DUBAI - Russia’s military intervention in the Syrian civil war in September 2015 was a major turning point in the conflict, shifting momentum strongly in favour of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces.
Prior to Russia’s entry into the war, the scale, manner and timing of which came as a surprise to all, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was already heavily immersed in Syria with its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah.
Tehran was fighting what increasingly looked like a lost cause with unsustainable costs. Moscow’s intervention came just as many were starting to believe that the IRGC-Hezbollah effort to prevent the collapse of the Assad government was destined to fail. In that context, Moscow’s surprise entry into Syria not only served as much-needed relief for Assad but for Tehran as well.
Russia’s bold foray into Syria stemmed from multiple reasons and various motivations. These included protecting Moscow’s last partner in the Arab world from collapse, dispelling lingering perceptions that Russia abandons partners in times of need, testing Russia’s military capability in rolling back the Islamic State (ISIS), outmanoeuvring the Americans and aiming for recognition as a global power in the Middle East again.
As far as its core objectives in Syria are concerned, Moscow has arguably achieved greater success than the United States, Turkey and even Iran. Moscow has had its efforts aided by Iran and Hezbollah in different ways, having steered clear of the type of counter-insurgency campaigns that bogged down the United States in Iraq and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
Russia focused its military activity in Syria primarily on air power but also trained, equipped and aided government and aligned ground forces. Russian soldiers have been deployed sparingly. Taking a leaf out of recent Western approaches, Russia relied increasingly on paid mercenaries in Syria. However, the reality remains that the IRGC-Hezbollah role in Syria has been indispensable to Damascus and irreplaceable for Moscow.
Now, new pressures from Israel are emerging to test the apparent Russian-Iranian partnership in Syria. Israel has maintained a strong working relationship with Moscow in Syria since the Russian military intervention began. Russian President Vladimir Putin is known to have strong personal rapport with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and remains friendly with Israel.
The Israelis have pressed Moscow more firmly than ever as they mobilise against the IRGC, Hezbollah and their allies in Syria to prevent the occupied Golan Heights from becoming part of an extended front. Russia will quickly find that its Syria policy is no longer as invulnerable as it once thought.
Russia has become Iran’s most important partner. The Syrian civil war has been a key driving factor but, more broadly, Iran’s defiance of the United States provides welcome opportunities for Moscow within the region and elsewhere, such as in Europe where US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal generated anger and frustration.
When Putin visited Tehran in November, he was told by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that Russian-Iranian cooperation could “isolate America.” Calling their cooperation “very productive,” Putin reportedly assured Khamenei that he would not “betray” him.
Putin has been a strong supporter of the Iran nuclear deal but the American withdrawal from it could prove advantageous as far as it rules out the possibility of an American-Iranian rapprochement and induces further tensions into American-European relations.
Yet the Israeli factor is likely to have a strong effect on Russian strategy in Syria and its ties with Iran. Russia will attempt to play the role of mediator between Israel and Iran through back-channel diplomacy but these efforts are unlikely to yield lasting results.
The IRGC is unlikely to be willing to make concessions for Israel in Syria based on Russian pressure. Despite growing alignment in recent years, Iranians have harboured mistrust of Russia for more than three centuries — their empires were rivals with Persia eventually being forced to cede large territories and the Soviet Union’s occupation of Iran after the second world war is far from forgotten.
What the IRGC is more likely to do is exert strong pressure on the Syrian state to return the favour by supporting its activities, which will probably become more Israel-centric than before.
Ultimately, the Russians may find that remaining neutral or divorced from the Israeli-Iranian confrontation in Syria is no longer without costs — it will inevitably affect Russia’s standing and jeopardise the gains it has made. Alas, Syria could be about to turn into the quagmire Moscow thought it was immune from.
Sabahat Khan is a senior analyst at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA).
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