As conflicts end, one-time allies sometimes start to view each other with suspicion, especially when those allies came together to defeat a common enemy but lack a common vision for after the war’s conclusion. In Syria, this is increasingly the case for Russia and Iran, who both supported Bashar Assad in his fight to eliminate the Islamic State and other jihadist groups from the country. Despite having backed the same side in the conflict, Russia and Iran ultimately have different objectives in both Syria and the Middle East. And as Assad continues to consolidate control over much of the country, there are growing indications that Russia and Iran are becoming competitors rather than partners.
Russia and Iran had different reasons for getting involved in the Syrian conflict. Russia was driven by both foreign and domestic considerations. It wanted to establish a foothold in the Middle East that could challenge, even in a limited way, the United States’ role there. It also wanted to protect its Tartus naval base, which could be at risk if a less friendly regime took power in Damascus. Domestically, Russia’s economy was struggling. President Vladimir Putin needed a distraction from the country’s domestic challenges, and the Syrian war provided just that. More important, Moscow wanted to ensure that the chaos in Syria didn’t plunge the entire region into a war that could threaten the stability of existing regional powers (namely, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia) and expand north into the Caucasus. The Caucasus is Russia’s soft underbelly, and Moscow couldn’t take the risk that a group like the Islamic State that was able to grab substantial territory in Syria and Iraq could spread to Russia’s doorstep. It also didn’t want to see this group inspiring extremism within Russia, a lesser but still significant threat.
Iran’s goals in Syria were more expansive than Russia’s. Rather than maintaining a balance in the region, Iran sought to expand its own influence. Iran even sent in ground forces (whereas Russia mainly provided air and logistical support) hoping to better connect its own sphere of influence that included neighboring Iraq, where it exercises substantial influence over the government and militias, and Lebanon, where what is arguably its most important proxy, Hezbollah, is based. By building this “land bridge” through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, Iran would gain direct access to the Mediterranean and overland access to Lebanon, making it easier to supply its proxy there. It would also present a substantial challenge to its historical adversaries Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. (Though Iran and Turkey have cooperated as of late, they have a long history of violent conflict.)
These two distinctive visions required different strategies. Russia has sought to exercise influence in Syria by supporting a strong central government, headed by Assad, with command over pro-Assad militias. It wants to ensure that existing government structures remain, borders stay where they are and regional equilibrium is maintained. It also wants Syria to remain as independent as possible and to avoid falling under the influence of regional powers such as Turkey and Iran, since Syria and Iraq both act as buffers between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as Iran and Turkey. (Though Iran and Turkey share a border, it is mountainous and not easy to cross, which is why many of the wars fought between their historical antecedents occurred farther south in present-day Syria and Iraq.)
Iran, however, has taken a more heavy-handed approach, sending in its own Quds Force, training and supplying militias and developing strong relations with local leaders. Throughout the war, Assad was more than willing to allow Iran to support forces that weren’t under his direct command because he needed all the help he could get. But now that the war is winding down, Assad doesn’t want militias to have stronger ties to Tehran than to Damascus. Like Russia, Assad would much prefer to have a centralized chain of command encompassing all militias in the country and, of course, headed by Assad himself.
Still, Tehran won’t give up its ties to Syrian militias easily, since they’re a pivotal part of its strategy to exert influence over Assad. It may not have been the case in 2012, when Iran first entered the war, but with Assad now in a position where he can try to play his two benefactors off each other, Iran is well aware that having control over troops on the ground gives Tehran some leverage over the Assad government.
Why, though, would Iran need leverage over its own ally? For starters, the two countries haven’t always found themselves supporting the same factions. Iran, for example, backs Hezbollah in Lebanon while Syria supports the rival Shiite group Amal. And as the Syrian war scales down, Damascus may again become active in Lebanon, which it doesn’t want turned into an outright Shiite theocracy similar to Iran. Moreover, as a country ruled by an Alawite regime, Syria is wary of Iran’s vision for a regional Islamic empire founded on the Twelver branch of Shiite Islam and controlled, of course, from Tehran. Though the Alawites are also a Shiite sect, they differ from the Twelver branch in meaningful ways. In addition, unlike Iran, Syria is a secular Arab country that has in the past supported notions of pan-Arabism that don’t include Iran.
Signs of a Rift
Nevertheless, both Iran and Russia have been stalwart allies of Assad in the Syrian war. But more recently, there have been several indications of a split between the two countries. Throughout 2019, there have been several clashes between Iran-backed militias and Russia-backed militias. Some of the clashes were over control of certain checkpoints where both Russian troops and Iran-backed militias charge fees for access. Some reports indicate that Russian forces were themselves involved in the clashes.
Iran has also repeatedly accused Russia of cooperating with Israel by, for example, allowing Israeli airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria. After Syrian air defenses mistakenly shot down a Russian plane during an Israeli strike last year, Russia deployed several S-300 systems to Syria, supposedly to deter more Israeli strikes. But Israeli strikes have continued. In March, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even claimed that Putin said, during a private meeting, that he wanted Iran out of Syria. In April, there were also rumors that Russia was trying to sideline Bashar Assad’s brother, Maher, who some see as pro-Iran.
For its part, Syria seems to be leaning more toward Russia than Iran, in part because Iran supports a decentralized military structure in Syria, which could pose a challenge to Assad. In fact, textbooks in Syria are even being revised to present Russia in a more positive light than Iran, according to the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education. Some textbooks now claim that Iran’s strategically important province of Khuzestan actually belongs to Arabs, a subtle indication that the concept of pan-Arabism is still alive and well in Syria. Syrian schools are also increasingly offering Russian language classes, whereas Persian language classes are still nonexistent.
Follow the Money
Damascus, however, needs more than military support at this point; it needs money to help fund reconstruction after a devastating, eight-year civil war. But both Iran and Russia are themselves strapped for cash. Iran’s economy is in dire straits, and that won’t change anytime soon considering the effect U.S. sanctions have had on the Iranian economy. Indeed, there were reports earlier this year that Iran was even struggling to pay the salaries of members of Hezbollah. If it can’t fund its all-important ally in Lebanon, how will it be able to rebuild Syria?
Russia, too, is struggling economically. As a result, it has been encouraging the West to help fund Syria’s reconstruction, but the European Union and the United States have generally refused to invest in the country so long as Assad remains in power. Oil-rich Arab nations are another potential source of capital, but given Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates’ adversarial relationship with Iran, it’s likely that they would condition any investments in Syria on limiting Iran’s role there. Still, Riyadh pledged $100 million for Syrian reconstruction late last year – a small portion of the estimated $250 billion required to rebuild the country but nevertheless a sign that the Saudis are willing to play a role in the process. The UAE also seems to want some part in defining Syria’s future. Just this week, Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak reported that the UAE is encouraging Arab tribes in Raqqa, Deir el-Zour and Hasakah to cooperate with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a move likely aimed at supporting anti-Turkish forces in Syria.
Russia and Iran came together to help a common ally and to defeat a common enemy. As the adage goes, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. But that bond breaks down when the enemy no longer exists. Ironically, then, victory is often the first step toward allies turning on each other. The Syrian war has indeed made strange bedfellows, but perhaps not for much longer.