Explainer: Why do Iran, Syria and their proxies support Russia in the Ukrainian crisis?
Mar 8, 2022 | Ran Porat
Most of the world has chosen to stand against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, offering active diplomatic, humanitarian and military support for Kyiv. Some other countries – including Middle Eastern states such as Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Algeria, Iraq, Tunisia and Jordan – are trying to walk a fine line, keeping quiet to maintain relations with Moscow, while also trying to avoid friction with the anti-Russian front, spearheaded by the US (some of these voted at the UN on March 2 to condemn Russia after refraining from doing so for the first week of the invasion.)
On the other hand, the members of the so called ‘axis of resistance’ – the regimes of Syria and Iran, along with their proxies, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen – have sided with Russia, either directly and overtly as Syria has, or, in Teheran’s case, a bit more indirectly.
- Syria was among only five countries to oppose the UN General assembly resolution condemning Russia for the invasion on March 2, including Russia itself and Belarus. When the war began, Damascus stated that it “strongly condemn[s] the hysterical escalation campaign and the distortion of facts against Russia. The West and America that have killed millions of innocent people in their wars including in Syria have no right to talk about international law and the violation of sovereignty, and Russia has every right to defend itself and its security.” In a phone call with Putin, Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad hailed the Russian incursion into Ukraine as “a correction of history and a restoration of balance in the global order after the fall of the Soviet Union.” He also warned that the Western countries opposing Russia “bear responsibility for the chaos and bloodshed,” because they are applying “dirty methods to support terrorists in Syria and Nazis in Ukraine.” There are even reports now that Moscow is recruiting Syrians skilled in urban combat to fight on Russia’s behalf in Ukraine.
- Iranian Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei blamed (1 March) the US “mafia regime” as the “root cause” of the Ukraine crisis because of what he claimed was American interference in other countries’ internal affairs in order to set up pro-Western governments there. Not mentioning Russia in his speech, Khamenei alleged that Ukraine was just the latest victim of these US policies. Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi talked about “NATO expansion” as a “serious threat to the stability and security” of countries during his phone call with Putin on Feb 24.
- Hezbollah’s chief, Hassan Nasrallah, said in his speech on March 1: “Today the world only respects the strong and it is has remained silent in the face of US violations.” He blamed the US for the crisis in Ukraine because “Washington had been inciting and working on this scenario for weeks,” and warned that this “is a lesson for those who trust and count on the United States.”
- Senior Houthi official, Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi, justified (Mar 2) Russia’s invasion because “Europe has abandoned the slogans of dialogue, peace and others, mobilized all its energies, and announced a package of political, military, economic and even sports measures against Russia.” Accepting Moscow’s narrative that Ukraine, or at least parts of it, rightfully belong to Russia, Al-Houthi mused: “How can the heart not feel the danger when the enemy occupies his country or parts of his people’s areas?”.
Why the ‘axis of resistance’ supports Russia
- Ideologically siding with enemies of the west – The regime in Teheran labels US as the ‘big Satan’ (and Israel is the ‘little Satan’). The Iranian revolution founded by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini has always viewed itself as (amongst other things) a counter response to the perceived dominance of Western powers over the Middle East. As Mohammad Rezaie Yazdi explains: “In Khomeinism, international hegemony is primarily represented, by the United States […] The US as a coloniser was the main obstacle for a free Islamic Iran and for his Islamic model.” Decades of animosity with the US while forging strategic ties with Russia (despite a good deal of ongoing mistrust of Moscow) naturally meant that the Iranian leadership chose the latter over the former.
Current Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is an enthusiastic advocate for strengthening ties with Russia (and China), which in recent years included military cooperation (to balance US forces in the region) and economic agreements. In fact, the two countries tightened their ties shortly before the beginning of the Russian invasion. NATO is understood from that point of view as an extension of the US – hence Iran agrees with the Russian narrative that expansion of NATO is a threat to Moscow. Hezbollah and the Houthis simply follow the policy line dictated from Teheran.
- Russia’s stronghold in Syria – In many respects, the Syrian state is a Russian occupied area and a vassal state for Moscow. More than 60,000 Russian soldiers have been deployed to Syria since Moscow decided in 2015 to intervene in the war there to protect Assad and cultivate him as its protégé. Russian airplanes take off from their Hmeimim airbase to attack the various anti-Assad forces, and Russia controls the strategically important seaport of Tartus on the Mediterranean. Damascus has awarded various economic contracts worth billions to Russian companies, for example in energy and infrastructure. And much of Syria’s oil and wheat supply comes from Russia.
Syria is also an arena where Hezbollah and Iran operate extensively, both protecting Assad while advancing their own causes. These include efforts to establish a threatening front against Israel from Syria, safeguarding supply of weapons and drugs into Lebanon and Syria (and later to other countries for immense profits) and expanding influence over Shi’ites there. Hence, potential friction with the Russians in Syria is almost inevitable and both Iran and Hezbollah need to stay on Moscow’s good side. Iran is also facing pressure regarding its forces in Syria from Russia, who reportedly at least partially accepted Israeli requests to keep the Iranian presence several kilometres from the border with Israel on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights (though has Iran never ceased its efforts to gain military footholds in the border areas, ignoring any Israel-Russia arrangements).
- ‘Victims’ of sanctions – the US and international community have applied a wide range of sanctions against Syria, Iran and their proxies. Syria’s shattered economy suffers under the 2019 Caesar act, which sanctions Syria’s leaders, including Assad, for war crimes. Iran has faced heavy sanctions for decades due to its terror activities, human rights violations and the relentless drive to achieve nuclear weapons. Pointing to the similarities between the economies of these two states, analysts suggest the West should seek to apply lessons learned from the sanctions used against Iran when implementing the current sanctions on Russia.
Hezbollah and the Houthis are also subjected to many international sanctions. The latter was defined as a “terror organisation” in the recent UN Security Council resolution 2624 (a resolution ironically passed with the support of Russia).
With major sanctions now slapped on Russia as a result of the Ukraine war, the “axis of resistance” actors feel Moscow is now sharing their fate, wrongfully punished by the “arrogant” West. In addition, accepting the validity of sanctions of Russia implies acknowledgment of the legality of the sanctions they themselves face.
- Russian backing of Iran in the JCPOA talks – the ongoing talks in Vienna to resuscitate the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – JCPOA) have been approaching a decisive point. The Iranian delegation to the discussions constantly coordinates its positions with the Russian envoy, Mikhail Ulyanov, who reportedly has substantial influence on the negotiations.