By Mahananda Ray*
The ongoing civil war in Syria, which has spread tragedies and devastation for the citizens, and instability for the entire Middle East, has been regarded as one of the most nettlesome conflicts of the 21st century, not only in terms of casualties but also the number of armed groups involved directly in the conflict. What complicates the situation further is the external involvement of countries along with their respective coalitions and alliances. External involvement, of both the US led coalition and the Russia– Iran axis, has changed the nature of the conflict significantly and turned a conventional civil war into a series of proxy wars involving both regional and global powers, as well as expanded the scale of humanitarian crisis. The pragmatic cooperation between Russia and Iran has earned considerable attention, given both its convergence and divergence of interests. This bilateral axis has great potential to shape the regional order of the Middle East and is a major alternative to balance the power that the US and its allies exercise in the region.
The seed of the civil war in Syria was sown in the fertile chaos of the Arab Spring Revolution which resulted in the ousting of the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt by pro-democracy activists. The unrest soon spread in Syria, which had a history of sectarian tensions between the predominant Sunnis and the ruling Alawi minority. The escalating tensions saw the ruling Syrian Ba’ath Party, under their leader Bashar al-Assad, responding with heavy crackdowns on protestors in March 2011, an act that led to a spiral of prolonged violence causing misery, death and destruction throughout the country. Following the violent repression of protestors, violence spread throughout the country as militias formed supporting the government while others fought against Damascus. Additionally, many members of the Syrian Armed Forces defected to form the Free Syrian Army under Riad al-Asaad, a colonel in his 50s, who announced the formation of the group after leaving for Turkey in 2011. Although the conflict did not initially possess a sectarian character, political positioning of the myriad rebel groups and generous supply of arms from foreign powers like US and Turkey soon flamed sectarian tensions, with Shias, Christians and other minorities largely standing in support of the Assad regime while mainly Sunni militias as well as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) against it.
External intervention and foreign support have played a key role in shaping the conflict. United States of America and its coalition of allies intervened in the conflict in 2014, supporting anti-Assad groups and launching a much publicized fight against the terrorist outfits working out of Syria and Iraq, mainly concentrating its efforts against ISIS. NATO Chief Jens Stoltenberg confirmed in April 2018 that NATO was supportive of US airstrikes in Syria both against ISIS and the Assad regime. The initial support for anti – Assad groups, which was mostly in the form of air drops, eventually shaped into subsequent military operations on ground.
Russia entered the conflict in September 2015, responding to the persistent request of the Assad government, justifying its military intervention on grounds of restoring stability in the country, preserving the territorial integrity of Syria and preventing a US backed regime change in the country. For Russia, Syria is also home to the Tartus naval base which is stationed on the Mediterranean. This facility serves as a servicing port for Russian warships, and is Russia’s sole naval base on foreign soil. Additionally, there are plans to expand the port in the future to service larger Russian vessels including nuclear submarines and battle cruisers. Therefore, this port allows Russia to maintain its naval presence in the Mediterranean for longer durations, as the nearest Russian port to Tartus is on the Black Sea. In the absence of Tartus, Russian naval vessels would have to return to Russia via the Dardanelles to the Black Sea or the Strait of Gibraltar around Europe to the North Sea in order to repair, resupply or replace ships or personnel. Therefore Tartus serves as a staging point for the Russian fleet to extend its influence in the Mediterranean.
Russia provided much needed military and logistical support to the pro-Assad forces, and pulled them out of what could have otherwise been huge military and territorial losses at the hands of rebel forces seeking to oust Assad from power. In this surprising endeavour Russia formed a major alliance in the region with Iran, which intervened militarily and began to provide much needed arms and troops to save the beleaguered Assad regime in the region. Thus, during the course of the war, while the Russians provided the air support to pro – Assad troops, the ground attack was bolstered by the combined juggernaut of the Iranian troops and their ally, the Hezbollah militia of Lebanon. The collective military might of Russia and Iran ultimately proved to be the nemesis of the rebel coalition who were ousted from most of their strongholds.
Relations between Moscow and Tehran have been complicated in the past, especially due to Soviet policies towards Iran and Soviet support to Iraq during the Iran – Iraq war of 1980 – 88. However, the present day military cooperation of Russia and Iran in Syria is basically based on geo – political and geo-strategic interests. Although the overall interests of Russia and Iran are not completely convergent, the common element of preventing US from exercising another regime change in the region is the primary motivating factor behind this budding relationship and the cooperation between both countries in Syria.
As previously mentioned, Iran, with its proxies such as Hezbollah, have carried out most of the fighting on the battlefield and provided valuable financial assistance to the government in Damascus, while Russia has provided arms and intelligence, as well as significant air support and carried out air strikes on terrorist outfits present in the region as well as on anti – government forces. Military advisors in Russia have acknowledged the contribution of Iranian backed Hezbollah militia in the fight against anti–Assad forces. Former US National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster had also commented on how 80% of pro Assad fighters are Iranian proxies.
Russia’s use of Iranian air bases to bomb targets within Syria since August 2016 marks the first time since 1979 that Iran has allowed foreign military personnel to operate from its territory, which has changed the nature of military cooperation between the two countries with respect to Syria. Russia also has permission to utilize Iranian airspace for the purpose of cruise missile strikes and airstrikes in Syria.
However, the sustainability of the alliance in the long run, according to many is still very uncertain. The incompatible strategic goals of both countries regarding the future of Syria, post war settlement and the established regional order of the Middle East has, to a certain extent, focused the world’s attention on the emerging strains in Russia – Iran bilateral military cooperation in the Middle East region. Russia’s claim is that their strategy is based on ensuring greater stability within Syria, preventing US led military interventions from achieving the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, minimize territorial losses for the government in Damascus, protect its bases in Tartus and Hmeimim and prevent foreign fighters from returning to Russia. On the other hand, Iran is looking forward to expanding its geo – strategic importance in the region and limit Saudi Arabia’s sphere of influence. Russia’s involvement with Iran’s regional rivals such as Israel and Saudi Arabia is also of concern for Iran. Under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin, Russia has managed to develop workable relations with Israel. According to reports, Israel and Russia seek a deal that would prevent foreign powers from using Syria as a base for attacking a neighbouring state, which is directly at odds with Iran’s aims. Iran’s engagement with hostile non – state actors have also been seen as reducing the fruitfulness of Moscow backed political settlement initiatives.
Russia has declared that it looks forward to a reduced military role and larger engagement of world powers to find political solutions, even though Iran advocates for military triumph leading to a solution to the conflict. Iran also wishes to secure the existence of its proxies in the region, primarily to gain a perceived stronghold against its arch rivals such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, to forward its geo – strategic agenda.
Essentially, it remains to be seen how far and for how long this bilateral military engagement between the two countries continues. Although both Iran and Russia want to diminish the influence of the United States in the region, Iran is seeking to undermine the influence of its gulf rivals and Israel while Russia is trying to balance US actions. Russia’s strategy of balancing and seeking regional allies is reminiscent of the cold war era; while Iran is seeking allies outside its usual proxies. Assad is on the verge of securing a win against the rebel forces in the south and east, but a durable peace will, in all probability, will have to wait longer.
*The author is a Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi