Since 2015, Russia and Iran have been closely coordinating their military support for the Syrian regime President, Bashar Assad in order to achieve their interests in this bloody war-torn country. However, rivalry between the two countries appears to surface every now and then, leaving Assad as the biggest loser in this rivalry after gradually depriving him of his influence. On 22 December 2016, Eastern Aleppo which was considered to be the Opposition last stronghold in Aleppo was by captured by Syrian regime forces and its Iranian and Russian allies. The offensive resulted in displacements of 130,000 civilians and 3,000 opposition fighters and their families were evacuated to opposition last held city – Idlib.
The core of the dispute
Iran believes that Russia is promoting the “victory” in Aleppo as its own victory especially after excluding Iran and Assad regime from ceasefire negotiations with the Syrian armed Opposition, later Russia sent in its military police personals to patrol the streets of Eastern Aleppo despite the large presence of Iran’s Shite Jihadists and pro-regime militants. There are rumors of an agreement to withdraw all Transnational Shiite jihadists from Aleppo and some parts of Syria, and this would definitely limit the Iranian influence in Syria. No one knows yet if this undisclosed agreement is the beginning of a political solution in Syria between all belligerents in this war, after the ceasefire agreement was announced few days ago. The reason for that is because Iran attempted many times before to block the efforts of evacuating the civilians from Eastern Aleppo by allowing its Shiite jihadists to fire at the green buses carrying the displaced the civilians to Idlib because Iran was fully against the safe evacuation.
On December 2016, Islamic State fighters captured the ancient city of Palmyra and it’s nearby gas fields and mountains, ISIS previously controlled the city from May 2015 until March 2016 until a coalition of Assad regime forces, Iran and it’s Shiite jihadist and Russian Special operations forces fought back and managed capture it. Syrian army and pro-regime militants couldn’t hold the attack and decided to retreat to Tiyas Military Airbase. The offensive was launched at a moment when the Syrian army and its allies were focused on East Aleppo offensive.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov commented that ISIS offensive in Palmyra may have been “orchestrated” to distract forces from opposition fighters in eastern Aleppo, and ISIS reinforcement moved from Mosul to Palmyra via routes which could have been supervised by the US-led coalition’s aviation. Many believe Iran’s late sending of reinforcements to support the Syrian regime forces was due to disagreements with Russia, Tehran knows clearly that Russia can’t rely on the Syrian regime forces and without the presence of Iran’s transnational jihadists they both can’t really achieve a military victory on the ground.
After the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey. There was a three-party conference held in Moscow with the participation of Russia, Turkey and Iran came to a significant end of Syria being divided into informal zones of regional influence. The Mainstream Media was emphasizing on how United States and Gulf states were completely ignored and not invited to the talks that discussed the future of Syria, a different perspective also sheds light on how Iran was side-lined to an unexpected degree during the talks.
In the document of this agreement, there is no mention of the Assad regime or anything related discussing its remaining in power. And most importantly, while Iran went to great lengths to massacre all dissidents and annihilate the entire Syrian opposition under the pretext of fighting ISIS, this document specifically differentiates and recognizes the separate nature of ISIS and the Free Syrian Army. The Syrian regime and Iran may decide not to honour the agreement, seeking to exploit on their recent victories to finally crush the Syrian armed opposition.
The outcome of the Moscow conference makes it clear that Russia enjoys the dominance over Iran in Syria, and that Moscow has imposed its interests and road map on Tehran and against its will, leaving the Iranian regime with no choice but to submit to the status quo. This setback of its dominance seems a major reason why Iran needed to parade IRGC’s Quds Force General Qassem Suleimani in Aleppo, perhaps in an attempt to boost the morale in its declining base of support in the region. Taking these important factors into consideration, it appears that Iran literally gained nothing from the Moscow conference that could benefit its interest in Syria, meaning that its participation was merely of a ceremonial nature only. The Moscow conference was also endorsed by the United Nations.
On 31st December 2016, to settle things down, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani agreed in a telephone conversation to continue their close coordination in trying to end the six-year Syrian conflict that has killed over half a million people and displaced half of Syria’s population.
Conflict of Interests
Through the planned political solution, Russia wants to maintain Syria as a foothold of its influence in the Middle East by increasing the Russian presence in Syria and maintaining its military bases there permanently. Tehran is more committed to President Assad staying in power long term, because that will allow Iran to use Syria as a supply route to arm its military proxies in Lebanon.
The Russians want to preserve access for their navy to the Mediterranean port of Tartus and maintain their military bases in the Syrian coast. Syria has been Moscow’s main lever for influence in the Middle East and a willing buyer for its weapons. Putin has argued that the best way to fight terrorism in Syria is to back up Assad regime forces and preserve what’s left of the country’s government institutions but now Putin is willing to end the war in a political solution.
Maybe it’s a beginning of a new phase of rivalry between them, especially they had many disagreements in the past particularly in 2015 when General Mohammed Ali Jafari, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, said Russia had become militarily involved in Syria to serve its own interests, and “may not care if Assad stays as we do”. This made President Vladimir Putin travel to Tehran to end the dispute with Ali Khamenei regarding Syria.