The Next Stage of Russia-Iran Competition in Syria

Neil Hauer

What can we expect next in Syria? Look for Russia and Iran to do battle against each other. The last several years of the conflict have each been characterized by a different theme, from 2014’s rise of ISIS to last year’s inter-state conflicts. In between those years have been a series of changes of fortune for all the protagonists. Looking ahead, this year may be marked by the fraying of the main pro-government alliance, with Moscow and Tehran each pitting their preferred factions of the shattered Syrian military against one another.

In the past few weeks of this year, there have been reports of open conflict between pro-regime units in firmly government-held territory. In mid-January, it emerged that armed clashes had erupted between Russian- and Iranian-backed units in Hama province. The January 19 battle involved heavy weapons, including tanks and artillery, that reportedly took the lives of up to 200 fighters. The Russian opposition newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, claimed that the clashes went further yet and involved Russian and Iranian units in direct military confrontation, with the former seeking to defend a pair of strategic points on the Ghab plain astride rebel-held Idlib province. Another Russian daily, Kommersant, reported that pro-Iranian forces had opposed the return of displaced Sunni civilians to the area, confronting Russian-backed units over local farmland they had hoped to secure for their own.

The proximate trigger of the clashes appears to be a battle for primacy between different factions of the Syrian army. Russia favors Suheil Hassan, a commander whose rise to prominence began in 2013 and reached new heights following Moscow’s intervention in late 2015. Hassan’s personal regiment, the Tiger Forces, have since been incorporated into the Fifth Corps, a Russian-trained unit that has become one of the country’s most cohesive.

Iran, meanwhile, has chosen to back the Fourth Armored Division of Maher Al Assad, the brother of the president, Bashar Al Assad.

Each side has an array of supporting forces in the country: Russia with its military police and Wagner paramilitary mercenaries, and Iran with a vast array of local and foreign Shitte militia fighters.

Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, caused a stir on January 25 when, speaking shortly after the reported clashes, he refuted the notion that Russia and Iran were allies, saying, “We have simply worked together.”

While usually not stated so bluntly, Moscow and Tehran have long diverged in their goals and approaches in Syria. Iran favors changing the demographic makeup of Syria in key areas (rumored to be a cause of the January infighting). It seeks to implant its various proxy militias into the structure of the reforged Syrian state, as in the way of the Hashd Al Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Force, in neighboring Iraq. Above all, it wants to build Syria into a base of operations for a new confrontation with Israel.

Russia wants none of that. Moscow’s primary goals are to bring the conflict to a resolution by negotiating a partition of rebel-held Idlib (including the neutering of hardline groups like Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, more usually known by its HTS acronym) with Turkey and to prevent a large-scale Turkish-Kurdish conflict.

The Kremlin has no interest in watching a destructive new war between an Iran-led alliance and Israel breaking out, over which Moscow would have almost no control. This last point has become particularly contentious, with a high-ranking Iranian defense official recently accusing Russia of coordinating with Israel to allow the latter to strike Iranian targets in Syria.

The recent reports of Russian-Iranian tensions in Syria are not the first, however. During an alleged health scare over Al Assad in 2017, rumours swirled that Russian military police and Iranian militias were each occupying strategic positions in Damascus, should a sudden succession to the president be in the offing.

Moscow also has no love lost for the Assads. Vladimir Putin has never liked Bashar Al Assad and regards him as responsible for mismanaging the uprising to such a degree that he was nearly toppled. On a previous visit to Syria, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu summoned the Syrian leader to meet him, a clear signal of who was meant to be in charge. More memorably, during Putin’s December 2017 visit, Al Assad was physically restrained from walking beside the Russian president, with a Russian officer holding him back until he was forced to trail behind.

Iran now also seems to have been cut out of the previous troika that consisted of itself along with Russia and Turkey. Under the auspices of the Astana and Sochi negotiations, these three countries emerged as the primary dealmakers over Syria, and they still continue to meet regularly in both formats. But there has been little mention of Iran with regards to Idlib’s fate, and even less regarding that of Manbij, where Turkey seeks to expel the Syrian Kurdish YPG. Both scenarios have been publicly discussed almost exclusively between Moscow and Ankara. To be sure, Tehran has always been content to play a less visible role in public diplomacy over Syria, preferring instead to influence events on the ground. But it now appears to be facing issues exerting its will vis-à-vis Russia in this sphere as well.

In the first two weeks of this month, Moscow and Tehran made attempt to paper over their differences, with Ryabkov, the Russian deputy foreign minister, issuing a statement lauding the “effective cooperation” of Russia and Iran in restoring Syria’s territorial integrity.

But such public remarks can only do so much to cover over the evident divergence between the two as incentives to cooperate decrease. The relations between the Fourth Division and Fifth Corps, and their dispositions in central Syria, will tell a much more revealing tale in the coming months.

Neil Hauer is a security analyst based in Tbilisi, Georgia. His work focuses on the Syrian conflict, particularly Russia’s role; politics and minorities in the South Caucasus; and violence and politics in the North Caucasus, particularly Chechnya and Ingushetia.