Associate at the Russia and Eurasia programme of Chatham House and senior lecturer at the European University at St.Petersburg
Russian military engagement in the Syrian conflict had the direct impact on Moscow’s relations with the Middle Eastern countries. The main interest of political analysts is drawn to the development of the interaction between Tehran and Moscow in Syria. Officially, the Iranian authorities supported Putin’s decision to deploy Russian air forces at the Khmeimim airbase. The majority of the Iranian politicians praised Moscow efforts aimed at the support of the Syrian regime whereas the main media outlets of the Islamic Republic covered the activities of the Russian army in Syria completely in the line with the Russian propaganda approaches. Nevertheless, the international expert community is far from being unanimous regarding the nature of the Russian-Iranian dialogue on Syria. Some experts believe that the rift in Russian-Iranian dialogue is inevitable.
Indeed, the hidden discussion on the necessity to cooperate with Russia in Syria exists in Iran. Moreover, there are even some Iranian policymakers and analysts who cautiously question the rationale behind Tehran’s military involvement in Syria itself. Nevertheless, these questions are raised within a certain (not very large) group of the Iranian political elite without reaching the national level of discussion. Moreover, these intra-Iranian debates have little chances to bring changes in the diplomatic course of the country without the blessing of the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, who takes final decisions on all sensitive political questions. And, during his meeting with Putin in November 2015, Khamenei gave the green light for the Iranian cooperation with Russia on Syria.
The Supreme Leader’s decision was largely supported by the moderate conservatives who dominate the political life of the country. Thus, immediately after Putin’s trip to Tehran the advisor on the international affairs to the Supreme Leader, Ali Akbar Velayati (who is deeply involved in the Iranian diplomacy on Syria) formulated the official point of view on Russian-Iranian cooperation that became widely accepted in the Iranian political establishment. He argued that the Iranian authorities are determined to have “continuous and long-lasting cooperation with Russia” on Syria. The geostrategic factor seriously favored for strengthening the Russian-Iranian cooperation in Syria. For Tehran, the beginning of the Moscow’s military involvement in the Syrian affairs finally gave the Iranian authorities what they had been looking for the last decade: a solid political and military base for the development of bilateral relations.
The need to develop active cooperation between the two countries in Syria is also determined by the situation on the battleground. Iran was the first to supply the Syrian regime with arms, financial means and “volunteers” while Russia initially tried to limit its involvement into the crisis by the diplomatic support provided to Assad. Yet, by 2015, Iranian resources were substantially exhausted. Moreover, it became obvious that these resources were not enough to save Assad. By that moment, Tehran was also deeply involved not only in the Syrian war but in the Iraqi and Yemeni conflicts. Consequently, the Iranian government was compelled to juggle its limited human and material resources between these three countries. The beginning of the Russian direct military involvement in Syria considerably eased the burden lying on Iran’s shoulders by radically changing the balance of power in favor of Damascus.
Both Russia and Iran are extremely interested in saving the government institutions in Syria. Yet, each of the sides had its own motifs for this. Russia was largely driven by its security concerns, confrontation with the West and Putin’s plans to reestablish Russia as an influential world power. For Tehran, its struggle for Syria is believed to be a part of the greater strategy designed by the Supreme Leader and his team whose final goal is to secure the right of the Islamic republic to the regional supremacy. The Iranian conservatives even formulated the concept of the “chain of defense” that comprise of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. According to this theory, each of these countries represents the “front line” of the Iranian defenses against the international and regional opponents of the Islamic republic that strive to undermine its influence in the Middle East. Consequently the weakening of the Iranian presence in any of these four states can have global negative consequences for Tehran’s geostrategic plans. Such vision of Syria inevitably makes the survival of the pro-Iranian Assad regime an existential issue for Tehran and, thus, puts the Islamic republic together with Russia in the camp of international forces interested in the survival of the Syrian state.
Yet, both Russia and Iran are very pragmatic about their cooperation in Syria. This also helps their dialogue. Neither Moscow not Tehran has any illusions about the ultimate goals of its partner and how different they are. This was openly stated by Khamenei’s advisor Ali Velayati in 2015. When characterizing the level of cooperation between Russia and Iran in Syria he argued that “each country pursues its own benefits [by supporting Assad], [but] Russia cannot protect its interests in the Middle East and the region alone”. In other words, Russia and Iran came to an understanding that in order to secure their interests in Syria they need to cooperate. Consequently, Moscow and Tehran formed a marriage of convenience where each partner tries to reach its own goals with the help of the other.
And, yet, it is too early to speak about the emergence of the full fledged Russian-Iranian alliance in Syria. So far, military coordination between the two countries has been patchy. Neither is in a hurry to create joint command structures. Their coordination is occasional, and in most cases, the sides simply prefer to take parallel paths to the same destination. The current format of the Russian-Iranian cooperation in Syria based on the principle of the marriage of convenience also prevents the dialogue between the two countries from evolving into the strategic alliance. In order to achieve the current primary goal – to save the Syrian government from falling – the countries agreed to temporary ignore the differences in their approaches towards the settlement of those issues that, at present, are of the secondary importance. However, this only means that the discussion of these questions (such as the future of Assad or Iran’s plans to use the territory of Syria to continue supporting the Hizbollah in Lebanon) is just temporary postponed.
Finally, not the last role in limiting the capacities of the Russian-Iranian dialogue on Syria is played by the factor of the third countries. Russia carefully watches that its cooperation on Syria would not harm the development of their relations with other regional powers. Thus, by allying with Tehran, Moscow would most likely harm relations with its ‘silent partner’ in the Middle East – Israel – whose position on the annexation of Crimea, on Western sanctions against Russia and on Russian air forces in Syria corresponds to Russian interests.
Russia and Iran will remain interested in cooperation on Syria. Yet, it is still difficult to see this relations transforming into a full-fledged alliance. Although the drivers that bring Moscow and Tehran together are strong, the destiny of Russian-Iranian “marriage of convenience” depends on a number of factors. All in all, Russia and Iran were forced to become partners in Syria under the influence of existing circumstances. Consequently, their interaction is limited. Given the differences in motives of Russian and Iranian involvement in the Syrian quagmire and concerns existing both in Tehran and Moscow that the forming of a full-fledged alliance can harm their relations with third countries, it is possible to conclude that Russian-Iranian dialogue has already reach the maximum of its potential.