Russian games in Syria

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As the civil war winds down, the once overlapping interests of Moscow and Tehran are disentangling

By: Stanly Johny

As the new Cold War gets hotter, Russia now faces a big dilemma in West Asia of defending its allies. When President Vladimir Putin decided to send Russian troops to Syria in September 2015, the regime there of President Bashar al-Assad was on the brink of collapse. The Islamic State (IS) had already declared Raqqah in eastern Syria as its de facto capital. Rebels and jihadists had captured eastern Aleppo, Damascus suburbs, including Eastern Ghouta, Idlib province and southern towns like Daraa and Quneitra; they had also established a strong presence in Hama and Homs. Several rebel factions were breathing down on Damascus and the Mediterranean coastal belt, the stronghold of the regime. Three years later, Mr. Assad is safe, while his regime has recaptured most of the territories it lost in the early days of the war.

A successful partnership

Both Russia and Iran have played a crucial role in this turnaround. Though Russian air power was the most critical factor, especially in the battles for Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta, the Iran-trained militias, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, fought alongside the Syrian army on the ground against the rebels and jihadists. But even when they were partnering in the war against common enemies, the Russians and Iranians had different goals in Syria. For Mr. Putin, the Syrian intervention was a big gamble. He sensed that the Obama administration was indecisive despite its threats against the Assad regime and that the rebels were divided. His immediate plan was to salvage the regime, bolster Russia’s position in West Asia (Syria hosts a Russian naval base at Tartus) and send a message to his rivals in the West.

With the survival of the regime, Mr. Putin has achieved his immediate goal. But in the long run, he doesn’t want Russia to get stuck in Syria, like the Soviet Union or the U.S. later got caught up in Afghanistan. Therefore, Moscow is continuously pressing the Assad regime to be ready for a lasting political solution to the crisis.

Iran, on the other side, does not want any radical change in the current composition of the regime. Its immediate goal, like that of the Russians, was the survival of the regime. This was the common ground that brought both countries together in Syria. If Russia wanted to protect its naval base and expand its influence in West Asia through Syria, Iran does not want to lose its only ally in the region and a vital link with the Hezbollah. But in the long run, Iran wants to build permanent bases in Syria, stretching its military influence from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus to southern Lebanon. Both Lebanon and Syria share borders with Israel. In Lebanon, Hezbollah has already established a strong military presence along Israel’s northern border. Iran’s plan was to apply strategic pressure on Israel by building more military infrastructure and deploying Shia militias closer towards the Israeli-occupied territories of Syria.

When the war was on in full swing, these apparent differences were played down. The Russians and Iranians fought together alongside Syrian troops. But after Mr. Assad stabilised his rule over most of Syria’s population centres (rebel/jihadist factions now control Idlib province and Daraa and Quneitra, while the Kurdish rebels have established autonomous rule in the northwest), the cracks in the pro-Assad coalition began to emerge.

Some cracks

With the war winding down, Russia may now now be feeling less reliant on Iran, and Tehran is growing wary of Moscow’s game plans. From the early days of the Russian intervention, Mr. Putin has been specific on not widening the scope of the war. There were several attempts aimed at provoking Russia which could have escalated the conflict. In November 2015, a Russian warplane was shot down by Turkey. Russia’s response was a rather tame one, of economic sanctions. The U.S. bombed Mr. Assad’s forces twice since Donald Trump became U.S. President. On both occasions, Mr. Putin overlooked the provocation. He did the same when Israel targeted Hezbollah positions within Syria.

But the crisis escalated despite Mr. Putin’s stance when Israel started directly attacking Iranian positions within Syria. In February, after Israel claimed an Iranian drone entered its air space, it carried out a massive bombing campaign in Syria against Iran. In May, immediately after Mr. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the multilateral Iran nuclear deal, Israel launched another major attack against Iranian targets. Interestingly, when the attack was under way, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Moscow. He watched Russia’s Victory Day parade in Red Square marking the Soviet victory in the Second World War against Hitler’s Germany. Israeli officials later told their Russian counterparts, “Israel will continue to maintain its operational freedom to act against Iranian entrenchment in all of Syria.”

Russia practically controls Syria’s airspace. But it has entered into deconfliction mechanisms with the U.S. and Israel so that the three countries can carry out air strikes without hurting each other. While the U.S. has mostly carried out strikes against the IS, Israel has used Syrian air space only to attack Iran and Hezbollah, both of which are Russia’s partners in the civil war. Yet, Mr. Putin hasn’t done anything to defend his allies. He has also become more receptive to Turkey expanding its role in Syria. The increasing crack in the Russia-Iran axis was again on display when in May Mr. Putin called for all foreign troops to leave Syria once the war is over. Later Russia’s Ambassador in Damascus clarified that the troops which Mr. Putin referred to include Iran’s. Iran’s Foreign Ministry was quick to respond, saying that it would remain in Syria “as long as the Syrian government wants Iran to help it”.

Lonely Tehran

Mr. Putin is likely conscious of Iran’s vulnerability. Tehran does not have many allies. And after Mr. Trump threw a spanner into the Iran nuclear deal, it also faces the return of biting sanctions. It cannot afford to antagonise the Russians, certainly not at a time when the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Israel are teaming up to contain its influence. This Persian vulnerability allows Mr. Putin to maintain a delicate balancing act in a highly complex war theatre. For how long is now the question. Russia’s tame responses to repeated aggression in Syria by other powers have already cast a shadow on its Syria strategy. Mr. Putin may be balancing his relations with several players for now to avoid a conflagration. But Israel and Turkey are not Russia’s traditional allies. In West Asia, Israel is the strongest ally of the U.S., which remains Russia’s most powerful geopolitical rival. And Turkey is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, an overhang of the Cold War, aimed at checking the West-ward creep of Russia’s influence. In contrast, Tehran is Moscow’s ally and partner, but Russia either doesn’t want to or is not in a position to defend Iran’s interests in Syria.

This is the dilemma that confronts Mr. Putin: how he can restore Russia’s lost glory in the new Cold War if he cannot even defend the interests of his partners in a country (Syria) where he appears to be in control.

Courtesy The Hindu

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