Russia and Iran both propping up Assad. A balancing act?

While Russia's increased presence in Syria gives the regime another leg to stand on, some in Damascus say Moscow could also temper Iran's influence.

GeoNorth, AllSource Analysis, Airbus/AP
This Sept. 15, 2015 satellite image with annotations provided by GeoNorth, AllSource Analysis, Airbus shows Russian tanks and armed personnel carriers at an air base in Latakia province, Syria.

Russia’s increased military assistance to Syria provides President Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime with a welcome boost to its hold on power after a series of territorial losses this year to rebel forces.

But while Russia appears to have coordinated its military expansion with Iran, Mr. Assad’s other key ally, the move could also serve as a counterbalance to Tehran’s powerful influence in Syria, a phenomenon that has generated ripples of unease in some circles of the Damascus regime.

Russia and Iran are staunch allies of Assad and collectively have provided diplomatic, financial, military, and material support to help his regime stave off the challenge posed by opposition groups.

Both countries have much at stake: Syria is one of the few Middle Eastern countries where Russia continues to wield influence, and it provides Iran with a vital geographical conduit to its Lebanese protégé Hezbollah. It is also a key component of the axis of resistance, an alliance of countries and parties opposed to Israel and Western regional interests.

“Both Iran and Russia want to preserve the political system in Syria, to keep Assad in power” says Rajab Safarov, the director of the Moscow-based Center for Studying Modern Iran. “Assad’s defeat would have a serious impact on Iran and wouldn’t suit [the interests of] Moscow, either.”

Still, despite the shared interest of Moscow and Tehran in the Assad regime’s survival, there are differences that Russia’s expanding military presence in Syria may expose in the coming months.

Territorial integrity

“Until recently, the Iranians had much a bigger involvement on the ground than the Russians. So I think the increase in [Russian] arms supplies is probably an attempt to balance the situation on the ground,” says Nikolay Kozhanov, a visiting fellow of the Russian-Eurasia program at London’s Chatham House and nonresident fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Russia continues to work with the Syrian state, while Iran has set up a parallel security structure of local militias and foreign Shiite expeditionary forces from Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, granting it prolonged influence in Syria if the Assad regime falls.

Russia seeks to preserve the territorial integrity of Syria and prevent it from breaking into militia-run fiefdoms. That is a goal shared by the Assad regime, which continues to fight for distant and isolated areas in the far north, south, and east of the country despite a critical manpower shortage in the decimated Syrian Army.

The priority of Iran, on the other hand, is to hold onto the western periphery of Syria, with access to Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Mediterranean coast. In recent months, Iranian-supported forces, including Hezbollah, have pulled back from outer-lying areas to concentrate on securing the key real estate from south of Damascus to Latakia on the coast in the northwest corner of the country.

“The Russians see it as important that the country remain with its current borders ... [but] I think the Iranians will be satisfied with control over certain areas of the country with pro-Iranian groupings that would ensure their access to Lebanon and Hezbollah,” says Mr. Kozhanov, previously a diplomat at the Russian Embassy in Tehran. “That’s the difference, and that difference is clearly understood in Moscow.”

Is Russia doing more than rescue Assad?

The Assad regime owes Iran much for coming to its rescue with billions of dollars for the cash-strapped economy and deploying thousands of Shiite fighters against rebel forces. But that Iranian lifeline came at a price. Iranian military commanders, rather than Syrian Army generals, have been shaping much of the regime’s defense, according to Arab and Western diplomats in the region. Tellingly, Iranian and Hezbollah officers, rather than the Syrian Army, recently conducted cease-fire negotiations with a rebel group over the besieged opposition-held town of Zabadani, 17 miles northwest of Damascus.

Furthermore, there have been allegations that Iran has been tampering with Syria’s demographic geography by settling Shiites, including the families of foreign fighters, in and around Damascus and preventing Sunnis from returning to their homes in some regime-held areas. Last year, the Assad regime passed a decree allowing Shiite doctrine to be taught in schools alongside Sunni Islam. Shiite mosques are proliferating as well as stalls selling Shiite books, pamphlets, and motifs in Sunni areas of Damascus.

The level of Iranian influence has fueled unease in Damascus, reportedly even within the regime itself. There have been several reports in the past year of top Syrian figures grumbling that Syria was giving up its sovereignty to Iran.

However, Russia’s expanded role in Syria could serve as a counterweight to Iran’s pervasive influence.

“Some observers are reading the Russian intervention as an attempt to pre-empt the total 'Iranization' of the Syrian state, as much as it is an attempt to rescue the regime,” says Faysal Itani, resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Shared interests

These differences aside, Russian and Iran continue to share a vested interest in the Assad regime’s survival. While the level of coordination between Moscow and Tehran is unclear at this stage, it may be no coincidence that signs of a Russian military buildup began shortly after a reported visit in late July to Moscow by Maj.-Gen. Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force, the external operations wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Lebanon’s As Safir newspaper reported Tuesday that Suleimani paid another visit to Moscow last week.

“I believe Iran and Russia are getting closer in the course of the Syrian crisis, although they have had different approaches in dealing with the situation,” says Kayhan Barzegar, director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran.

Still, their common interests should ensure continued cooperation.

“In fact, it’s Russia that currently needs a powerful regional partner to shape its new political-security doctrine in the region,” says Mr. Barzegar. “I think Russia is careful to not upset Iran in the new circumstances, especially in a time that there is an ongoing thaw between Iran and the West.”

Staff writer Scott Peterson contributed to this report from Tehran, and contributor Olga Podolskaya from Moscow.

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