Limits of Russian-Iranian Interaction in Syria

In June 2020 former US national security advisor John Bolton published a book where he said that Vladimir Putin told him that Moscow was not interested in Iran’s presence in Syria. Despite this allegation, Russia and Iran deny such state of affairs. Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif already visited Moscow in June and July for talks with his counterpart Sergey Lavrov and will come back again on Sept. 24. Both ministers argue that Russian-Iranian cooperation continues, including in Syria. While the military stage of the conflict in Syria is winding down and moving towards a bigger focus on political and economic track, Russia-Iran cooperation on Syria starts having more potential points of disagreement and tensions. This is not to say that the two countries will cease being partners in Syria, but to underline that future holds more roadblocks for their cooperation and possible risks for tensions.

Although during the main military stage of the conflict in 2015-2017/18 Russia and Iran were closely allied pursuing one common goal – to prop up existing state structures and the regime in Damascus and prevent the country from disintegration, since 2018 Moscow and Tehran started to have more diverse views on Syrian future.

In order to locate areas where the two countries don’t necessarily see each other eye to eye, one should understand Russia’s priorities in Syria.

How to convert military gains into political and economic benefits?

After five years of direct military involvement in Syria Russia needs to convert its military gains into political and economic benefits. In today’s circumstances, it is hard to see and expect because Damascus is not flexible and is not ready for compromises. In order to make such conversion happen, Syria needs to be somehow reintegrated into the regional economy, into the Arab family, and also into the global economy. One of the biggest obstacles here is the sanction regime imposed by the US and EU which doesn’t allow this.

Russia needs economically stable Syria which will allow political stability as well. This might happen only when Western sanctions are lifted or at least eased. In order to make that happen Damascus needs to demonstrate more flexibility and willingness to engage in meaningful political process and Russia is urging it to follow down this path. In one form or another political transition and some sort of political reforms are required which will allow Damascus to re-engage fully with the regional states and with the West.

It seems that Tehran here plays a role of a rather conservative ally of Damascus trying to slow down the political process, while Moscow looks more liberal as it is trying to persuade Assad to become more flexible. The Iranian presence in Syria and its influence on Damascus is aimed at creating strategic buffer moving potential warfare as far from its own borders as possible. That said, Moscow clearly understands Iranian interests and it also acknowledges Tehran’s importance in stabilizing not only Syria but the broader region as well. As a result, it creates a dichotomy in Russia-Iranian interaction in Syria. On the one hand, Moscow needs Tehran as it provides much needed economic, military and humanitarian assistance to Syria, while on the other hand, Iranian entrenchment in Syria and its influence on Damascus excludes or at least significantly complicates Syria’s rehabilitation and re-engagement with the West.

Together with that, Russia wants GCC countries to reconcile with Damascus, contribute financially to its reconstruction, and to invest in the Syrian economy. Although GCC states used to be way more reluctant to do that previously, since 2018 there is certain progress – UAE and Bahrain reopened their diplomatic missions in Damascus and UAE even launched commercial projects in Syria. To a certain extent, a bigger economic involvement of GCC states in Syria can make it harder for Iran to compete with them. On the other hand, UAE and Saudi Arabia are very concerned with Turkish regional activities – be it in Syria, in Libya or in the Gulf – which have intensified over the last several years.

More discussions and possible cooperation between Russia and Iran, Russia and GCC are needed on this particular track as it can provide both opportunities and limitations for Russian-Iranian cooperation on Syria.

How to balance between the enemies?

Russia needs to stop Israeli attacks on Syria or at least to minimize it. As long as Tel Aviv continues its airstrikes it will obstruct any Russian attempt to re-legitimize Damascus. It also increases the risk of another military escalation which Russia doesn’t want, and risks to undermine progress on diplomatic, political and economic tracks. It simply doesn’t help.

The majority of Israeli attacks target Iranian objects and pro-Iranian paramilitary groups in Syria. It constantly attracts the attention of the US and the EU and backs up their argument of the destructive role Iranian military plays in Syria. Such a situation also increases the risk of a dangerous incident which may harm Russian infrastructure or take lives of Russian military which Moscow is eager to avoid.

Iranian military presence in the Syrian south, near Damascus and on Iraqi-Syrian border is of the major concern for Israel. Given that Moscow’s traditional approach is to develop constructive relations with all parties, it has to constantly look for a healthy balance between them. So far Moscow managed to maintain such balance, although there is no guarantee that in the future it will be successful. Iran is able to sabotage and/or spoil any Russian agreements/deals which it doesn’t like or which do not reflect its interests. This is why it requires Moscow to have a very careful and nuanced dialogue with Tehran and Israel in order to keep the situation under control.

How to showcase a success story?

Russia needs to demonstrate and showcase success story in Syria which is only possible if a lasting political settlement to the crisis is found.

In order to reach that goal Moscow needs to revitalize political track and in particular Astana platform which has already fulfilled its main tasks. Russia should find a way how trilateral Iran-Russia-Turkey format can become more up-to-date. Astana has already played a positive role in introducing de-escalation zones, ceasefires, and kickstarted political process. But it seems that over the last year this format went out of steam. Constructive work of the Syrian Constitutional Committee is central to any progress on political track and Iran can play important role in its success if it coordinates with Moscow accordingly. It is a rather challenging task as Damascus looks quite inflexible, although during the recent visit to Syria Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov conveyed a request to the Syrian government to become a bit more forthcoming on the political track. Given the dire economic situation in Iran and Syria, there is a hope that Moscow and Tehran will manage to find a common approach to demonstrate progress on the political track. Without such progress, it is unrealistic to expect any sanctions’ ease and re-engagement with Damascus. 

The fact that many important issues in Syrian conflict depend on Russian and Iranian approaches to them, Moscow and Tehran need to focus more on the ways which help to avoid potential frictions between them and to concentrate on joint stabilizing steps. Today deeper engagement between Russia and Iran on the political track is becoming more important than their coordination on remaining military matters.