Russian-Iranian alliance over Syria is not as strong as some believe

Rouhani PutinThe governments of Russia and the Islamic Republic of Iran are arguably the two most important allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But the Russian-Iranian alliance over Syria is not as solid —and may not be as durable— as some believe. On Monday, Iranian news agency ISNA reported that Iran’s minister for intelligence condemned Russia’s increased military involvement in Syria and said it would weaken Iran’s security. The minister, Mahmoud Alavi, opined at a press conference in Tehran that the intensification of Russia’s military operations in Syria would backfire against Iran, because it would prompt the Islamic State to “redouble its efforts to destabilize Iran’s security”.

Alavi’s comments came two weeks after Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps said that Iran cared about the stability of al-Assad’s regime in Syria more than Russia did. Jafari was responding to earlier comments made by Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who said that Moscow would not insist in keeping al-Assad in power in Damascus as a matter of principle. When asked to comment on Zakharova’s comments, Jafari said Iran had to accept that Russia “may not care if al-Assad stays in power as we do”. The difference between Tehran and Moscow, said Jafari, was that “we don’t know any better person to replace him”.

So does that spell changes in the dynamics of the Russian-Iranian alliance over Syria? Such an eventuality should not be discounted, says Sergey Aleksashenko, nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He explains that, although both the Russians and the Iranians have aided al-Assad, their reasons for doing so are very different. Russia’s interests in Syria center on maintaining access to its naval base in Tartus, and on retaining a geopolitical presence in the Middle East. Iran’s support for Assad aims to prevent Tehran’s traditional foes, namely Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, from turning Syria into their protectorate. Additionally, says Aleksashenko, Iran appears much more willing to deploy ground troops in the fight against ISIS than Russia. The Islamic Republic is also much more willing to go against the wishes of other regional powers, like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which Moscow tends to court.

Ultimately, says Aleksashenko, “although Russia has strategic interests in Syria, it has no intention to keep a military presence in the Middle East forever”. The Iranians, however, have no choice but to dwell in one of the world’s most unstable regions. Al-Assad’s removal would add significantly to that instability, and that is not something that Tehran is willing to permit.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 18 November 2015 | Permalink

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