Moscow and Tehran have complementary interests in Syria at the moment, but that could quickly change – and in the long run, the two countries are operating with very different goals and under very different parameters.
When Iranian parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani addressed the participants at the October 15 Valdai Club (the topic was “War and Peace”) he was wearing black, as is traditional among Shiites on Ashura in commemoration of the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali. However, the mere fact that Larijani was invited to share a panel with Russian president Vladimir Putin surely must have cheered up the mood in Tehran – as well as Putin’s statements, which depicted the Islamic Republic as an indispensable partner in the search for a solution to the war in Syria and in the fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS).
But is this Tehran-Moscow axis a tactical marriage of convenience, or does it herald the emergence of a strategic alliance?
On the surface, the two states have several converging policy designs, including the immediate objectives of preventing the collapse of Bashar al-Assad’s Ba’ath regime in Damascus and the defeat and annihilation of what remains of United States-backed opposition groups in Syria, as well as the long-term total humiliation of the US and its allies in an attempt to roll back the post-Cold War American world order.
And it would seem the two have arrived at a certain division of labor to achieve these objectives. Since September 30, 2015, Russia has been conducting air operations in Syria, both to destroy opposition forces and to provide air support to the Syrian army, and it has intensified its arms deliveries to Damascus. Iran, on the other hand, is providing the boots on the ground, supplementing what remains of the Syrian army with Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) forces, Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, and Shiite militias from Iraq, Afghanistan, and even distant Pakistan.
This arrangement minimizes the risk of Russian and Iranian losses, which is essential for Russia in particular, as it still struggles with the painful “Afghanistan syndrome” and suffered a devastating blow on October 31 when an IS affiliate succeeded in bringing a bomb onto a Russian airliner departing from the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, killing 224 vacationers and crew members. But the Iranian authorities are also keen to avoid casualties, which carry the risk of shifting public opinion, and so are happy to leave the heavy lifting to the more willing, and more politically expendable, Shiite militias and irregulars.
Limits of Convergence
The convergence may come to a sudden end, however, as the two sides discuss in greater detail the relative degree of order and stability they hope to achieve in Syria. Iran may want a perpetual low intensity conflict, where it may conveniently use the threat of the IS as a bogeyman in its relations with the US and the Europeans and thus legitimize its continued military presence.
Russia, on the other hand, is more likely to prefer a Syrian regime that is weak enough to be dependent on Moscow for continued support, but also strong enough to be able to effectively exercise its power throughout the entire territory of its state. An estimated 7,000 Russian citizens have reportedly joined the ranks of IS, from which they may turn their attention to the volatile regions of the Northern Caucasus or Central Asia. One therefore expects Putin to aim for nothing less than the total elimination of all pockets of IS resistance in Syria. Indeed, if this was not already his goal, the successful downing of the Russian airliner over the Sinai desert clearly will have made it more difficult to accept, however tacitly, any IS presence anywhere.
This difference in perspective most likely also translates into different views on the possible duration of the two states’ respective engagements in Syria. If Tehran actually prefers a continued low-intensity conflict, it will worry less about when the conflict ends and how it can eventually exit in a coherent way. Moscow, on the other hand, is restricted much more by time, and the Russian public is unlikely to accept a military involvement counted in years and trillions of rubles.
Moreover, the apparent lack of an exit strategy notwithstanding, the Kremlin surely must be thinking long and hard about how to leave Syria gracefully in case the US and its allies refuse to accept Bashar al-Assad as the legitimate ruler of Syria. Russia will only be able to provide military life support to Assad as long as Russian public patience lasts, but will find it difficult to leave him alone to be toppled by IS or one of the numerous opposition groups hoping for his downfall.
A related point of contention is that of the fate of Bashar al-Assad himself. While Moscow may be ready to replace him with another leader to save a regime subservient to Moscow, Tehran – the IRGC in particular – considers the preservation of Assad the only guarantee of regime survival in Syria.
Even more critically, however, the Russian-Iranian relationship is still complicated by a fundamental mutual distrust between the two parties.
By asserting itself in the Syrian theater of war, Russia demonstrates to the Iranians its superior military capabilities, insists that to sidestep it would be a bad decision, and tries to keep Iran within its sphere of influence. At the same time, Russia may also sell out Iranian interests in Syria if it manages to extract concessions from the US. Such a course would be consistent with existing Russian policy of using the Islamic Republic as a bargaining chip in its dealings with the US.
Putin’s claim at the Valdai Club that Moscow had been “deceived by the United States” with regard to Iran’s nuclear program was a crude attempt at covering his government’s support of UN Security Council sanctions against Iran, while simultaneously extracting money and political concessions from Tehran in return for not allowing even harsher resolutions.
The political leadership of the Islamic Republic is only too aware of Putin’s scheming. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, however, along with the accompanying removal of the international sanctions regime have made Tehran less dependent on Russia, and seem to provide Tehran with greater maneuverability between Washington and Moscow. Iran’s use of US air support in the spring 2015 seizure of the Iraqi city of Tikrit – and Moscow’s fear of more instances of military cooperation between Tehran and Washington – may have been one of the motives behind Russia’s military engagement in Syria.
Bashar al-Assad, too, has an interest in gaining greater independence. By using his Russian benefactor, the Assad regime hopes to reduce its total dependence on the benevolence of Tehran, which may cause some tension between Iran and Russia, with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Putin both competing for the position of master of Damascus and architect of the future order of Syria.
The official speeches in both Tehran and Moscow may celebrate the close ties between the two states and their joint efforts to save the “legitimate” ruler of Syria , thus restoring what they see as a lost international order. But behind the curtain problems abound, and the tactical cooperation which we are seeing now will have a difficult time developing into a fully fledged strategic partnership.