Iranian and Russian relations in Syria


Originally published in the Greek weekly newspaper “Paraskinio”, issue 621, p. 39, on Mar. 10

It is true that Russia has returned as an important international player after decades of US unipolar control. This was clear after the immediate military action being carried out by Moscow in Ukraine and the imposition of control over the Crimea. But the most significant international move was the immediate military intervention in Syria. The significance of this intervention in a sensitive area is multiplied because of the presence of American troops there except for the Iranian and Western presence. Moscow, which has always tried to move away from any competition with the US side, has shown that it is ready to stand in front of Washington. Here are two questions: (a) Is Moscow really able to impose its interests on Washington? (b) In the light of the cooperation between Moscow and Iran, is the future of this cooperation positive or related to the evolution of the events?

The Russian intervention was made at the most appropriate time. Washington, led by Obama, indirectly but clearly gave the green light for Moscow’s immediate military intervention in Syria, as Obama’s policy was clear: avoiding any military move in the Syrian crisis against Assad and Syrian opposition. The direct incentive for Russian intervention was Tehran’s invitation. A Western source assures that an envoy of Iran’s top leader Khamenei visited Moscow a few months before the start of Russian operations in Syria to ask for it in favor of Iran and Assad, promissing that Iran would offer its political and military support. Tehran also offered to allow Moscow to use Iranian soil as the basis for its attacks if it so wished.

With the huge Russian aerial force and Tehran’s powerful ground-based military support force by Shiite militia recruited by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Moscow has managed to restore Assad’s power of influence in Syria. This has led to the expansion of controversy with Washington allies. Of course, Moscow burdened the Iranian agenda in the region due to the full co-operation with Tehran. The United States, Israel and most of the Middle East countries abominate Iran. Over time, Moscow has assumed the responsibility of providing coverage to the Iranians, since it was not prepared to pay heavy losses for the fighting. Therefore, Tehran’s presence is a key factor in the continued expansion of Moscow’s influence on Syrian territory. Of course, Israel has a different view.

Last month, there has been an important development in the Syrian arena with the Israeli F-16 being downed by Assad and his allies. In response to this move, the Israeli Air Force hit more than 20 Afghanistan and Iranian military posts in southern and central Syria. This Israeli motion is not the first, but the situation is getting tense. Tel Aviv maintains special relations with both Moscow and Washington, and the Israeli lobby can exert great pressure on the administrations of the two countries. The question of survival of Iranian influence in Syria is not negotiable for Tel Aviv. It will not accept it at any cost. Thus, Moscow has to choose between its important relations with Tel Aviv and its strategic relationship with Tehran in the Middle East. This is a difficult test that Moscow must pass soon.

Iran is a major player for the Russian administration in Syria and Iraq. Tehran has increased its economic co-operation with Moscow recently through many agreements. But American rhetoric against Iranian influence in Syria and the region in general can increase pressure in Moscow. Washington began rearranging its cards in the Middle East. Repeated visits by US officials to countries in the region which are mostly hostile to Tehran, could mean an increase in US pressure against Tehran. On the other hand, Tel Aviv prepares immediate military action against Iran in southern Syria and the rest of the country. The Russian administration is now in a difficult situation between the importance of Tehran for its interests in Syria and the storm that will break out there. Is Moscow ready to face a third world war?