TEHRAN, Iran — In a move that surprised many observers as well as politicians around the world, US President Donald Trump ordered a targeted missile attack against a Syrian air base on April 6. The strike, which the United States said was in retaliation for the April 4 chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun, marked a shift from former President Barack Obama’s policy of restraint toward the Syrian crisis.
As expected, the strike sparked sharply varied reactions around the world. While the dominant reaction among the Europeans was a welcoming of the strike as “punishment” for the chemical attack, other US allies, and especially Turkey and Saudi Arabia, went even further, calling for more comprehensive US military strikes to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
However, Iran and Russia, as the main supporters of the Syrian government, did not hesitate to condemn the US strike, calling it a violation of international norms and law and a new manifestation of American aggression.
However, while both Moscow and Tehran are still emphasizing their support for the Syrian government, one important question is that of whether the US strike will fundamentally alter the nature of Iranian-Russian interactions in Syria or have a broader impact on the bilateral relationship between Tehran and Moscow. To answer this question, several important points must be considered.
First and foremost, in an important development shortly after the US strike, Russia declared that it would close the military coordination channel devised to prevent any unwanted confrontation between Russian and US forces in Syria. This is while Trump’s election had sparked serious debate about the possibility of coordinated anti-terrorist operations between Russia and the US-led coalition in Syria.
Now, as Russia further distances itself from the United States in the Syrian crisis, chances for Russian cooperation with the West grow dim and Moscow may yet again become inclined toward unilaterally pursuing its goals in Syria.
In this equation, Iran is at present the only country with an active presence in Syria that shares Russia’s primary goal of supporting the Assad government, which could potentially lead Russia to give more weight to its cooperation with Iran as it reconsiders its Syrian strategy.
However, it is unrealistic to expect such a shift to translate into broader joint Russian-Iranian military operations inside Syria or even Russian reliance on Iranian or Hezbollah’s ground forces in its military strategy. The most important reason for this is Israel's fierce objection to any increase in Iran’s presence or influence in Syria and Moscow’s longstanding strategy of preserving its good relationship with Tel Aviv. Thus, Iran and Russia will most probably increase their cooperation at the political rather than military level to maintain control of the situation before it gets out of hand.
The second point relates to Iran-Russia cooperation within the recently devised multilateral formula to resolve the Syrian crisis. In recent months, talks between Moscow, Tehran and Ankara on Syria reached a point that caused some observers to even speak of the formation of a trilateral “axis” consisting of the three countries.
However, in the aftermath of the US strike, as Russia and Iran will likely get closer to each other, a gap may appear between Moscow and Tehran vis-a-vis Ankara as the third official guarantor of the Syrian cease-fire.
This in turn could change the nature of the diplomatic talks currently underway on the Syrian crisis, with Ankara most likely hardening its positions on many critical issues — especially when it comes to the fate of Assad — and also pushing for its long-standing desire to set up safe zones in Syria. Turkey can also be expected to continue and even increase its support for the rebels rather than pressuring them to stay committed to the cease-fire. This could further complicate the nascent political process.
Third, it could be argued that although the overall situation on the ground in Syria may become more complicated as a result of the US strike, Trump’s seeming change in approach toward Syria may have helped dissipate an important ambiguity in the Iran-Russia relationship.
Given that Trump had repeatedly spoken of the necessity of improving US-Russia relations during his campaign, there has been serious concern among various Iranian circles in recent months that Moscow might sell out Tehran in pursuit of a rapprochement with Washington.
However, the US strike and the subsequent positions adopted by the Russians against the United States have worked toward effectively closing the window of opportunity for an imminent improvement in US-Russia relations. Thus, Iran now stands reassured that a US-Russian deal at its expense will not be realized — at least in the short term.
Last but not least, any analysis of the impact of the US military strike on Iran-Russia relations would be incomplete without noting the role of public opinion. It is no secret that Iranian public opinion is widely distrustful of Russia, with many Iranians viewing Moscow as an unreliable partner. In this context, what Russia may do in Syria in response to the US strike is very important, because it will show Tehran how far Moscow is ready to go to defend an “ally” or a close partner.
There has already been some critical discussions on Iranian websites as well as social media alleging that Russia’s S-300 and S-400 air defense systems were incapable of thwarting the US Tomahawk missiles. This is while the delivery of the S-300 system to Iran was for a long time a topic of hot debate in Iran, with its final — and long-delayed — delivery considered an important development in Iran-Russia relations. In this vein, Russia’s next moves in response to the US strike in Syria could have an important impact on how the Iranians view Russia as a partner.
All in all, it is highly unlikely that the US military strike on the Shayrat air base will cause a drastic shift in the Iran-Russia partnership in Syria, let alone more broadly elevate the bilateral relationship to a whole new level. Rather, the US escalation will likely consolidate the existing level of Iranian-Russian cooperation and also lead Tehran and Moscow to deepen political rather than military collaboration to devise a more coordinated road map for the future of Syria.