With the US withdrawal from northern Syria, Russia’s role in the ultimate settlement of the Syrian war and its ability to restrict Iranian influence will carry enormous importance for both its allies and enemies.
As the Assad regime recently consolidated its position in the Syrian conflict, taking much of the country back except the northern part, many experts think that Damascus owes its survival to Moscow and Tehran, the two external powers the regime has relied on during the seven-year civil war.
The Syrian regime was on the brink of collapse before the Russian intervention in 2015, and it survived that long under the military guidance of Iran, which reorganised Syrian security forces by establishing the National Defence Forces, a coalition of different armed groups, dominated by Shiite militias.
With Russian airpower backing the regime and Iranian-led land forces bolstering Assad’s weakened army, Damascus has been able to defeat highly disorganised opposition forces.
“Well, it [the Russian intervention] was a brilliant move first of all whether it’s [politically] correct or not,” said Sergei Karaganov, an influential Russian political scientist and a former foreign policy advisor to the Kremlin, during an extensive interview with TRT World in early October.
With the withdrawal of the US from northern Syria, which has predominantly been run by the US-backed and PKK-linked YPG, Russia’s role in the ultimate settlement of the Syrian war and its limiting of Iranian influence will carry enormous importance for both its allies and enemies.
“Russia probably wants to be the primary patron of the Assad regime, and more specifically, Russia would want to remain the primary foreign actor with influence along the Syrian Mediterranean coast where its military bases are located,” said Sener Akturk, a political science professor at Koc University and the author of Turkey's Role in the Arab Spring and the Syrian Conflict.
“Therefore, Iran remaining the secondary influence over the Assad regime, away from the Mediterranean coast, and primarily with land forces fighting in difficulty inner Syrian locations, could be acceptable to Russia,” Akturk told TRT World.
As a result, Russia will probably not be willing to leave Syria under Iranian dominance.
“I think Syrian gains will be more dispensable for Russia,” said Akturk, arguing that Moscow, which is also involved in the Ukrainian conflict on the side of pro-Russian forces fighting against Kiev, will definitely prioritise its Syria intervention over Ukraine, using its gains in Syria to find a better settlement in the Ukrainian conflict.
The regime’s friendship with both Russia and Iran is not a new phenomenon. It goes back to the days of the Cold War when Moscow built a naval base in Syria’s Tartus, a Mediterranean port city, and Tehran found a sole supporter in Damascus during its brutal long war with Iraq in the 1980s.
But experts think that not only does the survival of the regime depend on both allies but the elusive nature of relations between Iran and Russia could be problematic for Syria’s long-term future.
Despite their alliances in Syria and some other places, both Tehran and Moscow have competing interests and different political agendas in Syria and the larger Middle East.
While Iran has faced fierce opposition from both Israel and Saudi Arabia, Russia has been on good terms with both countries. Israel’s ability to attack to Iran-linked military bases in Syria, whose airspace has been controlled by Russia, also demonstrates that Tel Aviv and Moscow have a mutual understanding.
Can Russia limit Iranian influence?
Expanding Iranian political clout across Syria is also a point of concern between the US and Russia, the two old superpowers, which had divided the world into their spheres of influences in the past.
“We have knowledge that Americans and Russians work together on certain issues depending on their common interests,” said Cevat Ones, the former deputy director of the Turkish national intelligence agency.
In late August, John Bolton, the National Security Adviser to US President Donald Trump mentioned the same himself referring to his conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"What he was saying was that Iranian interests in Syria were not coterminous with Russian interests in Syria and he would be content to see Iranian forces all sent back to Iran,” Bolton said, during a press conference in Israel.
“We were talking about the complete return of both regular and irregular Iranian forces," Bolton said. But his comments were corrected soon after a meeting with Bolton’s Russian counterpart.
The next day after his comments regarding Tehran’s influence, Bolton said that Washington and Moscow could not reach an agreement on Iranian involvement in Syria.
The disagreement also indicates that Russia appears to move in a calculated manner while trying not to rile up its old and new allies in Syria and other locations.
After being disappointed by the US-led Western alliance, Turkey joined with Russia and Iran to develop the Astana peace process to address the Syrian conflict in parallel to the UN-led Geneva talks.
But Iran is still one of Russia’s most powerful allies across the Middle East, Caucasia, and Central Asia, Ones told TRT World, indicating that the alliance has the potential to create problems for Turkey in Syria in the long-run.
“Russia thinks that if Iran was forced to leave Syria, Russia-Iran axis could be broken up,” Ones said, and as a result, Russia wants to keep Iran in Syria but under its control.
“We are calculating [our own situation in Syria]. Sometimes we are withdrawing, and sometimes we are adding [our forces there],” Karaganov said.
“Now we are hopefully on solid ground because we built troops on the ground through the coalition of countries and forces who have vested interests in the stability [of Syria],” Karaganov said. He also criticised some European countries and the US on the grounds that they are pursuing geostrategic and ideological goals there.
But, like the West’s regime change agenda, which Karaganov criticises as an ideological goal, Russia’s “situational” ally, Iran, also has an ideological agenda which aims to extend its Shiite Crescent from Central Asia to the Mediterranean Sea through Syria.
Karaganov also thinks Russia’s Syria involvement would have to be cut at some point.
“But not for the foreseeable future. Syria can not survive without help from outside,” Karaganov said.