A maneuver between two allies: With whom does al-Assad have interests?
Enab Baladi’s Investigation Team
Dia Odeh | Mohamed Homs | Murad Abdul Jalil
In contrast to the protocol in place between countries and presidents on determining the time and schedule of visits, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appeared on a videotape in April 2019 shaking hands with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei during an unannounced visit to Tehran. The visit coincided with talks about the close reaching of the formation of the Constitutional Committee under the Sochi Agreement and the Syrian file’s developments towards the post-battle on the ground.
Al-Assad’s visit has not been casual for several reasons. It has been his first visit to Iran since 2011 and the fourth visit out of Syria since the outbreak of the revolution, which has been followed by several moves within the context of the relationship with the allies. A month later, Russia sent its Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu, who conveyed a message from his counterpart Vladimir Putin. This was followed by the visit of Deputy Prime Minister of Russia Yury Borisov in April 2019.
Although the content of the messages of both sides has not been known, they have indicated al-Assad’s attempt to maneuver between his two allies (Russia and Iran). Both countries seem to have reached a crossroads after years of cross-interests and joint military action, and so each of them wants to earn benefits from what it has worked on in the previous years.
Now, after eight years of the Syrian war, it is necessary to evaluate the relationship between the Russian and Iranian allies and the fate of this relationship in the future, both in the context of coexistence or collision. It seems that the clash is the most realistic scenario based on the current facts, especially that Russians are finalizing the goals for which they have interfered in the Syrian file, which intersect with other parties, way too far from Iran’s interests.
In this file, Enab Baladi will discuss the future of the relationship between al-Assad’s allies and the extent of the latter’s ability to maneuver between them, especially since the two sides have been involved in all political, military and economic fields in Syria.
Attachment with Iran and interest with Russia: Will al-Assad keep his father’s legacy?
The interests of Russia and Iran have been divided over the last years of the Syrian war. Both of these sides’ supporter on the ground is the Syrian regime and its president Bashar al-Assad. These sides’ enemy is the opposition military factions. The two sides have formed an alliance that has managed the military operations on the ground. Their cooperation has played a crucial role in restoring large areas to the regime’s control.
After eight years, the situation has changed. Russian policy has become clearer than it was in the past, and it is obvious that the time has come to harvest the outcome. Moscow is currently trying to pull the rug from under Iran in Syria. This is confirmed by the great rapprochement with Israel, which has not stopped its attacks on Iranian military locations in Syria, as well as their open rivalry to seize Syria’s wealth in various sectors.
In light of the current status quo, attention is directed towards the Syrian regime’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and whether he will be able to create a balance between the allies, or he will be forced to be biased to one side more than the other. This issue has been a consequence of his visit to Tehran and his recent speech before the local councils, in which he denounced the economic blockade describing it as an “American conspiracy” and considering the paths of Astana and Sochi as consent to the participation of the Turkish-backed opposition in the Constitutional Committee.
Siamese twin that cannot be separated
Can al-Assad maneuver between Russia and Iran? Does he currently have the freedom to make a decision about the relationship with Russians and Iranians? How can the future relationship between both of them be assessed? Enab Baladi discussed these questions with Dr. Khattar Abu Diab, a geopolitical scientist and professor of international relations at the University of Paris.
Abu Diab refers back to the trend of governance in Syria’s foreign policy, saying that Bashar al-Assad inherited from his father the issue of strategic alliance with Iran, but he has dived deeper in it since the beginning of the Syrian revolution. He has at the same time sought to satisfy many external acting sides, including Russia, with whom he has developed tight relationship only after 2005.
Most importantly, as part of “each side’s intention to work on serving its interests,” Iran wants to maintain the regime as a spearhead and a bridge to cross into the Mediterranean, and a pillar of its “imperial project.” Russia wants to maintain the Tartus military base and restore global influence. For these reasons, and not for the sake of the Syrian regime, Iran and Russia have intervened to protect it, amid Israeli satisfaction and Western submission.
According to Abu Diab, we have now reached the point that within all such contradictions and alliances, there can be no coexistence between occupation or control powers on the ground, and there can be conflicts of interests and sharing. This is what we have noticed in the race to receive ports and future reconstruction contracts.
Abu Diab added that Russia wants to harvest the outcome of what it has worked on in Syria, and turn the mandate into a dedication that would be recognized by other parties, especially the US. It also wants to reap returns from Syria like Iran. From this point, the contradiction starts.
Abu Diab believes that the Syrian regime has played on both sides, but within certain limits. It goes to Tehran when invited, and goes to Moscow when invited too. Thus, it is trying to maneuver between the two allies, “but it is stuck between them.” Abu Diab pointed out that “Iranians and Russians share the army and the chief of staff.”
Bashar al-Assad and Iran are an inseparable Siamese twin, according to Abu Diab, who explained that al-Assad’s qualification and separation from Iran is a Russian “illusion.” The analyst asserted that from the ideological and sectarian point of view, and from the aspect of interests, Bashar al-Assad is closer to Iran.
Reduction rather than ending
Those who follow the Russian strategy in Syria since 2015 can notice that it is achieving the goals gradually, away from the immediate gains, which may have larger consequences than working on achieving them in the long term. This has affected its relationship with Iran, as at the beginning of the intervention, there was a field need for both sides. Whereas at the current time, it is clear that the strategic alliance has come to an end.
Russia is embarking on its current policy against Iran in Syria from several standpoints, most notably the competition over resources, which will pay off what has been spent in the past years. On the other hand, Iran has become a major concern for regional countries. Therefore, standing and allying with it is not good.
Abu Diab clarified that Russia is trying in its way to reduce Iran’s influence, to make it under its control or so that it does not contradict its interests. This has been shown through Russia’s tendency to overlook the Israeli raids on Syrian territories since 2012 to present.
The International relationships professor at the University of Paris says that Russia is currently playing its game, as shown in the recent visit by US Secretary of State Mark Pompeo at the beginning of May 2019 and the upcoming summit between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit. The Syrian file will be on the work schedule. If the long-term convergence between the parties can be found, it will be at the expense of Iran.
According to Abu Diab, Iran will not easily abandon Syria and its penetration into the Syrian regime. The debts and donations are in exchange for the seizure of land, the naturalization of tens of thousands of people and the recruitment of militias on the ground. It is believed that Iran’s short-term expulsion from Syria is not possible. However, it can be said that the battle to reduce Iranian influence has started.
The future relationship between the Russians and the Iranians is related to a broader matter, according to Abu Diab. This is what happens in the “fencing” on the Gulf banks. Abu Diab pointed out: “It seems that we are watching a long American film and facing prospects of limited US-Iranian pressure and confrontations.”
He added that Iran is Russia’s neighboring country. Despite the alliances, they both have not made an agreement on the Caspian Sea and there is a great contradiction of interests. Therefore, Russia could benefit from reducing Iran’s influence in the region and try to make a certain deal to strengthen its presence in Syria at the expense of the Iranian acting party.
Assad’s allies on the ground: Variation in strategy and spread
Iran’s strategy in Syria has been different from that of Russia, following its military intervention in 2015. The general regional situation has not helped Iran in the expansion, military action and the declaration of objectives, unlike Russia, which has officially strengthened its influence under the pretext of intervening to combat “terrorism.”
The difference in both strategies has resulted in a differentiated reality on the ground. Iran’s entry to Syria since 2012 has been open and undeclared, as it entered with many militias on the ground having foreign origins, from Iraq and Afghanistan and affiliated with the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Quds Force. Iran has thus provided fighting on the ground on the one hand, and consultations and intelligence work on the other.
In contrast, since its military intervention in Syria in September 2015, Russia has publicly declared that its objectives are related to the war against what it called “terrorist groups.” It has then settled in Khmeimim Base in the countryside of Latakia to supervise and run military operations. The warplanes carrying out air strikes on opposition-held areas in Syria took off from this base.
Taking advantage of chaos
Iran took advantage of chaos and instability that Syria had witnessed during the early days of the revolution and established dozens of military bases, which became main targets for Israeli warplanes.
The Glasshouse, located inside Damascus International Airport, is one of the most prominent Iranian military bases still existing in Syria, in addition to another base located in the vicinity of al-Kaswa city, the base of Mount Azzan in the southern countryside of Aleppo, Al-Seen Military Airbase, T4 airport in Ash Sha’irat in eastern countryside of Homs and Izra base in the Syrian south.
Iran is not very much interested in settling in the bases in Syria as in implementing the strategy of deployment in several areas, mainly the Syrian Badia, the vicinity of al-Tanf border base, Zaza and Sabaa Biyar and Jaligam, as well as the northern countryside of Aleppo, Nabal and Az-Zahra and the vicinity of the capital Damascus in Al-Sayeda Zainab and its neighborhoods.
Al-Assad’s other ally, Russia, has adopted a policy of military restraint in Syria, which seemed very different from the Iranian policy. Russia sought not to intervene on the ground deploying forces and militias. It rather limited its participation to air strikes supporting military operations at first to adopt a gradual military strategy, and then deploy Russian police forces and advisers in the last two years, whose mission was to provide military advice to al-Assad forces during their military operations.
Russia went on supporting local Syrian forces on the ground, formed following the “settlement” agreements in several areas including eastern Ghouta, Daraa and northern Homs. Russia also adopted “Tiger Forces” led by Brigadier in the Syrian Army, Suheil al-Hassan, and promoted for it as a battle group stronger than the rest.
Those local militias were affiliated to the Russian Centre for the Reconciliation of Opposing Sides in Khmeimim. In the past months, media reports have conveyed clashes taking place against al-Assad forces supported by Iran, particularly in southern Syria and northern Homs countryside.
In Syria, files Russia and Iran have in hand
Seeking Russian and Iranian support, Al-Assad paved the way for every country to enter and turn Syria into a field for proxy war, upon which he has no real authority.
On the other hand, his supporters Iran and Russia broke the ice, united under the same goal in Syria and took everything in hand, mainly the political and economic affairs, leading them to control the decision making process. Both managed to control economic joints and conclude long-term agreements in vital sectors for dozens years in exchange for their support.
Syrian solution sponsored by Russia
Few months after the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in October 2011, the Russian delegate at the UN Security Council raised his hand vetoing a resolution demanding the Syrian regime to stop committing human rights violations against Syrians. Moscow used the veto 12 times over the past eight years, the most recent of which was in April 2018.
The Kremlin man’s (Russian President Vladimir Putin) tenacious defense of the regime was not meant to support al-Assad, but rather Syria was a political weapon he was trying to use to upgrade his influence at the level of international community, especially Washington, and return the glory of the Soviet Empire.
Indeed, Putin has succeeded in making Russia the major force involved in the Syrian issue and himself the ultimate decision maker, having the upper hand in the file, which can’t be resolved unless he agrees and approves. This strategy followed two directions; the first of which helped significantly al-Assad’s forces to control large areas of opposition-held areas.
The second was politically motivated, through which Russia imposed itself as the main provider of political solution to the Syrian cause. Russia intervened either through setting for the Astana solution with Iran (its ally in Syria) and Turkey outside the framework of the UN. It aimed to strengthen its influence through offering a possible solution between the conflicting parties and introducing itself to the international community as a peace-making state, or by playing a role at the level of the Geneva negotiations, through platforms describing themselves as “the opposition” (the Moscow platform).
As time goes by, Russia became in control of the file from a political point of view, while Iran has turned to supporting militias on the ground and the economy of the regime to prevent its collapse, through providing oil derivatives.
Economic dominance following the approach of each party
When the Russians and Iranians tightened their grip over the decision-making process in Syria and al-Assad influence grew wider on the ground, the two countries started reaping the benefits of their intervention and support to al-Assad. They obtained economic gains to strengthen their influence through concluding and signing long-term economic agreements, and each party monopolized different areas according to its future aspirations and tendencies.
Russia concluded several strategic agreements with the regime involving oil and gas exploration in the Syrian regional waters, as well as the extraction of phosphate from the mines in east Tadmur. Russia became the first country exporting wheat and concluded a deal with the regime to build four-grain mills in Homs, worth 70 million Euros. Thereby, the Russians are trying to subdue any future government by controlling basic materials such as wheat.
In addition, the Russian private company TransGas (CTG) signed an agreement with the Syrian government to lease the port of Tartus for 49 years.
Iran, which has supported the regime through billions of dollars of credit lines, has sought to penetrate the Syrian economy by signing agreements in several agricultural and commercial fields. Iran also established joint companies and banks, and prepared for the construction of a railway linking Tehran to the Mediterranean Sea.
The Syrian Prime Minister, Imad Khamis, signed with Tehran in January 11 agreements, memoranda of understanding and executive programs to promote cooperation between the two countries at several levels, including economy, science, culture, infrastructure, services and investment.
According to the Iranian agency “Fares,” the agreements covered several areas, including railways, construction, investment and combating the financing of terrorism and money laundering, in addition to education and culture. The two governments signed agreements in the banking sector, ports and power stations, which Khamis considered as “historical stage” and have significant implications on the reality of economic cooperation between Iran and Syria.
The US wants to break the existential link between Iran and the regime
Iran is suffering under US economic pressure, which could be a sign of the possible set back of Iran’s role in Syria, for military support and the militias require huge resources, in addition to its commitment to trade agreements and pledges to support the regime economically.
Washington has been waging a fierce economic war against Iran, imposing several severe sanctions since the beginning of 2019, affecting various sectors, such as banks, importing and supplying steel, coal, metals, software and others.
While the economic war waged by the US on Iran is likely to turn into a military confrontation, this war threatens Iran’s interests in the Middle East, especially in Syria.
In this context, questions about the possibility that Washington opts for confronting Iran in Syria and its desire to take Iran out of the Syrian conflict and away from al-Assad have been raised
No clear plans
Government Relations Director at the Syrian-American Council, Mohammed Ghanem, told Enab Baladi that Washington is serious about pressuring Iran and isolating it through economic sanctions, but it has neither the will nor the plans to try to overthrow the regime in Iran.
As far as Syria is concerned, Ghanem also believed that the US Department of Defense, which is directly concerned with the Syrian file, has no real plans to take action against the Iranian presence there.
However, Ghanem pointed out to the different strategies undertaken by the administrations of the current US president, Donald Trump, and his predecessor, Barack Obama. He considered that the weakness of the Obama administration regarding Syria lies in the fact that the US at that time has sacrificed the file in favor of Iran in exchange for signing the Iranian nuclear deal, i.e. the deal was a priority for Washington.
During the Trump era, the situation has shifted towards putting more pressure on Iran. Although there are no clear plans against the Iranian presence in Syria, the reason why the US forces are located in the Syrian territory may change overnight, said Ghanem.
The US does not have a plan to break the ties between Iran and al-Assad, according to Ghanem, who sees such a scenario as stemming only from the Gulf desire to end this relationship. This may be proven by the fact that “the US Senate’s recent letter, provided by the Syrian file’s analysts group, did not include any recommendations to end the cooperation between Iran and the Syrian regime,” he clarified.
The US sanctions are supposed to reduce Iranian support for the Syrian regime, but to date aid has not been cut as Iran recently sent an oil carrier to Syria.
According to Ghanem, who perceives al-Assad as an Iranian investment in Syria, sending aid to the Syrian regime is not only about supporting the Syrian president, but rather Iran considers the Syrian file as an “existential” one.
Ghanem insisted that the Iranian support for al-Assad has not been affected by the sanctions in terms of being forced to reduce aids directed to the Syrian ally, as sanctions are somewhat new and need time to affect Iran.
As for al-Assad, he has always profited from Iran even before the Russian intervention. “He used Iran for financial and military support and turned to the Russians for international support and diplomatic cover,” Ghanem indicated.
The Government Relations Director at the Syrian-American Council added that the US intends to separate the Russians from the Iranians in Syria, “as inside the US’s political circles there are echoes about the Russian uneasiness about the presence of Iran in Syria, in addition to emerging disputes between both sides. Hence, the US is working to divide Russians and Iranians, in addition to trying to reach a common ground with Russia on a political solution in Syria.”
Perhaps Washington wishes that Iran abandons al-Assad, however, without preparing a plan or a strategy to be implemented in this regard. In other words, the US is working for the time being to reach a political deal that consecrates a peaceful transfer of power in Syria.
Poll: Al-Assad cannot maneuver between Russians and Iranians
A poll conducted by Enab Baladi on its Facebook page showed that most of the page’s followers believed that Bashar al-Assad is unable to make a maneuver between Russia and Iran as main allies in Syria.
Enab Baladi asked the following question: Can al-Assad manage the maneuver between Moscow and Tehran, and why, according to you?
74 percent of the total number of respondents, which reached more than 500, answered “no,” while 26 percent responded “yes.”
Some of the participants commented on the poll justifying their choices. For instance, Ibrahim Katouf considered that al-Assad is unable to make any decision in Syria without taking orders from the Russian President Vladimir Putin. While Ayman al-Mustapha wrote that “history has never seen hypocrites and evildoers like al-Assad and his fellow politicians” which makes him able to manipulate his allies.
Strategic alliance will not be easily dismantled
The strategic alliance between the Syrian regime and Iran is very old. It dates back to Khomeini’s rise to power in Iran, specifically in 1979, when the Syrian regime, under Hafez al-Assad, was the first in the world to recognize the regime of the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist. Thus, the Syrian regime led a strategic relationship with its Iranian counterpart through cooperation in a wide range of fields, especially the military and security sectors, after the emergence of hostility between Syria and Iraq under Saddam Hussein.
With the outbreak of the Iranian war on Iraq, the Syrian regime stood by all its economic, political, media and military capabilities on the Iranian regime’s side, setting itself apart from the rest of Arab regimes that stood by Iraq; despite all the failed attempts made by Arabs, especially the Gulf states, to provide financial, economic and even political and military bribes to dissuade Syria from carrying on its strategic alliance with the Iranian regime.
In 1982, during the Israeli war against the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon, the Syrian regime played a key role in securing and facilitating the arrival of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard groups to Lebanon via the Syrian borders, to form the militias of the so-called Islamic Resistance by Hezbollah. These armed groups contributed to the marginalization of other Lebanese national forces until Lebanon became under the tutelage of Hezbollah, operating in favor of the military and political agendas of Iran and Syria.
With the outbreak of the Syrian Revolution in 2011, the Iranian regime opposed the popular protests in Syria, considering that the popular uprising in Syria was different from previous Arab revolutions. The Supreme Leader of Iran announced that the demonstrations in Syria are different from those taking place in other Arab countries. Thus, he believed that the protests in the Arab region are righteous, while referring to the unrest in Syria as the outcome of a Zionist conspiracy aimed at breaking the Axis of Resistance in the region. The Syrian regime would have reached the brink of collapse without the Iranian regime’s support, consecrating all its political, economic and military as well as its media influence to endorse al-Assad. Taking advantage of Iran’s endorsement, al-Assad regime managed to stay in power.
Hence, more than one Iranian official stressed the strategic necessity behind Iran’s effective support of the Syrian regime. This was considered to be part of a comprehensive strategic interest in the Arab region, which extends from Iraq, ruled by a regime loyal to the Iranian regime, passing through Syria, which is governed by a another strategically, to Lebanon, where Hezbollah militias are affiliated with the regime of the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist. The armed groups of Hezbollah, which have de facto control over Lebanon, operate under the command of Iran. The proof of the relationship between Iran and Hezbollah militias was illustrated in the statement of cleric Mehdi Tayeb in 2014, who said: “In case the enemies attacked us and wanted to occupy Syria or Khuzestan province, then our priority is to defend Syria first, because if we protect Syria, then we can have Khuzestan back; however, if we lose Syria, we will not be able even to keep Tehran.”
The Iranian regime has spent tens of billions to save the Syrian regime from collapse, apart from losing thousands of Iranian soldiers and officers; in addition to forming an army of Shiite militiamen, located in all Syrian cities. Furthermore, Iran has become a political representative of the Syrian regime in regional and international conferences, i.e. the Iranian regime’s participation in the Astana talks on behalf of al-Assad.
Iran believes that the fall of al-Assad regime and the establishment of a democracy in Syria would destruct Iran’s religious and ideological project in the Arab region, so it gave all the support it can offer to ensure the continuity of the current regime.
On the other hand, al-Assad will not abandon the Iranian regime after making sure of its major role in protecting him from falling after the 2011 revolution. He will, therefore, try to preserve this alliance, as an eternal marriage so to speak, bound by death. It is a life or death alliance with the Iranian regime.
Russia played a major role in protecting al-Assad from falling in 2015, at military and diplomatic levels, using the veto in the UN Security Council in favor of the Syrian regime. Thus, the Russian-Iranian conflict in Syria is secondary and aimed to create media frenzy in order not to clash with the US. There is a clear military and political coordination between Iran and Russia, which enables the Syrian regime to coordinate with both sides at ease, especially since the social incubator of the regime (the Alawites) favors the Russian military presence in Syria on Iran, as Russians do not interfere in the social and religious aspects of the Syrian population.
Iran, on the other side, considers that one of its main tasks in Syria is to disseminate the Shia faith, especially the rules of the Guardianship of Islamic Jurist, and to work on changing the Syrian social pattern, including religious practices. Thus, Iranians regard this orientation to change the Syrian society as one of its strengths both in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. Thereof, al-Assad tries to reconcile the Russian and Iranian presence while making sure not to abandon Iran.
Russia’s talk about its intention to remove the Iranian forces from Syria is part of a Russian maneuver at the regional and international levels, and even if Russia thought of excluding Iran, it would not be an easy task considering the amount of resistance that will emanate from Iran and al-Assad.
In fact, there are shared economic and political interests between the Russian and Iranian regimes in Syria and in the region in general. Thus, the Syrian regime took advantage of these interests to be protected by both Russia and Iran.