By Sinem Cengiz*
Moscow and Tehran have managed to maintain a strategic alliance and close political and military ties, particularly in Syria. Both are supporting Bashar Assad’s regime at all costs, but the relationship is no bed of roses. Russia and Iran have different motivations in the Syrian war and divergent views on the country’s future. These differences have recently started to come to the surface far more, raising questions as to how long the alliance will last.
Their interests first clashed regarding Aleppo. Their divergent policies have become apparent, especially since the cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey was undermined by Iran-backed militias that prevented civilians and opposition fighters from leaving the besieged eastern part of the city in December. This was an important sign that the interests of the two allies have started to conflict.
Tehran’s attempts to sabotage the Russian-Turkish peace initiative raised eyebrows in Moscow, which is increasingly uncomfortable with Iranian policy. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s recent statement can be read in this context. He said Syria was “two or three weeks” away from falling to terrorists when Russia intervened in support of Assad, downgrading Tehran’s role in the country. Moscow sent a clear message to Iran regarding future power distribution in Syria. To Russia, Assad is dispensable, but to Iran he is not. For Moscow, a strong Syria as a Middle East ally is a must in order to protect its strategic interests, but for Tehran a weak Syria is desirable so as to easily control the country for its future aims.
Russia’s naval base in Tartus and airbase in Latakia are very important for its long-term Middle East plans, as Syria is a good market for its military exports. Moscow wants to turn its advances on the ground in Syria into diplomatic gains in talks with the West. Therefore, it wants the upper hand in political decision-making, which jeopardizes Iranian interests in Syria and the region.
While Russia approaches the Syrian war from a geostrategic and realist perspective, Iran’s stance is based on sectarian concerns. Syria is the heart of its strategy to create a “Shiite crescent” across the region. Tehran is struggling at all costs to ensure the Syrian regime’s survival, aware that it is a necessary tool to connect with a valuable ally in Lebanon, namely the Shiite group Hezbollah, which is fighting in Syria along with Iran.
The downfall of the Assad regime would be a blow to the Syria-Iran-Hezbollah axis. Tehran would lose a valuable ally in Lebanon, as Hezbollah would face serious problems obtaining vital Iranian military and financial support.
Iran is knowledgeable in playing the games of the Middle East. Because Syria is an important instrument for it to wage its proxy wars in the region, and is a strategic gateway to the Arab world and a crucial link to Hezbollah, Tehran does not hesitate to take steps that could even disturb its ally Russia.
For example, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said ahead of the Astana talks that Tehran was vehemently opposed to the US joining them. This was the second time Iran went against Russia and Turkey, the other two organizers of the talks, which both said Donald Trump’s new US administration should take part.
While Iran is shooting itself in the foot by confronting Russia and Turkey, the relationship between Moscow and Ankara is gradually improving. Both hope to cooperate more effectively with the Trump administration and turn a new page with the US.
With its recent moves, Tehran is not only revealing its disagreements with Russia and Turkey regarding Syria, but signalling a possible dispute with the Trump administration, which consists of pro-Russia and anti-Iran figures. While taking a harsh stance toward Iran, Trump is calling for close ties with Russia. It might be hard to predict his steps, but it seems his administration will become another issue of controversy between Moscow and Tehran.
Russia’s stance proves that it would reset relations with the US at Iran’s expense. Every step taken toward Syria’s future is bringing Russian and Iranian interests face to face. Time will tell how long their alliance will last.
*Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes mainly in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. She can be reached on Twitter @SinemCngz.