In Focus | The Nature of the Russian-Iranian Relationship in Syria
Understanding the Russian-Iranian relations in general, and their relationship in Syria in particular, is of great importance to those interested in the Syrian file. Conceptualizing the Russian-Iranian relationship in Syria assists the analysis of events and developments and the understanding their contexts, especially with regard to repeated clashes between Syrian forces loyal to Moscow and those loyal to Tehran.
Iran has enjoyed great importance in Russian foreign policy since President Vladimir Putin came to power. The Russian Foreign Policy Principles document issued in December 2016, mentions the importance of Iran as a country that Russia aims to cooperate with in the Middle East region.
Relations between the two sides has extended beyond the Middle East region to areas that both countries consider to be at the core of their national security such as the Caspian Sea region and states neighboring Russia. These interests prompted the two countries to establish important joint economic projects such establishing a group of land, sea and railway lines known as the “North/South Corridor” as well as developing partnerships in the field of energy.
Moscow and Tehran’s interests align on the issue of confronting the growing American and Western influence. As such, Russia has repeatedly supported the Iranian regime against popular protests in Iran, as Moscow believes that America has a role in these protests.
Since September 2015, the Russian army has worked harmoniously with Iranian-backed militias in Syria and provided Russian aerial coverage to Iranian-backed ground forces. This military coordination and cooperation resulted in significant and impressive military gains, and it continues, especially in northwestern Syria.
Despite the apparent harmony and coordination between Russia and Iran, the two countries race to achieve their own interests in Syria. However, this race, within the same axis, cannot be described at the present time as a “conflict” or “direct clash”, even if it takes the shape of indirect confrontation in Syria at times.
Syria has witnessed significant milestones indicating Russia’s desire to set a general and clear framework for Iranian influence while avoiding ending its influence or completely excluding Iran from the scene. The main milestones are:
1- In February 2020, Moscow and Tehran reached an understanding to set a general framework for movement in Syria. The understanding included the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Central Operations Room moving from Damascus International Airport to the Artillery College in the Ramosa area, west of Aleppo. Russia will not stop Iranian activities on the Syrian soil, provided that Russia maintains the decision on war and peace in Syria.
2- Russia opens the Syrian airspace to Israeli strikes from time to time, with the aim of using these strikes as a Russian pressure card on Iran to control its movements in Syria according to the Russian vision while demonstrating a form of balance between the regional actors.
3- Russia provided the Fifth Corps, led by Ahmed al-Awdah, great flexibility in their activities in southern Syria, which sometimes reaches the point of attacking local Syrian fighters affiliated with Iran. Russia allows the attacks as it seeks to maintain a “Sunni bloc” in the south to confront the Iranian expansion and reassure Tel Aviv. However, to date, these clashes remain confined to local actors and have not developed into confrontations between official Iranian and Russian forces, which allows room to control the confrontations. So far, Russia has not sought to remove Iranian militias from the south completely but seeks to control the militias’ influence.
In all likelihood, the Russian-Iranian cooperation in Syria has not yet been tested for real. Discussions for a final political solution, the requirements set by influential international actors such as America, Israel and certain Gulf countries, which include demands to remove Iran from Syria in exchange for lifting sanctions and supporting the reconstruction process may serve as a test to the relationship. The extent to which Russia responds to these demands will determine the form of the relationship between the two countries.
Unit of Analysis and Thinking - Jusoor for Studies