In the Shadow of Ukraine, Russia Risks Losing Syria to Iran

Image courtesy of Louai Beshara / AFP

Russia’s military debacle in Ukraine will have serious consequences for Moscow’s geopolitical position. Unable to defeat one of the poorest countries in Europe, the Kremlin will now have a hard time preserving its traditional allies in the Russian sphere of influence.

This is especially true in Syria, which has been under Moscow’s strategic umbrella since the Soviet era. For instance, Turkey’s recent decision to close its airspace to Russian aircraft transiting to Syria – viewed as applying pressure on Moscow over its war in Ukraine – will affect Russian military capabilities in Syria, where more than 63,000 Russian troops have deployed

Turkey’s own military adventures in Syria will further complicate Russia’s role there. Ankara recently launched a spate of strikes on Kurdish-run parts of the country’s northeast, and although they do not pose an immediate threat to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, the attacks could alter Russia’s support for the Syrian leader. As Russia expert Alexey Malashenko explains, if Syria’s civil war reignites, Moscow would have no choice but to withdraw Russian troops from the Middle Eastern country, as the Kremlin cannot wage two large-scale conflicts at the same time. 

The Kremlin’s weak reaction to Turkey’s decision to close its airspace to Russian planes is another sign that Russian policymakers are aware that when it comes to Syria, Ankara has the upper hand. Perhaps this explains why Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the paramilitary Wagner Group who is closely linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin, recently praised Turkish actions against the Kurds in Iraq and Syria by saying that Ankara, engaged in its own “holy war,” has “every moral right to fight Kurdish militants.”

Such rhetoric will not help the Kremlin appease Ankara, but Putin may recognize the futility of trying. Even though Turkey has not formally joined anti-Russian sanctions over Ukraine, it continues to supply weapons to the Ukrainian government, and its recent actions suggest that Ankara could soon launch a large-scale military campaign of its own in Syria.

Russian officials are aware of such a possibility. Semyon Bagdasarov, a Middle East expert and a member of the Russian Parliament, said on April 24 that Turkey’s ban on Russian flights to Syria could be part of Ankara’s efforts to resolve the situation in northern Syria in its favor – at Russia’s expense. “We should never forget that Turkey is a member of NATO,” said Bagdasarov, explaining why Turkish leaders had yet again stabbed Russia in the back (a sentiment that dates back years).

Hypothetically, Russia could respond to Ankara’s actions in Syria by banning the imports of Turkish tomatoes, or by temporarily closing the TurkStream pipeline for “maintenance.” But given Moscow’s weak geopolitical position, and the fact that its economy already suffers from Western sanctions, it is unlikely that the Kremlin will do anything further to jeopardize relations with Ankara.

For Russia, the flight ban means that it will have difficulty supplying troops in Khmeimim and Tartus. It is entirely possible that Turkey, pressured by the United States, made such a decision to prevent Russia from relocating parts of its air forces from Khmeimim to Ukraine. Previously, on February 28, Ankara restricted passage of Russian warships through the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits unless they were returning to their bases in the Black Sea. In other words, unless Turkish-backed rebels launch a large-scale offensive in Syria, Russia’s assistance to Assad’s Syrian Arab Army will be limited. Even then, the Ukraine war has significantly diminished Russia’s response capacity.

That is why, in the event of intensified fighting in Syria, Assad will likely turn to Iran rather than Russia for support. According to some reports, Iranian forces have already deployed to parts of Syria previously controlled by Russian troops.

Iran is also stepping up to address fuel shortages in Syria, which are impacting basic services and leading to an increase in food prices. Before Russia invaded Ukraine, Moscow was actively supplying gasoline to Syria. But Putin’s Ukrainian adventure has disrupted supply chains, and now, according to Russian sources, Iran has become the main supplier of gasoline and other fuels to the Assad regime.

None of this has changed Syria’s political allegiance, and for now at least, Damascus remains loyal to Moscow. As Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad put it recently: Syria “supports the Russian Federation in its opposition to the West’s policy based on lies and double standards.” Syria also praised Russia’s decision to recognize the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic in Ukraine’s Donbas region (although Damascus has not officially recognized the self-proclaimed entities).

 

Assad seems to be pursuing a foreign policy that has been used for years by another Russian ally – Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko. But while Lukashenko has been balancing between Russia and the West, Assad will, for the foreseeable future, balance Syria’s ties between Moscow and Tehran. Yet in the long-term, the war in Ukraine will diminish Russia’s influence in Syria, and in the process, open the door for Iran to replace Russia as Assad’s main backer.

Nikola Mikovic is a political analyst in Serbia. His work focuses mostly on the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, with special attention on energy and “pipeline politics.”