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Ukraine war at year 1: Russia-Iran alignment threatens delicate Middle East balance

US officials say Russia's invasion of Ukraine has given Iran a chance to hone its drone warfare skills while potentially expanding its proxies' footprint in Syria, risking escalation with Israel.
A Russian Tupolev Tu-160 strategic bomber and Su-35S fighter jets fly in formation during the Victory Day military parade, Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2021.

One year into Vladimir Putin’s ill-fated war against Ukraine, US officials have grown increasingly wary that a military partnership of convenience between Russia and Iran could evolve into strategic coordination with potentially dangerous consequences for the Middle East.

Last July, CIA Director William Burns cautioned against overestimating Moscow's alignment with Tehran, citing historical tensions. Just five months later, White House National Security Council coordinator John Kirby sounded the alarm over an emerging “full-scale defense partnership” between the two fueled by “an unprecedented level of military and technical support.”

Iran’s plan to receive some two dozen Russian Su-35 fighter jets this year and potentially S-400 air defense systems could complicate the US and Israeli military deterrent to Iran’s nuclear enrichment, some analysts have suggested.

Yet US military officials say they will be able to subdue any such gains by Iran’s air forces if ever ordered to do so.

A senior US military official with responsibility in the region told reporters he did not anticipate additional long-term US F-35 or F-22 deployments to the Middle East in order to deter Iran’s future Su-35s. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity in accordance with ground rules set by the Pentagon.

“Iran’s increasing capability is something we watch closely,” the deputy commander of all US forces in the Middle East, Air Force Lt. Gen. Gregory Guillot, told Al-Monitor in an exclusive interview last month.

“CENTCOM and our partners are well equipped to mitigate threats to the region, including the Su-35 and air defense systems,” Guillot noted. “We regularly conduct exercises and training events, some of which are focused on obtaining and maintaining air superiority by countering and defeating all air and surface to air threats."

However, Pentagon officials acknowledge that an injection of Russian technology into Iran’s already vast arsenal of one-way Shahed attack drones is likely to increase the danger to US troops and allies in the Middle East at a time when American defenses are spread thin in the region.

That concern was high on the agenda during meetings in Riyadh last week, as senior Biden administration officials sought to impart the urgency of bolstering regional air defenses with representatives from all six Gulf Cooperation Council countries.

But even more troubling, according to one senior American general, is the possibility of high-level coordination between Russia and Iran on regional strategy, particularly in Syria, where both support the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

“The technical advances in warfare are as old as warfare. So it's something that you're always adapting to,” the top US Air Force commander in the Middle East, Lt. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, told a small group of reporters at the Pentagon.

"The strategic impact of the relationship between Russia and Iran is potentially more concerning to me," Grynkewich said in response to a question posed by Al-Monitor.

High-level cooperation between Russia and Iran in Syria has long been limited in large part by their governments' competing interests there, including control over key bases and economic assets, as well as Moscow’s desire to maintain its upper hand in influencing the regime in Damascus.

But with Russia bogged down in Ukraine and increasingly dependent on Iran for guided munitions, analysts who spoke to Al-Monitor said the power balance in Syria could be ripe for a shift. Tehran's warm reception for Syrian Defense Minister Ali Mahmoud Abbas last month is among the latest signs the Islamic Republic may already feel it has a freer hand.

“In a way, Russia is now beholden to Iran,” Grynkewich explained. "They have reached out to Iran because they needed more weapons."

“And now, does Iran think that Russia owes them something? And what is that 'ask' going to be? That’s what concerns me,” the general said.

John Raine, a senior adviser at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a former UK diplomat, agreed. "I think definitely running through the mind of the current leadership in in Tehran, is how can they develop the relationship with Russia to the point where Russia will guarantee their survival," Raine told Al-Monitor's On the Middle East podcast this week.

"The important thing to remember is that it was Iranian lobbying – the IRGC lobbying – that brought the Russians in to Syria [in 2015]."

"They saw first hand what Russia is prepared to do protect an ally."

Russia’s balancing act

The size of Russia's military presence in Syria has largely leveled off following a limited drawdown since its invasion of Ukraine last February, Grynkewich told journalists in Washington earlier last week.

But the redeployments reportedly left Iran-backed groups to take over bases in Aleppo and Homs, in addition to reported gains in Daraa and Deir Ezzor, as Moscow’s forces consolidated at key sites elsewhere in the country.

And as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) looks to continue expanding its footprint in Syria, current and former officials say any significant cash flow to Iran in return for arms transfers to Russia or collaboration on sanctions evasion is likely to find its way to Iran-backed projects there.

“The more resources that Iran has — and it is getting resources from the Russians — the more that can play into them expanding their threat network,” the senior US military official said.

In January, Newsweek cited a US-allied intelligence source claiming Iran’s IRGC had invested tens of millions of dollars over the past two years to build an air defense array in Syria, including Bavar-373 launchers paired with newly-unveiled Sayyad 4B surface-to-air missiles, in an attempt to shield against Israeli strikes. US officials have not confirmed the report.

“Before February 2022, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Moscow was trying to marginalize Iran’s role and influence in Syria,” Ohannes Geukjian, acting chair of the political science department at the American University of Beirut and author of a new book on Russia’s military intervention in Syria, told Al-Monitor via email.

Assad’s regime, too, has often been ill at ease over the expansion of the IRGC’s activities in Syria, particularly when they have attracted Israeli airstrikes in response, the senior US military official said.

“If that dynamic shifts — and the Russians pressure Assad to accept some amount of Iranian activity across the crescent that supplies Lebanese Hezbollah — that could result in increased pressure on us,” the official explained. “It will certainly be viewed by the Israelis as an increased threat.”

The escalation may have already begun.

Last weekend, the Syrian government blamed Israel for an apparent airstrike on the Kafar Sousah neighborhood of Damascus that killed five people and wounded 15. Reuters reported the targeted site was used by the IRGC.

Russia, which has tolerated Israel’s covert air campaign as a bulwark against Iran in Syria for years, slammed the strike as a “flagrant violation” of international law and warned Israel against escalation. It wasn’t the first reproach from Moscow.

To Anton Mardasov, a military affairs expert and Al-Monitor contributor focused on Syria and Iraq, it's a sign that Putin’s government remains unwilling to surrender too much leverage in Syria while it focuses for the time being on the conflict in Europe.

“The Kremlin opposes any major change in Syria, which would require it to act decisively during the ongoing war in Ukraine,” he said.

Still, Mardasov argued, Russia’s reduced footprint and dependence on Iran’s projectile weapons has tipped the scales — but the question remains, to what extent?

“Moscow is unlikely to strongly impede Iranian actions in Syria, although previously it could oppose them, if not publicly, then covertly,” he said.

“All in all, I think a lot depends on the system of checks that Moscow can build in order to keep a balance in its relations with Iran on the one hand, and with Israel and the Arab countries on the other.”

US troops in the crossfire

Iran-backed groups have targeted US-led coalition forces in Syria with rocket and drone attacks in apparent retaliation for Israeli strikes in the past, no doubt aware of the history of US support for Israel’s operations.

And with no political resolutions in sight, all sides have been forced to adapt to the precarious balance.

Last month, American soldiers on the ground fired Coyote missiles to successfully shoot down two of three Iranian-made drones hurdling toward the remote al-Tanf garrison near Syria’s coveted border crossing with Iraq.

But one drone got through, injuring local Syrian militia fighters who help provide security for the US base. The senior military official said the drones were launched from Iraq.

Pentagon officials have said they remain in constant dialogue with the Israelis about the potential for escalation in Syria.

James Jeffrey, a former US ambassador who carried out the Trump administration’s Iran-based Syria policy during his time as special envoy, said the concerns are justified.

“A major Iranian ask in the growing Russian-Iranian alliance will likely be a tougher Russian position on Israeli strikes on Iranian and Hezbollah strategic missile systems and system delivery routes in Syria,” he told Al-Monitor.

But Moscow shares significant interests with Israel, and Jeffrey sees it as unlikely that Russia would jeopardize the relationship in favor of Iran.

“Whatever Moscow’s problems in Ukraine and with sanctions, it’s the senior partner in this alliance [with Iran] and can afford to say no,” he said.

Yet whether Russia still maintains the coercive power and will to hem in IRGC-backed groups is another matter, said Hamidreza Azizi, a fellow at the Institute for International Security Affairs in Berlin.

“Iran has never asked for permission for its activities in Syria,” Azizi told Al-Monitor.

And if Netanyahu’s government see Russia’s hand as ineffective, they won’t hesitate to push back.

“Israel has strong diplomatic, military and intelligence capabilities in an arc to Russia’s south from Azerbaijan to northern Iraq, [and] increasingly Turkey and Syria. These are tailored to contain Iran but could be effective platforms to stymie Russian gambits as well if Israel felt it was no longer enjoying Russian tolerance in Syria,” Jeffrey said.

“Likewise, Israeli air defense assistance to Ukraine could be a game changer against many Russian or Iranian systems,” the former envoy suggested. Thus far, Israel has skirted US requests to send air defense interceptors to Ukraine out of deference to Putin's permissive hand in Syria.

“Finally, Russia would have to ask itself what would happen if it issued edicts to Jerusalem to ratchet back the latter’s Syria campaign and Israel ignored it,” Jeffrey said.

“Israel has 20 times more fighters [aircraft] than Russia has in Syria, and the Israeli ones are more capable, including F-35s. That also goes for the one Russian S-400 system in Syria," he noted.

That, no doubt, is a scenario officials in the Pentagon would prefer to avoid. If the still low-level conflict were to spiral into wider fighting, there would be more at stake than the safety of US troops.

More than 10,000 Islamic State fighters remain in makeshift prisons in Syria’s northeast, and preventing their escape remains a top priority for US military officials. 

“If we're going to implement successfully the National Security and National Defense Strategies, we need to ensure that there’s not another attack on our homeland or the homeland of one of our close partners," Grynkewich acknowledged candidly in Washington last week. 

"Doing that is kind of a no-fail mission for us," he said.

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