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Why Iran and Russia aren't as closely aligned on Syria as you might think

Despite the shared short-term goals that have currently united them on Syria, Iran and Russia's differences over Syria's future are bound to lead them into conflict.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (2nd R) meets with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani (2nd L) on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, September 28, 2015. REUTERS/Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS.   - RTX1SY30

TEHRAN, Iran — Common and immediate objectives have united Iran and Russia on Syria in the short run, and this unity will probably be flexed against the West’s influence in the long term. However, when it comes to some key aspects of Syria’s future — including the nature of the government and the rebuilding of the Syrian military — differences between Tehran and Moscow are bound to come to the surface.

In broad terms, Iran and Russia have embarked on the same path and entered a new phase of the geopolitical game in Syria. A major power, Russia is trying to redefine its role in the world, as evidenced by its actions in Ukraine and Syria. After 40 years, Moscow has returned to the Middle East to prove that today’s world is different — and multipolar. Iran’s strategy also revolves around redefining its geopolitical role. Iran’s game in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and even Yemen shouldn't be considered only from an ideological point of view, but rather as the Islamic Republic seeking what can be defined as living space.

In the short run, both Iran and Russia will attempt to preserve Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s position, help him maintain the territory his government now controls and retake territories that the Syrian army has recently lost. There is also the consideration of Russia seeking to test its new weapons and air force. In sum, the obvious aim is to weaken the position of Assad’s opponents in Syria as much as possible, and this short-term objective will ensure the current Iranian-Russian unity.

Yet despite this unity, Moscow and Tehran have serious differences over the future of Syria.

Moscow and Damascus have traditionally been allies. In the past decades, Russia has been the largest exporter of weaponry to Syria, with Tartus serving as the main logistical hub for Russian arms shipments. Moreover, many Syrian commanders and senior officers have been trained in Russia. In this vein, the structure and equipment of the Syrian military depend on Moscow. Russia is thus pursuing the revival of the Syrian military as its leverage in the country, with the belief that the only way to influence the future of Syria is through restoring the Syrian military to its condition before the eruption of the civil war in 2011 — in other words, a secular army that can easily be controlled.

Iran, on the other hand, has chosen a completely different path. When Iran saw that the Syrian army was near collapse, it sought to strengthen irregular forces made up of volunteers. The Islamic Republic thus established a massive force composed of Alawites. The latter has now become the main force combating the different armed opposition groups and is more powerful than the Syrian army on the battlefield. These volunteer forces, which number about 200,000 men, take orders from Iran rather than the Syrian government. According to some reports, about 20,000 Shiites from Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan have also joined them. These forces may very well come to play an important role in the future of Syria. Moreover, the Islamic Republic hopes to use them as a viable alternative to the Assad government. This strategy is not unique to Syria but also encompasses Iranian policy toward Iraq, Lebanon and even Yemen. In Lebanon, Hezbollah is at least as powerful as the Lebanese army. In Iraq, Iran-backed Shiite militias are now the main pillars of the country’s armed forces. Moreover, the Yemen army has been incorporated into the popular Ansar Allah forces.

Iran and Russia also differ on the future political orientation of the Syrian state. For Iran, it is vital that the future Syrian political system maintains an anti-Israeli stance and continues to act as a bridge between Tehran and Hezbollah. In contrast, Russia is not concerning itself with these matters and is even outright avoiding them. Indeed, Israel and Russia have held several meetings in the past few months at the political and military levels to find common ground on Syria. The two sides have agreed on avoiding probable military confrontation in the skies over Syria, and Moscow has even committed itself to preventing Hezbollah from obtaining Russian arms. It has also pledged to impede actions against Israel by pro-government militias and Hezbollah forces in the Golan Heights. Of note, Israel — unlike its Western allies — has not adopted or expressed a negative stance toward the Russian military presence in Syria, signaling that Moscow does not want Syria's future political system to maintain an anti-Israeli posture. In this vein, it should be borne in mind that Israel and Russia have also recently been building good relations and even signed contracts related to trade in advanced weaponry in addition to bilateral military exchanges. Indeed, the bigger picture shows that one of the main goals of Russia in Syria is to get more concessions from Europe and the United States on the issue of Ukraine.

Thus, the possibility of a compromise between Moscow and Washington is not far-fetched and may very well even be reached at the expense of Iran’s interests. In this vein, it seems that Russia and the United States do have the potential to come together over the future of Syria. The common threat posed by radical Islamists along with the lack of a viable alternative presented by Syrian liberals is inducing Russian-American consideration of someone from the Syrian Baath Party as a successor to Assad. At a joint press conference with his Russian counterpart after the first meeting on Syria in Vienna, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the two countries share a commitment to the idea of a secular and democratic Syria. Russia’s discontentment with Iran’s influence in Syria can be detected in the words of President Vladimir Putin during a meeting with Assad, when he — without mentioning Iran’s role over the past few years in helping the Syrian government — said, “The Syrian people have resisted and fought international terrorism practically alone for several years now.”

In short, the differences between Iran and Russia over the future of Syria appear to be quite serious. Yet, these differences are not out in the open as the two countries are trying to achieve common and short-term goals for now. Moreover, it should not be overlooked that Russia is concerned that Iran and the West will narrow the gap between them in the aftermath of the nuclear deal, and that Moscow is therefore trying to show that it enjoys close ties with Tehran. Therefore, it is obvious that with the start of negotiations on the transition of power in Syria and disarmament of different armed groups in the post-Islamic State era, differences between Iran and Russia will inevitably come to the fore.

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