Russia and Iran have cooperated closely over the past years to preserve Bashar Assad’s regime and prevent its fall in the face of the Syrian revolution, which entered its ninth year in March 2019.
Russia considered the Iranian military presence in Syria legitimate, that it came in response to the Syrian regime’s request, and that Iran was an important partner in the war in Syria, but with its ability to resolve the bulk of the military conflict in favor of the regime, the need for the role of Iran and its militias in Syria was reduced and , and in recent times, there have been serious contradictions between the Iranian and Russian interests in Syria. This may explain Tehran’s refusal to participate in the current offensive against Idlib , and Russia has recently attempted to strengthen its influence in the Syrian regime at the expense of Iran, especially the Syrian army and the Security services , in preparation for the next phase, which calls for a settlement in Syria for reconstruction.
The differences have began to widen recently and are being revealed to the public as military operations recede and the start of the supposed stage of reaping the fruits after the years of military, financial and political investment for the two countries in favor of the Assad regime, and perhaps the almost simultaneous visits by the President of the Syrian regime Bashar Assad to Tehran on February 25, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Moscow two days later reflect this contradiction in terms of location and interests, especially if added to the repeated Israeli bombardment of Iranian sites and warehouses in Syria, giving a blind eye –at least – by Russia, and the latest bombing on Aleppo.
As well as the clear message conveyed by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to Assad during his visit to Damascus on March 19, in conjunction with the tripartite talks between Iran , Iraq and Syria, which were held in Damascus, to provide that the military progress achieved was by the virtue of Russia , and that was the reason to “Preserve the Syrian State. And ” Russia’s position on US recognition Israel “sovereignty” over the occupied Syrian Golan can not be ignored, and while Moscow chose to denounce the move by words , it refrained from leading the action in the UN Security Council to confront the American decision.
To the east of Syria, specifically in the Deir al-Zour area, the Iranian-Russian divergence began to take on a new form different from the stereotype of the intersection of interests between the two parties, which took over the task of defending the survival of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It is true that the mission has been achieved, although neither the causes of the war nor the war itself ended a but the intersection of interests turned into a conflict, which began to be clear in othe place of Syria, the level of tension between the forces of the two countries in the eastern region of Syria has risen to the extent of military alert, which almost escalated into a clash between them.
The tension is due to Russian forces preventing Iranian-allied factions from concentrating in a number of areas, including a border point with Iraq. This was confirmed by the operations room of Syria’s allies, which includes the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi factions , but what is interesting that these developments have been taken place after less than ten days of the meeting of the Israeli, Russian and US national security advisers in occupied Jerusalem (al-Quds), which coincided with the increasing Iranian-American tension in the Arabian Gulf, but what makes Russia and Iran diverge from each other in Syria, especially since the Russian national security adviser Nikolai Patrushi Strongly defended Tehran in the summit of Jerusalem (al-Quds), stressing that Russia rejects the demonization of Iran, rejecting Israeli attacks in Syria, saying it was “not welcome”.
The Russian-Iranian relations in Syria are unstable and not based on solid foundations. Rather, the two sides benefit from each other, and the weakness of the Arab and international position. Russia sees Iran as a pressure card in relations with the West and the Arabs, more than being an ally.
While Iran is leaning toward the West, Russia sees its relations with the West as more important than its relations with Moscow and the Arabs.
By tracking some of the differences between the positions of the two sides on the Syrian issue, many points can be recorded, most recently regarding the position of the proposed “safe zone” in the Syrian north. The Assad regime, along with Tehran, views this region as “an American plot to divide the country “While Russia expressed an understanding of the Turkish position that wants to establish this region, and offered to deploy its troops there.
The fundamental disagreement between the two parties is about the continuation of the Assad regime. This is an end in itself for Iran as a guarantee of its continued influence. Russia says it separates Bashar Assad from the Syrian regime and its various institutions and asserts that it supports the stability of the political system.
There is a Russian fear of armed militias set up by Iran in Syria, as Moscow proposes to annex those militias to the armed forces of the regime with which Moscow maintains old relations, a move that provokes resentment of Iran, which believes that Russia is aimed at depriving it of its military influence and thus individual control of the forces Of the Assad regime.
At the level of external relations and alliances of each party, Tehran fears that the possibility of US-Russian tradeoffs to find a settlement in Syria, at the expense of its influence in Syria and the region, and this applies to Russia’s relations with Israel and the possibility of Moscow to abandon Tehran because of the advantages of relations with Tel Aviv, which may be in the calculations of international politics better than the relationship with Iran, where Russia believes that Israeli cooperation, including the US, is necessary in the next stage to translate the field gains to a political victory and fortify them through rehabilitating the regime and attracting the necessary investment to start reconstruction , There is no doubt that it hopes to play a role in political mediation , and not just security, mediation between the Assad regime and Israel.
Russia also proposed ideas to persuade Washington to withdraw from the eastern parts of the Euphrates through a formula that includes the withdrawal of all foreign troops, including Iran, from Syria, which Putin announced during the visit of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Moscow in May 2018 , and in April 2018 and then in December 2018, Trump expressed his wish for this proposal.
For its part, Israel sees its cooperation with Russia as limiting Iran’s attempts to establish a permanent and significant military presence in Syria, through hundreds of raids against the Iranian military presence in Syria over the past years, but Israel not only aspires to address the Iranian military presence in Syria only , but also aspires to play a role in determining the future of Syria.
Although Israel sought to prolong the Syrian war for as long as possible and to exploit it to extract American recognition of the annexation of the occupied Syrian Golan during the Trump era, it has recently responded with Russian efforts to find a settlement in Syria, to maintain the survival of Assad ‘s regime in power under the influence of Russia, provided that the Iranian military presence is reduced and curtailed, in the hope of removing it once and for all, after reaching a final settlement of the conflict in Syria . In return for its recognition of the Assad regime and assistance to rehabilitate it internationally, Israel is likely to seek to establish military channels of communication Confidentiality to coordinate with him regarding the security and border issues.
Iran is also concerned about Russia’s relations with Turkey and fears that the two sides will reap the results, while the costs and losses are being borne by it. There is a difference in support for the Kurds, Russia saw them from the beginning as “an inexpensive way” to achieve its goals to defeat ISIS and militias and to exert pressure on the regime in Damascus, while Iran believes that the Kurds can be a pressure factor in the future, in light of the Kurdish presence in Iran, and therefore fear that the transition of the “infection of separation” to it if the experiment in Syria succeeds.
On the economic front, Russia and Iran believe that they have invested a lot of money and resources in Syria and that they must receive adequate compensation. Since its military intervention in Syria at the end of September 2015, Moscow has spent about one billion dollars a year on military operations , according to the estimates of British Consulting Group AHS Jeans (British Defense Institute ) , more than 200 civilians and military personnel were killed and wounded in Syria , and in the meantime, an agreement has been reached to explore oil and gas in Syria’s territorial waters and projects in the gas, mills, feed, electricity and wheat sectors. , As well as agreements of Russian military bases in Syria to ensure their continuation for the next 49 year.
However, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said at the end of 2017 that “the need to think about how to make money for the great work done by Russia on Syrian territory, because Russia is not a benefactor or a donor state, but will count every Ruble ( RUB) that was spent in this war without indulgence in terms of its interests and profits , and Moscow wants to secure Russian companies’ access to Syrian territory for investment and reconstruction, as competition with Iranian and Chinese companies also . On March 27, 2018, the Syrian People’s Assembly ratified a contract giving the Russian company “Stroy” Trans Gas” a right to invest and extract phosphate in the eastern mining area south-west of Palmyra, within a sector with proven reserves of 105 million tons.
For its part, Iran has supported the Syrian regime materially and humanly since the first months of the outbreak of the revolution, and economists estimate Iran’s spending more than six billion dollars and hundreds of soldiers during the war in Syria, in addition to credit loans in millions of dollars, the adviser to the Iranian Murshed for Strategic Affairs Rahim Safavi demanded the compensation of Tehran “for the sacrifices and the costs it has provided and it is fighting terrorism in Syria, with the possibility of signing treaties with the Syrian government similar to what Moscow obtained from the treaties recovered through what it provided to Syria,” .
Iran has already won economic contracts in Syria in the fields of agriculture, oil, industry, livestock and ports, and its various exports to the country have grown steadily, especially after the exemption from taxes in 2012.
Tehran also aims to control the Syrian telecommunications industry, which was damaged during the war but not completely destroyed.
The telecommunications sector is of particular importance to Iran, not only because of financial revenues but also for tapping citizens (eavesdropping).
Tehran also has an agreement to develop phosphate mines in Syria, although it is not clear whether it will obtain exclusive rights to these mines or share them with Moscow, including contracts between Iran and the Syrian regime for 12,000 acres of land in the provinces of Homs and Tartous, can be used to build oil and gas plants.
Other financial benefits to Iran that could get from the reconstruction process include the transfer of agricultural land in Syria, left by Syrians fleeing war over the past seven years, to Iranians, and the transfer of some of these lands to pro-Tehran militia members as a means of helping them to establish their presence in Syria.
`On February 25, Vice President of the Iranian Contractors Association, Erj Rahbar, announced that his country had signed a memorandum of understanding with the Assad regime to build 200,000 housing units in Syria. In January, the regime signed 11 long-term strategic economic agreements with its Iranian ally in a completion of previous agreements on construction , as well as the start of a project to open a road to be linked to Syria through Iraq, and obtained sovereign investments, such as contracts for the construction of a major oil refinery near the city of Homs refining capacity of 140 thousand barrels per day, and the railway line Hijazi received an offer from the Russian company “Melli Sakhtman” to implement the project of Damascus suburb train project , to be implemented in partnership with China, and in conjunction Russian media revealed the interest of the company, “Oral Fagon Zavod” , a Russian manufacturer of vehicles , to export of freight vehicles to the railway network in Syria, and one of the most important agreements, which was signed in 2017, the establishment of an oil export port in Syria, in order to facilitate the export of Iranian oil to European markets.
On the cultural level, Russia is trying to follow in Iran’s footsteps in Syria through its interest in the education and culture sector in what appears to be a state of ideological competition for Syrian children. Moscow opened a secondary school in eastern Ghouta last November, as sites loyal to Russia reported that Russian language specialists at the University of Damascus are planning to introduce new school books to schoolchildren in Syria, including more Russian literary works and religious associations such as the Antioch and East Orient Orthodox Roman Catholic Church are also exploiting the needs of the poor eastern town of Ghouta by providing some services and gifts for school students and parents to plant its ideas and culture.
In September, Russia brought together the first group of Syrian children to the Institute of Railways and Military Communications of the Military Academy of Logistics in St. Petersburg.
Under the pressure from Moscow, the Ministry of Endowments (Awqaf) of the regime closed several schools funded by Iran in the Syrian coast on the pretext that they do not adhere to official curriculums, and Russia considers the Syrian coast as an area of its influence, as it includes the military base of Hamimim and Russian access to the sea, while Iran considers it an area of its influence.
At the time that Iran has supported the spread of the Persian language on the Syrian coast, Russia has begun to offer scholarships to learn Russian language, while the Ministry of Education of the regime announced the start of teaching Russian language with the current academic year and became an optional language in front of the French language and began to teach it in the preparatory seventh grade.
On the other hand, Iran focuses its attention on supporting the legal and educational institutions of the Persian language. According to local reports, there are centers of Persian language teaching in several governorates such as Latakia and Damascus, with the direct support of the Iranian cultural attaché in Syria. And there are other agencies support Persian language teaching namely, “The Imam Khomeini’s Howza” in Damascus the “Grand Prophet’s Complex”, the “Al-Sayeda Rukaya” complex and the “Huja Center” in Tartous, not to mention the grants from Iran to Syrian students. This rivalry extended to the humanitarian and service sectors. Local sources in early February reported that Russian forces in the early Feb , have distributed aids to areas in the eastern and north-eastern parts of the Reef Hama as they distributed gifts to children and humanitarian and food aid, within areas close to the lines of contact with the fighting factions within the demilitarized zone, and the Russian Reconciliation Center in Syria also distributed a batch of humanitarian aid to residents of the village of Dalafat in the area of Manbij northeast of Aleppo.
At the same time, the Iranian forces deliberately exploit the needs of the population in the western Euphrates and the Syrian south and the area between them, provide them with humanitarian and food aid, and provide volunteers with salaries starting at $ 150. Iranian forces are trying to recruit more elements within their ranks, and getting closer to the population by paying money or providing aid or trying to resolve outstanding issues while Russia is working to exclude the Iranians from the decision-making centers and control the Syrian details, by trying to stop them in the Syrian coast and Reefs of Homs and Hama, and to limit the Iranian role in Idlib and Aleppo governorate, but the large spread at the military and intellectual levels prevent Russians to twist the Iranian arm at the present time, although the international orientation , specifically the US and the Arab to confront and fight the Iranian presence, especially on the Syrian territory.
The Iranian-Russian rivalry in Syria may be described as a conflict within the one front. Both countries have not succeeded, despite all the contradictions that surround them in finding another partner with the same goals who can replace the other, it is a coalition rather than an alliance. Circumstances and participated opponents imposed that it must be developed into a strategic co-operation by force, but it is a fait accompli that neither side can give up, at least until its causes change.
All the above promotes the conflict of interests, which reflects a conflict of influence on the Syrian internal arena, reflected in the race to influence within the regime , from the head to the grassroots, and the war of influence on it through the media and social networking, crowding is reflected in the level of appointments within the army and security forces, and in the race to cut the roads in front of the opposite party to stabilize the influence within the state institutions in particular, and even to Iran to resemble the smuggling of Assad to it away from any prior leaks on an official visit to succeed in taking pictures with Iranian leaders in Tehran without the Russian intervention that may lead it to fail.
The difference is centered on two points: The first is the railway project between Iran and Syria via Iraq, which passes through the province of Deir al-Zour, where the last alert took place, and the second, Iran’s receipt of the port of Latakia, which will be the last stop on the railway track.
The head of the Iranian railway company Saeed Rasooli had confirmed just days ago and during a meeting with his Syrian and Iraqi counterparts , that the railway line will start from the port of Imam Khomeini in Iran, passing through Shalmja on the Iraqi border and the Iraqi city of Basra, to reach the port of Latakia.
Although Iran has the commercial operation right exclusively to operate the port of Lattakia in late 2018, the mere presence of Iran there is a concern for Russia, which has a military base close to the port in Hameimim, which could endanger its troops in the event of any major tension between Iran and Israel, or between Iran and the United States of America, Russia prefers the port of Latakia to be with China instead of Iran.
The Iranian presence on the Mediterranean is a source of concern for Russia, which wants to be the main power holder on the east coast of the Mediterranean, guaranteed by the port of Tartous, which he leased for 49 years.
In December 2017, Putin signed a law to expand the Tartous and Hameimim bases in order to establish Russia’s “permanent” presence in Syria. Moscow aims to achieve maritime superiority in the Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean. In recent years, Russian officials have increasingly spoken about The Russian navy in the context of non-nuclear deterrence, and perhaps even more, shows Moscow’s continuing perception of the NATO threat and the desire to deter the West.
This intention continues to influence Moscow’s activities in the Middle East, where it works systematically preventing access to the Western Sea.
It may also be part of the causes of tension linked to the Iranian military presence, through Syrian factions trained by Tehran, which is counting on the repeated experience of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the popular crowd in Iraq, according to information, the number of these forces more than 15,000, and were trained to merge Later in the Syrian armed forces, and this is what beats for Russia, the alarm because it would mean that Iran’s stay in Syria will be without a time limit, even if Tehran withdrew its officers and Hezbollah and all the Iraqi , Pakistani and Afghan factions , which came to the country in earlier times.
But the removal of the Iranian militias is not an easy task for Russia, for two reasons: the first is its social and sectarian penetration within Syria, and it seems that the balance is in favor of Iran in terms of presence on the ground, through funding, Iran has about 40 civil associations supported in Syria, apart from its influence in Damascus and the region of Saida Zainab and in the vicinity of al-Tanf on the Iraqi border, in Nabal and Zahra in the northern reef of Aleppo, and it became clear in recent days that recruitment operations in Al Bukamal and Maidain in the east and in the Izraa in the south , exploiting the Russians’ preoccupation with the Syrian north and their inability to make progress by land .
Iran has military bases spread over Syrian territory, most notably at the Damascus International Airport, in the Kaswa in the reef of Damascus , in the mountain of Azan in the northern reef of Aleppo, the Sain military airport, the T-4 and Shaerat in the east of Homs and the base of Izraa in the south of Syria , it seeks a cross point from Syria and Assad regime towards the Mediterranean and Lebanon.
The second reason is political, concerning the unity of the existential fate of the Assad regime and the Iranian presence in Syria. The American and Israeli approach is to accept Assad as Iran leaves. If Russia accepts this proposal, it is not aware of its difficulty, it has a long-term cold war to strengthen its powers in the regime’s army , It has begun to make changes in sensitive security centers so that at the critical moment it can abandon Assad, while remaining in control of the Syrian decision, maintaining its interests, its investment contracts and, most importantly, its military bases in Hameim and Tartous.
Despite the rivalry between the two main allies of the regime, Russia and Iran, but to talk of an open conflict between them in Syria may be exaggerated , because Tehran, whose presence in Syria is under international political pressure, as well as successive Israeli strikes, is not in a position to open an open confrontation with Moscow , and the fact that the two sides are still relying on each other in Syria, to find a balance with Ankara and Washington, and their transformation to two adversaries will lead to weaken their position, but the chances of escalation of the dispute between the two sides, and their appearance to the public more clearly remains present and more likely , with the war in Syria coming to an end and to engage in the stage of sharing of the spoils, and shaping the future of the country , where visions and interests are conflicting largely between the two parties.
As for the Assad regime, it is understood that he trusts Iran more than his confidence in Russia, who has doubts that it may negotiate about him at some point, but his preferred choice so far is to balance the relationship between the two sides, because he still needs both and his stay in power is linked to their continued support.
International Studies Unit
Rawabet Center for Research and Strategic Studies