Last week, it was announced that Russia and Israel have reached an agreement to keep Iranian forces away from Israel’s border with Syria. Israel has long seen an Iranian presence along its northern border with Syria as a significant threat – not least because it allows the potential for rocket fire into Israel from Syria of the sort that occurred on May 10, sparking a major clash.
The new deal is one of a growing number of signs that the relationship between Russia and Iran in Syria is becoming more tense. At a time when the Syrian Civil War is changing, with the Assad regime’s survival no longer in doubt, Russia likely fears that armed conflict between Iran and Israel in Syria will damage the progress achieved in stabilising Syria’s Civil War and the assets it has established in Syria. Additionally, Russia wants to maintain a status within the region as a key power broker, having influence over political and economic reform in Syria and beyond. Iran also seeks a major role in Syria, including setting up permanent military bases according to reports, placing the two key allies of the Assad regime increasingly on a collision course.
The Syrian Civil War began in September 2011, when the suppression of local protests by the regime led to organised rebel groups engaged in full-scale combat with Government troops. After initial rebel gains, the regime came to rely heavily on Iranian-supplied weapons and Iranian advisors to sustain its war effort. By late 2012, the Iranian-allied Lebanese militia Hezbollah began to send its own troops to Syria to fight the rebels, and Iran later organised for Afghan, Iraqi and Pakistani Shi’ite militias to come to Syria and assist the regime’s forces. Russia intervened in the Syrian Civil War on September 30, 2015, sending its air force to carry out airstrikes to assist regime forces, eventually helping reverse the trend of battle significantly in the regime’s favour. Since Iran and Russia became involved, they have been largely acting cooperatively in aiding the Assad regime both militarily and economically to win the war.
The New Agreement
Israel’s efforts to convince Russia to help limit the threat represented by Iranian military forces in Syria are not new, and have resulted in previous political discussions between Russia and Israel. In 2017, Israel first asked Russia to keep Iran away from the Golan Heights border and to forbid Iran and its proxies from crossing the Sweida-Damascus line, some 70-80 kilometres from the border. The Russians agreed only to keep Iranian forces at least five kilometres away from Israel’s border, which disappointed Israeli officials.
Under the new Russia-Israel agreement, Israel will allow non-Iranian Syrian regime troops to return to the border to combat the rebels still in the region on condition that Russia guarantees that no Iranian or Hezbollah forces will be stationed in that area, and Israel will still retain the right to act against Iranian and Iranian proxy forces in Syria if it sees a threat to its national security. Another term of the agreement is that Russia will not supply Syria with weapons, stating that Syria has all that it needs to survive, putting Israel at ease regarding concerns that Russia could supply Syria with advanced air defence systems that would make it very difficult for the Israeli Air Force to operate over Syria.
Over the past two years, Russia has not been opposing Israel’s airstrikes against Syria – which initially targeted advanced weapons transfers to Hezbollah, but have increasingly been targeting Iranian military infrastructure in recent months. However, the Russians also aren’t stopping the Iranians from working against Israel.
The Israel-Russia agreement reflects the fact that Iran and Russia are increasingly competing against each other to achieve a leading status in Syria, causing tension between the two countries. With the threat of rebels overthrowing the Assad regime now zero, this Iranian-Russian competition is now coming to the fore.
Other Signs of Iranian-Russian Tension
On May 28, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, stated that only Syrian troops should be near Syria’s southern border region, and that all foreign troops should leave the area as well, which apparently includes Iran and Hezbollah.
Earlier Russian President Vladimir Putin had stated: “Iran’s operations in Syria go far beyond fighting terrorists and are hardly welcomed by anyone within the region and beyond. This heightens tensions in Israel’s relations with its bitter rivals. . . Serving as a platform for fighting the ‘Zionist’ enemy is something Syria needs the least.”
Putin, who has a good relationship with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, was expressing Russia’s disapproval of Iran using its position in Syria to carry out its anti-Israel agenda.
Amos Yadlin, former IDF military intelligence head and the executive director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, tweeted that “the Russian call for all foreign forces to leave Syria is a positive development with respect to the threat posed by Iranian entrenchment there. That being said, it is important to remember that the Iranians were not party to that announcement and Assad did not ask them to leave.”
Iran was angered by Russia’s call to remove foreign forces from Syria. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Bahram Qasemi, said “No one can force Iran to do anything. . . As long as terrorism exists and the Syrian government wants, Iran will have presence [in Syria].”
Russia sees no reason for Iran to have a permanent military presence in Syria. This is true especially because Iran and its proxies in Syria are fuelling growing tensions with Israel, which could threaten the success of the Assad regime’s latest push against the rebels.
Meanwhile, Iran has a deep-rooted historical distrust of Russia and its regional goals. Iranian media has expressed anger against Russia, despite the military cooperation between Iran and Russia in Syria.
According to Dr. Raz Zimmet – a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at the Alliance Centre for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University – the clashes between Iran and Russia “stem from the desire of both countries to increase their influence and even obtain a hegemonic status in Syria and due to a different approach regarding relations with regional players, including Israel.”
Further, Russia’s intervention in favour of Assad, which Iran encouraged, has lost Teheran its leading status in shaping military and political developments in Syria.
Although Teheran will be very resistant to removing its forces from Syria, there has been civil unrest in Iran sparked in part by Iran’s involvement in Syria, with protestors arguing the large funds involved should be spent at home. With the Iranian economy struggling, Teheran may need to cut back on the supply of funds to Assad, which is helping keep the Syrian regime intact.
The State of the Civil War
Although the Syrian Civil War has entered a new phase, with the Assad regime no longer under threat (contributing to the changing dynamics between Iran and Russia), this does not mean it is coming to an end anytime soon.
Military experts say that as of now it is not clear if Assad can achieve an outright victory against the rebels because the outcome of the civil war will mostly depend on how exhausted the people of Syria are and the degree to which they admit defeat.
Michael Eisenstadt, a Kahn Fellow and director of the Military and Security Studies Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, argues that the pro-regime forces in Syria are having to rely on exposed lines of communication that run through majority-Sunni regions which make them “vulnerable to a covert, cost-imposing strategy using guerrilla proxies to prevent the Assad regime from consolidating gains.” He also says the revival of ISIS in Iraq could lead to its return in Syria based on the proximity between the two countries.
Further, he notes that it is much more difficult to “stabilize a fragile state if its neighbors work to thwart these efforts.”
He adds that that “The ever-present potential for internecine violence among the regime’s thuggish security elite could intensify – especially if Assad and Iran drag Syria into a ruinous war with Israel that results in heavy losses to pro-regime forces.”
In order to ensure that the civil war will have a chance of winding down, Russia needs to stop the potential proxy war between Iran and Israel happening on Syria’s territory – this requires meeting Israel’s demands regarding an Iranian presence along the border.
Meanwhile, according to Israeli academic expert and frequent visitor to Syria Jonathan Spyer, writing in Foreign Policy, “Syria increasingly seems to be moving toward de facto partition accompanied by ongoing low-level military conflict and a functional, but sluggish politics – a so-called frozen conflict.”
Zimmet further argues that as long as the Syrian Civil War continued to rage with full force, “the military and political cooperation between Iran and Russia could be sustained based on shared interests, which are preventing Syria’s fall into the hands of the rebels and guarding against Western influence in Syria.” Yet this is no longer the case today.
The civil war is shifting more in the direction of who will have influence over Syria’s political progress, as opposed to Assad fighting against Syrian rebels. Russia sees its political interests served by limiting Iran’s influence, which largely explains its deal with Israel. Further, due to the rising tensions between Iran and Israel, especially with the exchange of fire between Iranian and Israeli forces over Syria last month, Russia fears that these attacks could threaten Assad’s hold on power, thus reversing the progress that was achieved in defeating the rebels in Syria.
Yet neither the Russians nor the Assad regime really have many options if the Iranians insist on maintaining a presence in Syria or using it to continue confrontations with Israel from Syria. Neither is really in a position to force the Iranians to leave if they do not wish to.
Syria’s civil war is far from over, yet it is changing. As a result, the interests of the two key patrons of the Assad regime, Russia and Iran, are increasingly coming into conflict. Russia’s new deal with Israel to move Iran’s forces away from the Golan border is a way for Russia to keep good relations with Israel, as well as to reduce the chance there will be a proxy war between Israel and Iran on Syrian soil. However, it is a long way from resolving the problem for good – and the Iran-Russia-Israel triangle is likely to remain central to the strategic tensions over Syria for some time to come.