Attempts to transform Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad into a regional bulwark against Iran have been tried before - and didn't work. There is little to no evidence that it will work this time around.
The Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad has nearly collapsed twice under pressure from the armed insurrection, in late 2012 and early 2015. On both occasions, Assad was rescued by outside powers, first Iran and then a joint Iranian-Russian operation. It has been a recurring illusion that there is or will be, a strategic split between Russia and Iran.
This prospect has continued to tantalise the US and others, and occasional Moscow-Tehran disagreements are presented as evidence that dynamics are shifting this way. Another round of such speculation is currently underway.
The Assad regime has in fundamental ways broken down, with militias and warlords deputised as “the state” in various zones. These rapacious actors compete with one another. Sometimes they even clash, as recently happened with the Fourth Division, led by the dictator’s brother, Maher al Assad, and the Tiger Forces, led by Suhayl al Hassan.
Maher is known to be close to Iran, and al Hassan is Russia’s primary ground instrument, apart from its deniable armed forces. Thus, for some this was interpreted as the first shot in the coming apart of the Iran-Russia axis; having rescued the Assad state, the two sides were now going to compete for dominance over it, according to this theory.
Another, more high-profile and public track of “evidence” pointing to the demise of the Iran-Russia alliance in Syria has come directly from Moscow. In recent weeks, the Russians have assured Gulf Arab states that Iran’s influence will be curbed as part of the “normalisation” of the Assad regime and assured Israel that Russia and Iran are not genuine allies, they have merely “worked together."
The occasional scuffles between pro-Iranian and pro-Russian factions of the Assad regime are evidence only of the crippled and dysfunctional nature of the regime. It is irrelevant to overall trends, but it happens that in this case, it is far from clear that this was a Russia-Iran issue; the units they sponsor do have an agency of their own.
Such squabbles—as with the competition for “reconstruction” contracts—are marginal, best viewed as bureaucratic turf wars. The Russians and Iranians are co-dependent in Syria and reliant on the Assad regime; these strategic facts will always prevail, limiting the extent of any contest for power or resources.
In light of this, it should be reasonably apparent that the Russian messaging about differences with Tehran is a disinformation campaign, coming at a time when Moscow is pushing hard to reintegrate Assad into the regional and international state system. The Russian government is simply incapable of reducing, let alone eliminating, Iran’s influence in Syria, and there is no indication it wants to.
The Israelis should be immune to a propaganda campaign like this, not least because they have recent experience: the Kremlin convincing Israel to hold fire as Iran captured the Israel-Syria border zone over the summer. But given Israel’s Syria policy so far, it is unclear. The Gulf states appear willing to go along with Russia.
The Gulf states, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been on the opposing side to Russia in Syria. The two governments began supporting anti-Assad groups in 2012, but this quickly devolved into an internecine competition that divided and weakened the rebellion. The potential for an alternative course is visible in what happened in 2015 when the two worked together to unify the rebels and opposition groups – advances made such progress it necessitated direct Russian action to stop it.
Having turned the tide militarily, the Russians are trying to bring the former supporters of the Syrian rebellion onboard politically with the renewal of Assad’s rule. For example, Moscow is currently working to foster cooperation between Assad and Turkey via a proposal to re-energise the moribund Adana Agreement on dealing with the PKK terrorists. Ankara remains, so far, the major holdout among the opposition's supporters in refusing to deal with Assad. The Gulf states, by contrast, have been on the road to Damascus.
Always sceptical of revolution in general, the United Arab Emirates re-opened its Embassy in Damascus in December and Bahrain announced it would follow suit. Earlier this month, a business forum in Abu Dhabi sought to bring together the ostensibly private sectors of Syria and the UAE.
The UAE has long served as the principal financial conduit for both Assad and Iran through Dubai. Saudi Arabia does not appear to be joining its allies in resuming diplomatic relations with Assad at this time, and the Saudis’ rival, Qatar, has ruled out this possibility.
The justification given for re-engaging in Damascus by Gulf officials is that, since there is no plan to forcibly and comprehensively evict Iran, this is the next best thing. They argue that it diversifies Assad’s revenue and support streams, which over time weakens Iran’s hold and gives them influence over him. This has been tried before.
The Assad regime was isolated in the mid-2000s because of its use of terrorism in foreign policy, notably collaborating with Daesh against US forces and the Iraqi government. The final straw was the 2005 murder of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in collaboration with Iran’s Hezbollah militia.
Shortly after the Hariri assassination, however, the Gulf states—led by Saudi Arabia and including Qatar—decided to try a different strategy to deal with Iran’s closest Arab ally: bringing Assad in from the cold so he could be peeled away from the Iranians. It did not work. Such strategies based on economic engagement tend not to.
Saudi funding for Egypt’s government has not stopped Cairo tilting towards Assad, and US funding for the Lebanese Armed Forces has done nothing to weaken Hezbollah in Beirut.
In the years since that last effort by the Gulf states to seduce Assad away from Tehran, he has only grown more dependent on Iran. There is no leverage to be gained over Assad with money. Any investment in regime-controlled areas of Syria at the present time is simply bankrolling Iran’s regional project.
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