As the conflict in Syria recedes, Russian and Iranian competition for power could result in new conflicts.
Russia and Iran are allies in Syria. But as you scratch the surface, there is a ratcheting up of competition as they seek to carve out influence and consolidate the coming construction boom in the country.
The appointment of a new foreign minister in Syria, Faisal al Mekdad and his recent travels firstly to Iran and then to Moscow have been viewed by some as a diplomatic win for Tehran.
Moscow has played down such speculation, although a diplomatic tussle is underway which could morph into renewed conflict in the war-torn country.
Following a meeting with his Syrian counterpart, Mekdad, earlier this month the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced a big programme to boost trade and economic cooperation.
In an interview following the meeting, Mekdad added that “it is absolutely in the interest of Syria and Russia to work together for economic cooperation,” adding that “our military cooperation is there, our economic cooperation is there, our scientific cooperation is there. We have hundreds of Syrian students who are studying in Moscow in fact.”
There are even negotiations for Russia to supply the Assad regime-controlled areas with the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine.
Weary of alienating Iran, a senior advisor to Bashar al Assad has urged that “no one decides for Damascus how its relationship with Iran, Hezbollah and the Palestinian resistance should be.”
Damascus is in the precarious position of needing both countries that have ensured its survival but are now also in competition with one another.
Over the years Iran’s investment in the Assad regime has not come cheap. Upwards of $7.5 billion dollars has been pumped into Syria in a bid to stave off Assad’s collapse.
Tensions between Russia and Iranian proxies in Syria recently came to a head when local reports suggested that Russian troops had positioned themselves in proximity to Iranian forces in the Deir Ezzor countryside and the Iraq border.
The move in early December was against the wishes of Iranian forces. What followed was a small clash between Assad’s forces with likely Russian backing in a bide to wrestle contro away control of the border from Iran.
A report in the Atlantic Council paints the differing views between Russia and Iran, saying that over the long term “Russia sees a secular Syria that is somewhat decentralized, and not necessarily territorially intact, while Iran sees something closer to the Lebanese model.”
Those differing models of Syria may be difficult to accomplish regardless of who has the upper hand in Syria simply because of the US presence in northeastern Syria.
Joe Biden's victory in the US elections may result in Russia and Iran keeping a lid on their rivalry. Donald Trump has not hesitated to reduce US presence in whereas Biden may seek to entrench US presence in the region.
Russia and Iran have gone to great lengths to ensure that the US will not overthrow the Assad regime, which could be undermined if Russia and Iran allow their competitive rivalry to spill over and undermine their wider strategic goals.
While Russia has largely consolidated and ensured that its position in Syria, in particular, the Russian air force base in Khmeimim and the naval station in Tartus is secure in contrast to Iran’s position which is still a relatively recent entrant on Syrian territory.
For Iran, Syria forms part of a contiguous territory that runs through Iraq and towards Lebanon reaching the Mediterranean sea. Its geostrategic significance, therefore, is geographically more spread out, a reality Russian has attempted to clip.
As the Syrian revolution has been brutally quashed over the last decade, the conflict for power is increasingly becoming less about the people and the Assad regime and more about a tussle of influence between locally backed proxies seeking to maximise their own national interests.