that Russia can guarantee its continuity for the time being, while Iran can guarantee it for good. The former is a tactical ally, while the latter is a strategic one,” he said.

The regime is thus walking a tightrope between Russia and Iran, benefitting from Russia’s military force and international influence while also relying on Iran’s regional capabilities and sectarian influence.

Such tactical and strategic considerations have irritated the Russians. In an interview with the international press on 12 February, Al-Assad said he would regain control of Syria in its entirety and that the current negotiations did not mean he would stop fighting terrorism, treating the Russian military presence in Syria as if it were at the disposal of the regime.

In response, the Russian media attacked Al-Assad, saying that his ideas were at odds with Russian policy. The Russian newspaper Kommersant said that Al-Assad was “imposing himself on Moscow,” adding that his rhetoric risked damaging Russian ties with the West and the rest of the Arab world.

Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, said that Al-Assad’s comments were “not consistent with Russian diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis”. He added that the Syrian president should listen carefully to Russia if he wanted “to emerge from the crisis with dignity”. Said Churkin, “We shouldn’t focus on what he says, but on what he’ll do.”

The comments were echoed by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov who said, “Al-Assad and other parties to the conflict must listen to Moscow’s advice.”

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said that military decisions in Syria were up to Russian President Vladimir Putin and not Al-Assad.

On Monday, the Russian defence minister made a surprise visit to Iran, raising speculation that the two countries may now be coordinating their efforts in Syria at the expense of Al-Assad.

Al-Assad seems to believe that the Russians entered the Syrian conflict to ensure his personal victory, forgetting Russia’s own strategic, military and political motivations.

But one month before its intervention in the country started, Russia signed an agreement with the Syrian regime that gave it an open-ended military presence in Syria, only allowed Syrian government forces to enter areas of Russian troop deployment with Russian approval, and gave Russian forces leadership of military operations in Syria.

Syrian opposition figure Sayed Muqbil told the Weekly, “Al-Assad thinks he’s capable of outmanoeuvring the Russians. He has often changed positions and broken promises. His relationship with Turkey became a strategic one in record time, for example, and then just as quickly collapsed. The same thing has been true of his relations with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.”

While the Kremlin’s position on Al-Assad may not have been radically revised, there is little doubt that Moscow will not tolerate deviations from the Russian script. Even so, Iran and Al-Assad still seem to believe that they are capable of stopping the Russian military offensive when they wish.

Given this three-way jockeying for control in Syria and the weakness of the Syrian military opposition in the face of Russian military might, the popular basis of the revolution in Syria is growing. And even among the regime’s supporters there is impatience at Al-Assad’s mortgaging of the country to foreign powers.

Whether Iran, Russia or the regime gain the upper hand, this will not mean an end to the revolution. Millions of people have been hurt by the war, and they will not allow those who have destroyed the country to participate in its governance, whether they are Syrian, Iranian or Russian.

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