Divergent Interests: The Iran-Russia Battle for Influence in Post-War Syria
As fighting intensifies in Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in the Syrian Civil War, it has become increasingly clear the civil war that has lasted for almost eight years is about to come to an end. The Assad regime has been able to consolidate its control and is seeking to reassert its authority over territories it had lost to rebel groups years ago. One of the biggest factors behind the Assad regime’s ability to stay in power has been the foreign intervention and support of Iran and Russia. The large degree of support provided by Russia and Iran has led to both nations having a major presence in Syria to assert their influence in the post-civil war political situation. With the end of the civil war coming, both nations’ interests in Syria are becoming increasingly divergent, leading to disputes over each country’s influence and control over Syria.
The Russian and Iranian presence in Syria has manifested itself in different aspects which have become relevant as civil war slowly starts to end. Iran’s presence in Syria has been composed of economic influence and mobilizing of Shia militias fighting for the Assad regime. Since 2013, Iran has provided more than $4 billion in loans to the Assad regime to keep it financially afloat. As the civil war raged on, Iran had also pushed for economic projects and business deals for Iranian companies in Syria such as developing ports, increased Iranian ownership of Syrian lands, and Iranian investment in Syria’s resilient telecommunication industry. In addition to Iran’s economic support, Iran had also mobilized religious militias to fight rebel forces in areas contested by the regime that border Iraq and Lebanon. Iran has also pushed for the integration of Iranian military advisors and Hezbollah fighters into the Syrian regime’s army, making Syria’s army more dependent on Iranian support for conducting military operations.
In contrast to Iran’s reservoir of influence in Syria, Russian presence has been more militarized and has more overt military forces committed to supporting the regime. Russia since 2015 has utilized airstrikes against rebel forces in support of the Assad regime. Furthermore, Russia’s military bases in Latakia and Tartus have become major centers where Russian military forces have projected power during the conflict and are important sites to coordinate operations with regime forces. Russia has also sought to build up the Syrian military after the losses incurred during the conflict such as building up and funding the creation of the pro-regime Syrian Fifth Corps, a Syrian military unit with Russian assistance that has effectively fought rebel forces in contested areas.
The differing manifestations of Iran’s and Russia’s presence in Syria stem from the differing interests each nation has in why they were supporting the Assad regime. Iran views Assad’s control of Syria as important to future Iranian strategic ambition to increase its influence at the expense of Saudi Arabia and Israel, leading to long-term intentions of having Syria becoming more reliant on Iranian military and economic influence. Russian motivations were more focused on seeking to protect existing Russian influence and stabilize an important political and military client regime to project Russian power in the Middle East. These differing interests have led to disputes between these two countries during the civil war.
Russia in opposition to Iran’s sectarian presence in Syria has tried to diffuse Sunni-Shia tensions in regime-controlled areas. In recently conquered territories, Russia has deployed Sunni Chechnyan policemen to keep law and order, in defiance of the authority Iranian Shia militias have sought to wield in Sunni majority areas under the control of the regime. Another major instance of conflict between these two ostensible allies was during the Battle of Aleppo where a Russian backed ceasefire agreement was blocked by Iranian forces blocking evacuation efforts as Shia militias sought to consolidate control of strategic areas in Aleppo. Both Russia and Iran are using their existing presence in Syria to block and undermine other nation’s political objectives to serve their own.
Furthermore, both sides are seeking to use their existing support of the regime to secure post-war influence in Syria. Russia has reportedly used their military support as leverage to have Damascus prevent many Iranian investment deals from going forward and Russian companies are also opposed to Iran securing contracts on Syria’s oil reserves. Iran has also sought to establish a presence along the Syria-Israel border through their militias and Hezbollah proxy to the detriment of Russia, which opposed Iranian attempts to antagonize Israel to preserve positive Israeli-Russian relations.
Russia and Iran have been two of the biggest supporters of the Assad regime. Their immediate goal during the Syrian civil war of propping up the Assad regime for differing reasons has made them allies of convenience. However, their differing interests have led to tensions between them and led to their relationship in Syria becoming more competitive as both seek to maximize their influence at the expense of the other. As the Syrian conflict winds down, the reason for their existing alliance becomes more irrelevant and each country’s strategic ambitions in Syria will likely lead to more Russian-Iranian tensions in the future.
Photo courtesy Mohammad Agah via Wikimedia Commons