During the civil war in Syria, Russia and Iran have remained staunch allies of President Bashar Al-Assad’s government, arguing that he is defending his country, as well as providing resources and troops to assist him in his fight against the opposition. But how do they differ in terms of the best course of action in Syria?
According to the Middle East Monitor, sharp differences have begun to surface between these two apparent allies. These problems began with Moscow’s announcement in August 2016 that its warplanes were being launched from Hamadan Airbase in Iran’s western provinces. This announcement was met by outrage in Iran, because it seemed a secret deal had taken place between Russia and Tehran. Iranians have mixed feeling towards Russia. While they acknowledge the assistance of Russia in various policy initiatives, they are wary of the country that has invaded them repeatedly and even annexed a portion of their country.
In an open session of the Iranian parliament that same month, lawmaker Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh drew the legislature’s attention to an article of Iran’s Constitution, which specifically states that no foreign military bases can be established on Iranian soil. He also stated that Russia has a “turbulent foreign policy” and that the policy considerations of Russia might be divergent from Iran’s.
During the evacuation of Aleppo, the two allies again appeared to be at cross purposes, with Iran preventing citizens from leaving the city, while Russia was eager for that evacuation to take place quickly.
According to senior figures in the Syrian opposition, Iran was to blame for the stalled evacuation. Tehran was even accused of taking advantage of the dire humanitarian situation to force opposition concessions in two other villages that were dominated by Alawites, a subdivision of Shia creed that Iran adheres to.
Thus, when the ceasefire was announced in December 2016, Iran balked, because it felt that its goals in Syria had not yet been achieved. Iranian-backed operations against the strategic Wadi Barada valley near Damascus increased, thus threatening the Russian-backed ceasefire. Russia responded by sending four officers to access the violations of the truce, but they were barred from the area by Iranian backed Hezbollah troops.
Assaults by Iranian troops have continued in Wadi Barada, as Iran attempts to take control of the water source for Damascus in that valley.
Iran also opposes any presence by the U.S. at the talks. A week before the conference at Astana began, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said, “We have not invited them, and we are against their presence.” This was a clear attempt to challenge Russia for supremacy regarding what the post-war Syria will look like. Russia, on the other hand, welcomed the U.S. presence and called the issue complicated.
It is clear that the two countries have interests that converge and diverge regarding Syria. While Russia is proposing a new Syrian constitution, Iran is expanding its economic influence into Syria. It is unclear if they will divide the spoils of Syria, leaving Assad nominally in charge of Damascus, or if they will actually attempt to challenge each other for control of the country. Syria’s fate appears to be in the hands of these two allies, who seem wary of each other and their motives.