Hanin Ghaddar

Tehran and Moscow: a shaky alliance

Russia is a bully but Iran will not be its obedient wife

This temporary alliance between the Caesar and Wali al-Faqih will not endure. (Tania Radwan/NOW)

In July this year, Major General Qassem Soleimani visited Moscow to coordinate the Russian military intervention, thereby forging the new Iranian-Russian alliance in Syria. This coordination materialized in the bombing of Syrian rebels by Russian aircraft accompanied by the arrival of Iranian Special Forces on the ground. According to a Reuters report, Soleimani’s visit was preceded by high-level Russian-Iranian contact and meetings to coordinate military strategies.


Although it looks like Moscow and Tehran have a clear, common goal — to prop Assad up and crush the remaining rebel groups on the ground — their long-term visions for Syria and the region differ. Their political and military strategies reveal that the current alliance is a temporary one. It’s an alliance over Assad, not Syria.



What Iran wants


Iran has long backed Iraqi, Pakistani and Afghan Shiite militias, in addition to Hezbollah, to fight alongside the Syrian Army, all under IRGC advisors and commanders. Iran has treated Assad’s army like any other militia under its command, though victories are mainly accredited to Hezbollah. Iran is looking to change demography — moving Sunnis from Zabadani and the Damascus suburbs to Idlib — because it sees the conflict and any future solution as based on sectarian grounds.


Iran wants a partition that guarantees the security of the Alawite state. In practical terms this guarantees an Iranian-controlled corridor that stretches from the coast to Homs, Damascus, and all the way up to Lebanon’s border, thereby ensuring Hezbollah’s power in Lebanon and easy Iranian passage through the region.


Iran believes that the Shiites in the region are the protectors of its political agenda and wants to unite all Shiites under its umbrella irrespective of the borders between countries or states. In Iran’s view Syria is not a state — it’s just part of the Iranian plan.


Fundamentally, Iran wants in Syria what is has in Lebanon — weak, ineffective state institutions incapable of making decisions without the approval of their patrons. As in Lebanon, Iran wants to indirectly control Syria’s state institutions and have access to the Golan in the same way it has access to South Lebanon through Hezbollah.



What Russia wants


Of course Putin mainly wants to empower himself, but he needs the Syrian institutions to do so. Russia wants to preserve the Syrian state. Putin wants to prop Assad up simply because the state institutions — including the army and the security apparatus — are still linked to his regime. Putin is not investing in Assad per se, but rather in Syria’s institutions. That’s why Russia has only supplied weapons to the Syrian Army and wants all militias united under it.


Unlike Tehran, Moscow is not interested in changing demography or in maintaining the Shiite/Alawite corridor. Moscow does not want to see Assad go and then be implicitly replaced by Soleimani. Assad must go eventually, but only after a stable political solution is secured. That’s why Russia went with Geneva I.


A political solution that guarantees a transitional body — and eventually parliamentary and presidential elections — suits Moscow more than partition. Russia has made major investments in Syria, particularly in oil and gas projects. According to the Damascus Chamber of Commerce, in 2011 Russia invested $19 billion in Syria. Since then, that figure is widely believed to have increased by $1 billion. These investments could be lost if the Assad regime and its state institutions fail.  


Moreover, a large presence in the region will give Russia it a bigger seat at the table, where it can negotiate Ukraine, sanctions and other economic issues with world powers. Russia’s goal requires a united Syria with strong state institutions, but not a completely new regime that would work against it.



A temporary marriage


According to an Al-Hayat report, Iran’s attempt to run the Tartous military base was one of the reasons Russia decided to move. This corridor is necessary for Iran, but the coast is equally significant to Russia.


With different goals, diverse strategies and divergent visons, Moscow and Tehran are bound to disagree. After Assad’s humiliating visit to Moscow, last week’s Vienna meeting which excluded Iran, and a Russian-Israeli military coordination in Syria, Russia seems to have proceeded with a plan. According to an Al-Quds Al-Arabi report, the Russian initiative presented in Vienna includes two interesting points: first, that all countries (Iran included) should immediately cease military assistance to whomever they’re supporting in Syria; and two, that Russia keep its forces in Syria to guarantee that the peace plan is implemented after the UNSC approves it.


This means that Russia wants Iran and its militias out of Syria and it wants to stay. Not great news for Iran, which probably now feels betrayed by the Caesar. Iran has spent billions of dollars in Syria and lost thousands of Iranian, Lebanese and Iraqi Shiite fighters, including elite commanders, to keep a firm grip on Syria, not hand it over to Moscow.


It is already too late for Iran to pull back from the alliance. In any case, that was the only choice after its losses yielded no victory.


This doesn’t mean that Russia doesn’t need Iran anymore and can go on without the support of its ground troops. Putin has put himself and his country in a dilemma. He now has to please everyone and get a solution before its too late, or before the Gulf states retaliate by sending MANPADS to the rebels, at which point everyone can kiss a political solution goodbye.


This temporary alliance between the Caesar and Wali al-Faqih will not endure. Russia is a bully but Iran will not be the obedient wife.


Hanin Ghaddar is the managing editor of NOW and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council. She tweets @haningdr

This temporary alliance between the Caesar and Wali al-Faqih will not endure. (Tania Radwan/NOW)

Iran wants in Syria what is has in Lebanon — weak, ineffective state institutions incapable of making decisions without the approval of its patrons."