By Aram Mirzaei for The Saker Blog
These past weeks have witnessed a lot of tensions running high, with Israel and Iran reportedly facing off near the Golan Heights. Israel has launched several airstrikes on “Iranian bases” across Syria, while Damascus (IRGC allegedly) responded with missile fire against IDF positions. In the aftermath of these hit and run attacks, Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad travelled once more to Russia to meet with his ally Russian president Vladimir Putin to discuss the course of the war and the political process to end it. During the meeting, president Putin announced that foreign forces would withdraw from Syria, he did however not make any mention on who he was referring to, leaving the statement rather cryptic.
“We proceed from the fact that in connection with the significant victories and successes of the Syrian army in the fight against terrorism, with the beginning of a more active part, with the beginning of the political process in a more active phase, foreign armed forces will withdraw from the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic.”
The Russian president failed to explain how he would coerce the US and the Turkish occupation forces to withdraw from the northern and eastern parts of Syria.
In any case, this statement was not taken well by Tehran, as the Spokesperson for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, Bahram Ghassemi, responded to Vladimir Putin’s statement regarding the withdrawal of all foreign nations from Syria.
“We will stay inside Syria as long as there is a terrorist threat and as long as the Syrian government wants us there,” Ghassemi stated. This came after Damascus had urged Tehran to remain in Syria until all terrorist forces and occupation forces are gone.
Now all of this had been rather irrelevant had there not been a background of disagreement and tensions behind these recent escalations and Russia’s role in Syria. Many observers fail to understand that while Moscow’s objectives in Syria may at times be conflated with those of Tehran’s and Damascus’, this may not always be the case. How many times have you seen people online wondering why Russia won’t supply the Syrian government with its most advanced weaponry? Or why Moscow never responds to Israeli aggression? This has left many confused over Russia’s role in Syria with some even calling Putin a traitor after his meeting with Netanyahu in early May, a meeting that sparked rumours that “Putin was sending a message to Syria”.
Until July 2015, Russia was shipping weapons and supplies to the Syrian government. Russia had up until this time believed that in a worst-case scenario, the Syrian government would be able to hold on to its most vital areas, including the Alawite province of Latakia, where the Russian Air Force is currently operating from. Two important events over the course of a year encouraged Moscow to officially join the war in Syria. First the coup in Ukraine and its aftermath, the second was the military situation in Syria at the time. In the spring of 2015 the situation had become dire for the overstretched Syrian Army and its allies. This is when it was decided that government forces would retreat from almost all rural areas in Syria due to the massive pressure faced by Washington’s jihadists. It is also when General Qasem Soleimani from the IRGC Quds forces went to Moscow and meet with high ranking Russian officials to discuss the need for a direct Russian involvement.
Iran was not able to alone hold off the jihadists who were receiving massive amounts of financial and military support and would have had to sent the entire Iranian Army into Syria. Although the Islamic Republic was and still is willing to risk everything by overtly intervening militarily in Syria through the deployment of the Iranian Army, the consequences of such a move would be an all out regional war as Saudi Arabia and Israel would directly intervene too. Surely Moscow must have made the same calculation and understood that the only way to actually de-escalate the situation was to intervene with the Russian Air Force.
Moscow is in Syria to end the war, not to start a new one. It will do everything in its power to prevent an escalation. Russia has several interests and some of them align with Damascus’ and Tehran’s interests: 1- to eliminate Caucasian terrorists and prevent them from returning to Russian soil, 2 – to ensure the long-term presence of its naval base in Tartous, 3- to settle the Syrian matter politically and 4 – to prevent Washington from achieving the regime change agenda, thus creating another failed state in the region. What Iran and Russia first and foremost don’t agree on is the importance of Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad. For Tehran Assad remaining in power is everything, and the whole reason why Iran has been backing the Syrian government for all these years, ensuring Assad’s survival means ensuring Hezbollah’s survival. For Russia on the other hand, a stable Syrian government is enough, and Assad’s go or no go does not carry the same weight for Moscow as it does for Tehran. Russia had up until last year been open to the prospect of Assad stepping down, emphasising that it is not Assad they are supporting but rather Syria, whereas Tehran has been very vocal about its unconditional support for Assad. It’s not until recent years that Moscow has understood what it is dealing with in Syria and that any kind of compromise with Washington is doomed to fail.
In 2016, Moscow was very open for negotiations and even negotiated with Washington several times on nationwide ceasefires that ultimately failed and cost several Iranian and Syrian lives as Washington’s jihadists kept taking advantage of the ceasefires to regroup and rearm. After a lot of internal disagreement between Iran and Russia regarding the value of these pointless ceasefires, Moscow was forced to realize that it needs an upper hand in order to force Washington back to the negotiations table. So Aleppo was liberated and Washington was outmanoeuvred by Moscow, Tehran and a turn-coat in Ankara and the following year ISIS was virtually defeated, especially after Syrian and Iranian backed forces liberated the crucial border city of Albukamaal, thus re-opening the Tehran-Damascus highway for the first time in years.
Since Russia entered the Syrian war, it has become clear that Moscow controls military operations in the northern and central parts of the country and Tehran controls the operations to the south of the country, a fact that bothers the Zionist regime in Israel. Tehran and Moscow have several times disagreed on military operations and prioritizing the multiple frontlines. For example, the IRGC have been very vocal about their wish to liberate southern Syria and then move on to the occupied Golan Heights, Moscow has so far opposed this, yet despite tensions among some parts of the Iranian leadership over Moscow’s position, this has still not stopped these two countries from cooperating because Tehran recognizes that only Russia has the international prestige and power to shift the attention to fighting ISIS instead of the Syrian government, something that Moscow actually succeeded in doing.
As I have previously said, Syria also plays host to another separate conflict, the one between Israel and Iran. Russia and Israel on the other hand enjoy rather good relations, despite their differences in Syria. Israel would not remain so calm with regards to the Russian intervention if Tel Aviv and Moscow did not have an understanding already. Israel sees Russia as a guarantor for keeping Iranian-led forces at bay, since Moscow has the ability to largely dictate military operations, often opting for the northern and central parts of the country. Israel is well aware that without Russian presence in Syria, Iran would have to beef up its presence with thousands of more troops, so Israel remains rather silent to Russian weapons deliveries to Syria for example. It is important to remember that Russia is not a party to the Israel-Syria/Iran conflict and will not take part in any future war between these forces. In fact, in light of the recent Israeli aggression in Syria, Moscow has urged Tel Aviv, Damascus and Tehran to show restraint. It is because of Moscow’s insistence that Damascus and Tehran have on so many occasions refrained from responding to Israeli attacks. Still, Moscow’s objectives are for now closely aligned to those of the Resistance axis ( Syria, Iran and Hezbollah) and Russia needs this alliance to achieve its objectives in Syria. It is after all the resistance axis that has been doing the heavy lifting on the ground, paving the way for a political solution to even be considered possible. So while Russia doesn’t want to see an escalation with Damascus and Tehran engaging Israeli forces in the south, this does not mean that Moscow will stop Tehran and Damascus from retaliating if Israel crosses certain lines.
On the night of 10 May, Syrian forces – despite warnings from Moscow chose to respond to another Israeli attack which indicates that either Moscow gave Damascus a green light or Damascus chose to defy Russian advice and retaliate, thus raising the tensions even further. Both scenarios would seem likely to play out, but the latter, which I believe to be the case, confirms the nature of this alliance; an alliance founded on mutual interests with some disagreement from time to time, unlike Washington’s “alliances” which are founded on Washington’s hegemony and threats.
For now, Damascus and Tehran will respect the dynamic of the Israeli-Russian relations just as Moscow will respect the deepened Iran-Syria relation and their interests. Despite Russia’s tremendous support for Damascus, Damascus and Tehran will pursue their own objectives for this war, which involves a military solution aimed at liberating the entire country as opposed to Russia’s political process aimed at reconciling different parties to the conflict. This is not to say that Tehran and Damascus aren’t thankful for what Moscow has done in Syria, but rather it displays the nature of this alliance, one characterized by mutual respect for each others interests. Tehran’s and Damascus’ approach should manifest itself in a couple of weeks when Syrian government forces move their focus from the capital to the southern Daraa and Quneitra provinces. As the Resistance axis will move closer to the territories occupied by Israel, tension will keep rising.
While Russia may not be part of the Resistance Axis against Israel, and some of its objectives conflict with those of Iran’s and Syria’s, Moscow’s role in Syria can never be stressed enough, and without Moscow in the picture, not only would Syria have been destroyed but a large regional war would most likely have broken out.
As the Syrian “civil” war phase is coming to an end, the question that remains lingering is : what will happen if the Zionist axis, despite Moscow’s mediation attempts, choose to start a war anyways? Will Russia idly stand by and see all its efforts go to waste or will it be forced to take action? More importantly: will the Russian-Iranian-Syrian alliance survive such an escalation?