Simultaneous and cumulative pressures of the coronavirus pandemic, the global oil plunge and lingering conflict continue to afflict Syria, its economy, and the major actors involved in the Syrian civil war, not least Iran and Russia, the Bashar al Assad regime's chief allies.
The multi-faceted predicament and its economic fallout seem to have triggered rare soul-searching and misgivings about the future of the Syria project among parts of the Iranian and Russian political establishments.
In the case of the Islamic Republic, the Trump administration’s relentless “maximum pressure” campaign of draining economic sanctions are an additional, and significant, cause for concern.
A number of media outlets affiliated with the Kremlin published rare and blunt restrictions on the Assad regime and its systemic corruption as a formidable impediment to post-conflict reconstruction.
Shortly after, an influential Iranian MP and ranking member of the Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Committee went public about Tehran’s overall financial contribution to the Syrian war effort: “When I travelled to Syria, some said that I created [political] costs [for the Islamic Republic],” Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh noted in a video interview on May 20.
He was referring to a January 2019 trip to the war-ravaged country in during his year-long tenure as head of the committee, and meeting with Syrian Prime Minister Imad Khamis.
In the meeting, he had reportedly stressed, in apparent defiance of conventional political courtesy between the two traditional allies, that Tehran’s assistance to Damascus ought to be considered and settled in the framework of bilateral ties.
The statement echoes growing discontent among ordinary Iranians with the way the government sets its budgetary priorities and distributes scarce resources at a time when poverty is rapidly on the rise at home.
This was not, however, the first time official statements about Iran’s considerable expenditure in Syria since the outbreak of civil war in 2011 drew media attention.
In February 2018, Yahya Rahim Safavi, former commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and current military advisor to the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, highlighted Moscow’s efforts to secure military, political and economic concessions in Syria, and insisted that Tehran should follow suit.
“I think Iran, too, can have long-term political and economic contracts with the Syrian regime and return the costs it has incurred in Syria,” Safavi stated at the time.
He added that Damascus was willing to repay Tehran’s debt through its natural resources and that the Islamic Republic was already “exporting from Syria’s phosphate mines.”
Both Russia and Iran are unsurprisingly seeking returns on their costly investment and intervention in Syria to keep the Assad regime in power.
While Moscow is particularly interested in restoring a semblance of stability and functionality — so that it can get post-conflict reconstruction off the ground and lead the initiative — Iran’s primary objective is military as well as ideological entrenchment, so that it can build an additional layer of forward defence and deterrence in its regional security structure.
Accordingly, while neither Iran nor Russia seek to establish anything remotely close to democracy in Syria or an alternative to Bashar al Assad and his Alawite-centered rule, it is easier for Damascus to accommodate Tehran’s demands — as it more or less consistently has so far — than to give in to political reconciliation by opening up to the opposition and reforming the constitution, as Moscow demands.
This is the main strategic dynamic behind the divergence of interests between the Islamic Republic and the Russian Federation in Syria, so much so that even Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Iran’s top unconventional ally in the region, has affirmed it in passing.
It is also arguably part of the reason why Turkey finds it more convenient to work with Russia than with the Islamic Republic in the context of the Syrian civil war.
In January 2019, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov rebuffed the idea of an “alliance” between the two power brokers in Syria, cautioning that, “I wouldn't use this type of words to describe where we are with Iran.”
His unprecedented comments came only one day after Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, then head of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, inveighed against Russia for allegedly de-activating its S-300 missile defense systems in Syria during Israeli aerial operations. “It appears there is some sort of coordination between Israeli strikes and the Russian air defense units based in Syria,” he said.
Along these lines, in fact the long-term purpose of Israel’s increased strikes against Iran-linked positions and installations across Syria — the famed “campaign between wars” strategy — has been to raise the cost for Assad, as well as for the Kremlin, of Iran’s continued (para)military involvement in the Arab country and cause a rift between these allies and partners.
A relatively rare visit to Damascus by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif last month and his meeting Assad himself, despite travel restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic, was seemingly aimed at reassuring the Syrian regime leader that Tehran keeps backing him as long as the terms and conditions of their strategic alliance are intact.
Notably, Tehran’s unwavering support for Damascus was also expressed by Hossein Amirabdollahian, a former deputy foreign minister in Arab affairs and current director of international affairs at the Iranian parliament, who lauded Assad as the “great leader of fight against Takfiri terrorism in the Arab world” and dismissed rumors of an Iranian-Russian conspiracy to remove him as a “big lie and Zionist-American media’s game.”
Most of the critical comments recently published about the Assad regime in Kremlin-affiliated Russian outlets, such as RIA FAN, Pravda, Kommersant and Valdai Club, focused on economic-political corruption and the pressing need for reforms in the lead up to presidential elections in 2011, so that Syria could be brought back in from the cold and reintegrated into the international fold with Russian assistance.
In contrast, there have not been many such calls, let alone pressure, from Tehran on Damascus for constitutional reforms or a power-sharing arrangement between Assad and his domestic opponents as a necessary step towards a political settlement.
Meanwhile, the curious case of Rami Makhlouf has further complicated the internal balance of power in Syria and fueled intense speculation about growing schisms within Assad’s predominantly Alawite support base.
It is not entirely clear what, if anything of substance, the Makhlouf-Assad row might have to do with Russia or Iran and their rivalry in Syria, but Makhlouf purportedly nurses grievances against Assad’s wife Asma and brother Maher, both of whom reportedly happen to harbor close connections with the IRGC.
On the one hand, Syria’s first lady, who runs a sprawling charity network in the country, has reportedly “partnered” with the Revolutionary Guards in a mobile service contract, reinforcing conjectures about the latter’s longstanding interest in keeping a tab on Syrian communications, a venture the IRGC has vigorously, and successfully, pursued at home in recent years.
Against this backdrop, it is worth noting that Syriatel, Syria’s biggest telecommunications firm and Makhlouf’s most prized business holding that was recently confiscated by the Assad regime, has 11 million subscribers, with half the revenues going to state coffers.
On the other hand, Maher, whose elite 4th Armored Division is believed to compete with Russia-led 5th Assault Corps, is trying to incorporate Shia militia forces within the former with the assistance of IRGC, which also seeks greater clout within the Syrian Republican Guard.
In an apparent attempt to strengthen his political hand in Syria and placate simmering tensions, Russian President Vladimir Putin elevated Moscow’s ambassador to Damascus, Alexander Efimov, to the post of his special representative to the Arab republic.
The Kremlin’s political readjustments in Syria come at the same time as Tehran continues to help the Assad regime stay afloat.
In March alone, Iran shipped almost 8 million barrels of crude to Syria, an extension of support that is very unlikely to be returned economically.
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