After eight years of war, Syria is mostly under Bashar Assad’s control once again. Russia, which joined the war in 2015 as one of Assad’s major supporters, must now consider its future involvement in Syria and its relationship with Assad’s other main backer, Iran. Moscow and Tehran have cooperated thus far, but Russia’s vision for a post-war Syria likely doesn’t include a strong Iranian presence. So what does the future hold for relations between the two countries as their need to work together fades? And how will Russia handle the other major players in Syria now that the war is largely over?
How We Got Here
Before considering what lies ahead, we have to examine how we got here. Russia and Iran cooperated in Syria to achieve a common objective: keeping Assad in power. But in supporting the Syrian regime, they had very different motivations. Russia wanted to distract from its underwhelming performance in Ukraine and its challenging economic situation at home. It also wanted to prove to Russians and the world that it’s still a major global player. Iran had more ambitious goals in mind. For Tehran, Syria was part of a broader plan to expand its influence and control throughout the Middle East. So while Russia was content to see Assad survive the war and pull its forces out once the conflict was over (save for a small contingent in Hmeimim air base and Tartus naval base), Iran wanted to maintain a presence in Syria long after the war’s conclusion. These different ambitions also resulted in different military approaches: Russia supported the Syrian military primarily through air power while Iran committed its own forces and backed proxy groups engaged in on-the-ground combat.
They also had different views on other external actors involved in Syria – primarily Israel, which sees Iran’s presence in southern Syria as a direct threat to Israeli territory. Israel has, therefore, repeatedly struck Iranian and Hezbollah targets in southern Syria, even publicly announcing these attacks (most recently a week ago) to make clear that it will not tolerate an Iranian presence along its border. These are troubling signs for Russia, which would rather attend to more pressing security concerns than the fighting in Syria. Renewed hostilities could lead to the revival of jihadist groups that Assad would need Russia’s help to eliminate.
Russia, however, hasn’t exactly been going out of its way to limit Israeli airstrikes. It has condemned Israel’s attacks against non-jihadist groups in Syria, but it has stopped short of preventing or retaliating against Israeli attacks on Iranian targets because it doesn’t want to risk direct confrontation with Israel for two reasons. First, facing off against Israel’s well-equipped air force would be far costlier than launching airstrikes against militant groups, as it has been doing in Syria for years now. Second, Israel is a close ally of the United States, and a Russian attack on Israeli forces may provoke a U.S. response, which Russia wants to avoid.
Moreover, Russia may actually benefit from limiting Iran’s presence in Syria. It doesn’t want another conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, and the probability of such a conflict will increase as long as Iran’s presence in Syria grows. In addition, with Iran out of the picture, Russia could solidify its place as Assad’s primary patron, especially with much of the fighting now over.
Indeed, there are some indications that Russia is allowing Israel’s strikes to continue. Last September, after Russia blamed Israel for an incident that led to Syrian forces shooting down a Russian military plane, Moscow delivered a number of S-300 air defense systems to Syria. These systems are more advanced than those already owned by the Syrians and would be a greater threat to Israel’s air operations in Syria. So far, though, Syria hasn’t used them against Israeli airstrikes, possibly because the S-300s aren’t operational yet or because Syrian forces still need to be trained to operate the Russian-made weapons. Syrian media have claimed that the S-300s came online in November, while Russian media have claimed that some of the launchers were installed this month and that the systems will be activated shortly.
In January, however, an Iranian lawmaker accused Russia of deactivating the S-300s during a Jan. 20 Israeli strike. Both the accusation and the airstrike came shortly after a Russian military delegation visited Israel to meet with Israel Defense Forces officials. Israel launched more airstrikes a week later and again on Feb. 12 – the S-300s weren’t used against either attack. This is all circumstantial evidence that Russia is delaying activation of the S-300s, but it supports the theory that Moscow doesn’t want Syria to shoot down an Israeli jet with Russian-supplied arms.
Russia may also be concerned about the efficacy of the S-300s. If they were to fail during an attack, it would be an international embarrassment for Moscow, which is trying to expand its arms export industry. Russia could blame Syrian operators for the failure, of course, but that would also be troubling for potential customers who may have concerns over usability. Moreover, Israel has performed drills against the S-300 and demonstrated the ability to penetrate areas covered by advanced air-defense systems in the past, so even if the system works as it should, it may not be able to stop an Israeli strike. In other words, Russia doesn’t have much to gain from activating the S-300s. Why did it deliver the systems if it didn’t want Syria to use them? It needed to responded to the downing of the Russian jet somehow, and this was likely the least consequential way to do it.
While Russia’s motivation to cooperate with Iran is fading, it’s finding more and more reason to work with another country that’s vying for influence in Syria: Turkey. Both countries want to eliminate jihadist groups in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, though they remain at odds over Turkey’s desire for greater control over the Kurdish-dominated regions in northeastern Syria. A larger Turkish presence there could hamper efforts at a political settlement and endanger Assad’s hold over the country. Nonetheless, they have reached an accommodation over certain issues. Earlier this month, following peace talks in Sochi, a Kremlin spokesperson suggested that Turkey could invoke the 1998 Adana Agreement to justify an incursion in northern Syria. (The agreement allows Turkey to pursue fighters from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – a Kurdish group based in Turkey – 3 miles, or 5 kilometers, into Syria.)
Last August, Turkey and Russia signed an agreement to prevent a Syrian offensive against rebel forces in Idlib and to establish a buffer between the province and Syrian forces. Under the deal, Turkey agreed to handle the jihadist militias in Idlib that were not under its control, most notably Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. But Turkey has largely failed to do so. HTS remains the most powerful force in the province and recently launched an offensive against Turkish-backed militias there. Russia, meanwhile, can’t pull out of Syria while groups like HTS pose a threat to Assad. Turkey may need to send in its own forces, rather than rely mainly on proxies, to eliminate or at least hold back HTS. In doing so, however, it would need to avoid direct confrontation with Syrian forces, which would risk pitting Russia against Turkey.
By not pushing back against strikes on Iran in the south and by accommodating the Turks in the north, Russia has been able to balance these two powers against each other. It’s a strategy that will keep Iran weak and Turkey compliant, at least so Moscow hopes, and it has the added benefit of ensuring that neither becomes powerful enough to challenge Russia in the Caucasus, a region over which the three countries have gone to war many times in the past. Whether the strategy works remains to be seen.