There has been speculation during the summer of 2018 that Russia might be positioning itself for getting Iran out of Syria in exchange for some grand bargain with Washington. Such speculation arose in the first place because of western and especially American diplomats claiming that they had been approached by the Russians, who hinted they would see an Iranian withdrawal from Syria with favour. After the summer Russia and Iran seemed to be clutching closer together again as a result of an Israeli raid in northern Syria, which was seen by the Russians as a violation of a Russia-Israel understanding of what Israeli actions the Russians would tolerate in Syria.
In fact interviews carried out by our research team in Syria with Syrian officials and military officers, Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and members of the organizations linked to the IRGC such as Hezbollah of Lebanon and others, suggest that the peak of tension between Russia and Iran was in 2017, especially the second half of the year. During that period three main bones of contention between Russia and Iran emerged: the Russian determination to seek a political and diplomatic settlement of the conflict, the Iranian determination to maintain a long-term military presence (of its Revolutionary Guards and of the international militias they sponsor) even after the end of the conflict, and Iran’s growing influence over the Syrian security apparatus.
It appears obvious that seeking a diplomatic solution and keeping an Iranian presence were in contrast with each other. It would have been hard to fathom how any diplomatic solution of the conflict could have been reconciled with a long term presence of IRGC and foreign militia forces on Syrian soil, especially if all the parties concerned in the conflict were to be involved, as the Russians initially hoped to do.
The Syrian hosts of the Russians and of the Iranians were trying to use this emerging rivalry to score tactically and gain greater influence over processes that were threatening to marginalise the Assad regime. Essential part of the Russian grand plan for resolving the conflict was the replacement of President Assad with another, less compromised Ba’ath figure. Clearly Assad and much of his circle did not like the idea, although even within the regime quite a few dignitaries found that it would have been an acceptable sacrifice to end the war without losing power altogether. Assad and his circle therefore sided with the Iranians, who were resolutely opposed to any replacement of Assad and believed the war could and would be won on the battlefield.
On the other hand Assad and his men were opposed to Iran’s long-term plans for keeping bases in Syria, and for keeping a force of international Shi’a volunteers there indefinitely. Such a solution would have compromised Syrian sovereignty and implied a genetic change in the relationship between Syria and Iran (who had been peers before the war started).
The Assad regime shared the concerns of the Russians also on the matter of the growing Iranian influence over the Syrian security apparatus, and was in fact even more concerned than they were: were the Iranians turning from allies into masters? There had been underlying tension over the ever-expanding Iranian influence over the Syrian security apparatus for some time. The militias trained and often even funded and equipped by Iran were growing in numbers and by 2017 they were larger in size than the Syrian army. A large portion of these militias were foreign volunteers, but the Iranians were investing heavily in the expansion of Syrian militias too. In particular, they mobilised a large portion of Syria’s Shi’a minority into militias. The Iranians were also involved in training and advising the Syrian army. In comparison, the Russians had a much more limited number of advisers in Syria, mostly trying to advise the senior levels of the Syrian armed forces on how to make their military operations more effective.
Until the Russian grand plan to end the conflict seemed to have some traction, for the Assad regime the priority was preventing the replacement of Assad. Most dignitaries of the regime were nervous about the prospect, because of the uncertainties that a coalition government under a new president would imply. Would the future coalition government include allies of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar? How could the regime, whose support was mainly drawn from minority communities, be able to compete successfully with such well resourced competitors? Wasn’t it just a matter of time before the remnants of the Ba’ath were marginalised and thrown out of power?
Fortunately for the Assad regime, but also for Russia-Iran relations, the Russian grand plan was rejected by most Syrian opposition groups, and by their international sponsors, in the Arab Gulf and in the west. Perhaps the Russians expected the grand plan to fail anyway, and used it to build up their credentials as a negotiating partner, who had autonomy from the Iranians and from the Syrian regime. Whatever the case, Russian efforts by the end of 2017 were switching gear towards a less ambitious, but more realistic plan for a partial diplomatic solution of the conflict, one that cut off some actors, but co-opted others. Of particular importance for Assad, his replacement at the top of the regime no longer appeared a necessity.
The Russians negotiators in fact had found fertile ground for the idea of a diplomatic settlement in Turkey; Turkey’s Qatari allies would also end up following the Turkish lead. The Turks had been on a collision course with the Saudis over the Saudi-Qatari crisis from June 2017 onwards. The idea of a post-war Syria dominated by the Saudis (thanks to their immense financial resources) did not appeal the Turks much more than a continuation of the Assad regime; in fact it might have represented a greater threat to Turkey than a weakened Assad regime, especially if Iranian presence was reduced or removed. The Turks and the Russians rapidly hammered together a plan that would turn Turkey into the sole sponsor of the Syrian opposition, one therefore able to drive or even coerce the opposition towards a political settlement, whether of their liking or not. In fact the plan even allowed Turkey to turn the Syrian opposition into a proxy force, that could be used to project Turkish interests in the region. The implementation of the plan would have given Turkey some permanent influence in Syria, and particularly in the northern regions. The Russians even agreed to Turkey sending in a military force to squeeze Kurdish forces out of the Afrin region on the border, and occupy it at least temporarily. The price to pay for Turkey was severing links with global jihadist groups such as Al-Qaida and actively purge the Syrian opposition groups of their sympathisers and clients. This was an unpleasant task for Turkey, because over the years of conflict even Syrian opposition groups closely linked to Turkey had built close relations to organizations such as Al Nusra and its successors.
Relieved that Assad’s replacement no longer appeared to be an imminent threat, the Assad regime started siding more decisively with Russia in its disputes with the Iranians. The importance of Iran’s long-term plans and of its expanding influence over the Syrian security apparatus became relatively much greater for the Assad regime. Moreover, as its battlefield gains in 2018 had been quite dramatic, the regime started seeing the possibility of international intervention (Israel and/or the west) as the only real existential threat left. In this regard, Russia could afford protection (diplomatic and military) and Iran could not.
Still the Assad regime was not completely aligned with the Russians during 2018 either. It did not initially like the idea of a settlement with Turkey and of permanent Turkish influence inside Syria. When Turkish forces entered Syria in January 2018, the Syrian regime wanted to intervene militarily, but was dissuaded by the Russians. In the following months the Syrians were convinced by the Russians to cooperate in the implementation of the plan, of forcing opposition forces to come under Turkish control, or be crushed. The Russians managed to convince the Jordanian authorities to switch to a neutral position in the Syrian conflict, and close the supply lines to the opposition. That left the opposition groups in the south and in central Syria with only limited supplies coming through Israel, not enough to face successfully massive offensives of the reinvigorated, re-trained and expanded forces of the Assad regime (with allies).
The Russians did not simply work to drive a wedge between the Iranians and the Syrians, leaving the former isolated. They also took care of substantial Iranian interests, and made some concessions to Iran’s demands. During much of 2018 the Iranians, especially the IRGC, were sceptical of Russia’s plans, but appreciated that is successful there would have been one major strategic achievement for Iran – cutting Saudi Arabia off from the Syrian opposition and marginalising it. A series of well-planned and implemented offensives in 2018 sent the Syrian opposition in southern and central Syria running; most surrendered or accepted to flee to northern Syria, where the Turks took them over. By the summer of 2018 Saudi influence in Syria was almost dead, and the Russian-Turkish plan had achieved its first stage.
The Russians moreover had shelved plans for Assad’s replacement, even if this was still a Turkish demand as of autumn 2018. Iranian influence over the Syrian security apparatus was not wiped out, but contained. The foreign volunteer forces, largely under Iranian control, started being reduced in numbers, while some Syrian militias were brought under greater control of the Syrian government, or merged into the army. Overall Iran was still left with considerable assets in Syria, and the question of long-term Iranian bases there was also left to be resolved at a later stage.
As of autumn 2018 the Turks were still struggling to re-organize the remnants of the Syrian opposition under their control, and purge them of global jihadist influences. The Syrian regime, with Russian and Iranian support, geared up for a massive offensive against the main remaining opposition stronghold in the region of Idlib. The planned offensive drew western condemnation, but it was Turkey the Russians were looking at. The Turks would have been humiliated by an offensive against Idlib, even if according to the terms of their agreement with the Russians they had not yet delivered their full package – Hayat Tahrir al Sham and some other groups linked to Al-Qaida were still the dominant force in Idlib and the Turkish-controlled opposition forces had not been able to make significant progress towards dislodging them. Russian President Putin reportedly intervened directly to push for a solution that gave the Turks another chance at implementing their part of the deal. The offensive was suspended.
Interestingly for the purposes of this article, the Iranians supported the Russian diplomatic initiative on Idlib, even in the face of Syrian resistance. The Syrian regime was still reluctant to concede any serious space to opposition forces, especially if sponsored by Turkey, but the Iranians joined hands with the Russians in pushing the Syrians to agree to freeze the offensive.
What discussed above seems to suggest that while Russia-Iran tension was real, it is not a matter of an ever-growing divergence between Russia and Iran. Tension peaked in 2017 and by the time it was being discussed in western diplomatic circles as an opportunity to perhaps exploit, it was already waning. The Iranians might be tough-headed, but are not crazed actors who will pursue unachievable aims regardless of the surrounding environment. The Russians made clear to the Iranians (and to the Syrians) that they would help and protect them, but at conditions that the Russians would themselves set. The Syrians and even more so the Iranians tried to renegotiate such conditions, and obtained concessions, but eventually had to adapt. Objectively the Russians were bringing a lot to the tripartite alliance and delivered major results. The Russians played a decisive role in helping Iran achieve a major geopolitical success in Syria – whatever may happen with Turkey, the Saudis have been humiliated already on what not long ago looked like the most promising battlefield of their rivalry with Iran. Perhaps the easing of Russian-Iranian tensions was helped by clumsy and slow western and especially American diplomacy, which drove the two allies back together, rather than further apart. See on this point for a Russian point of view Leonid Issaev, ‘Will Russia force Iran out of Syria?’, Al Jazeera, 29 Aug 2018.