TEHRAN, Iran — Eight months after the start of its military campaign, Russia has been successful in presenting itself as an influential international player in Syria. Along with Iran, it has been recognized as one of two states publicly supporting the Syrian government’s military operations against rebel and terrorist groups. This has prompted discussion of an alliance between Moscow and Tehran, with plenty of debate on what connects the two on Syria. But what is less debated is the important issue of what disconnects them.
Iran has steadily — and increasingly — supported the Syrian government since the outset of the crisis back in 2011. In contrast, just six months after Russia’s first airstrikes in Syria, Moscow declared a partial withdrawal of troops and its readiness to focus on finding a political solution together with the United States. Moreover, while senior Iranian officials have repeatedly said that the ousting of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a red line and any precondition that involves removing Assad is unacceptable, the Russians have been more flexible on this point. Indeed, most recently, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that Assad “is not Moscow's ally like Ankara is to Washington.” Furthermore, while Iran has always emphasized the necessity of preserving Syria’s centralized and unitary system of governance, Russian officials have occasionally expressed support for the idea of federalism — or at least not seriously opposed it.
The trajectory of Russian policy toward Syria suggests that it is based on a logic that can be described as “pragmatic minimalism.” It is pragmatic because its goal is to guarantee Russia’s obvious and specific interests in Syria, topped by the securing of its military bases in the west of the country and its access to the Mediterranean region. It is minimalist since the Russians are open to concessions and cooperation with the United States on any issue except these “hard” interests. In this vein, Russian policy rests on three fundamental pillars.
First, Russia’s most important objective is to preserve its geopolitical interests in western Syria. In fact, Moscow only decided to get militarily involved after rebel and terrorist advances raised the specter that such groups could dominate western regions. This is the only issue on which the Russians will not compromise.
Second, in Moscow’s view, Assad could remain in power — though not necessarily. Russian officials, at least in their official statements, have said that Assad could be a part of the future of Syria. But remarks such as the abovementioned one by Lavrov show that this doesn’t mean that Assad is a Russian “red line.” To Moscow, any secular and nonradical government that can maintain stability in Syria is acceptable.
Third, not only do the Russians not oppose the establishment of a federal political system in Syria, they in fact support it. Moscow sees federalism as a means to consolidate its geopolitical positions in western Syria. Moreover, the formation of an autonomous Kurdish entity in Syria — which could increase political and security pressure on neighboring Turkey — would be welcomed by the Russians. The establishment of close ties between Moscow and Syrian Kurds in recent months is a clear indication of this.
In contrast, Iran’s policy toward Syria can perhaps best be described as “ideological maximalism.” It is ideological because the ideological orientation of the future government in Syria is of great importance to Iran, and it is maximalist because Iran is not ready to compromise over any of the factors under discussion, such as Assad and federalism.
In terms of its vision for the future government of Syria, Iran shares the Russian view of opposing the rise of extremists. In this vein, Tehran sees the continuation of Alawite rule as the best possible option. At the same time, regarding the fate of Assad, Iran maintains that only the Syrian people can decide. Moreover, Tehran strongly opposes any plan to federalize or disintegrate Syria, especially because Kurdish autonomy could be a problem for Iran in terms of its possible effects on Iranian Kurds.
Russia has focused on cooperation with the United States to find a mutually acceptable solution — or better put, a kind of solution between “great powers.” Indeed, Moscow is satisfied that Washington treats it as a somehow equal power and lends consideration of its interests in Syria. Meanwhile, there is no doubt that Russian-Iranian cooperation in Syria has thus far produced undeniable benefits for both sides. Yet because of their obvious differences on important subjects such as Assad and federalism, it does not seem that the Russian-Iranian collaboration is sustainable.
Thus, Iran needs to pursue a regional initiative in which another influential regional actor, namely Turkey, could potentially have an important role.
Like Iran, Turkey also pursues a logic of “ideological maximalism” in its policy toward Syria, with converse insistence on the necessity of overthrowing Assad and establishing a “moderate Sunni” government close to Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party. Moreover, Turkey and Iran are strongly joined in their opposition to federalism in Syria.
From a realist point of view, both Iran and Turkey are most interested in the preservation of Syria’s territorial integrity. Federalism or disintegration could pose a direct threat to Iranian and Turkish national security alike. Moreover, Turkey and Iran’s other interests in Syria — preserving a level of influence, maintaining stability in their neighboring regions and containing Kurdish centrifugal tendencies in the wider region — can only be served by preserving its unity and territorial integrity.
To Tehran and Ankara, the best means to achieve these objectives could be the forging of an understanding — as supporters of opposing sides in Syria — under which the Syrian people can determine their own future in accordance with accepted international norms. Such a mechanism should involve all groups — whether Alawite, Sunni or Kurd — with such participation potentially easing the severity of demands for autonomy or secession, thereby preserving the country’s unity and both regional powers’ interests. Lastly, within this context, although Russia has a strained relationship with Turkey, the broad international support for a democratic solution for Syria means Moscow is not likely to turn against such an initiative — provided that its geopolitical interests are considered and preserved.
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