Expert Opinions The Eastern Perspective
Russia–Iran: In Syria and the Middle East

At this point, one of the main issues is the ability of Russia and Iran to use the capital of trust developed during the conflict and transform it into cooperation on Syria’s recovery. If the answer is “yes” it will be possible to talk about the strategic character of Russian-Iranian relations in Syria. If different approaches to military construction and an understanding of one’s role in the Syrian economy prevail, Russian-Iranian cooperation will be described as merely tactical and already something from the past.

Meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Senior Adviser to the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran Ali Akbar Velayati were the highlights of the Valdai Club delegation’s stay in Tehran in 2018. The foreign minister focused on the tactical character of bilateral relations between Russia and Iran while the adviser paid more attention to the strategic aspects. These positions do not contradict each other. The two Iranian statesmen simply emphasized different aspects of Russia-Iran ties.

The strategic dimension of Russian-Iranian cooperation is most graphically manifest in the northern and eastern geopolitical directions. Bilateral relations as regards the Caucasus, Caspian and Central Asian areas are close, unambiguous and trust-based and, most probably, have a long-term future. Noteworthy here are such important aspects as the North-South international transport corridor, the prospects for Iran’s accession to the SCO and its participation in the project of building the Greater Eurasia.

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A collision of interests is always part of any integration process, growing more dramatic and multidimensional the more comprehensive an integration endeavour becomes. This is particularly clear from the record of the most advanced integration project in history, the European Union, which saw periods of ‘eurosclerosis’, direct sabotage by member countries (e.g. a six-month boycott of the European Commission in 1965–1966 by France), and the failures of the constitutional referendum in the Netherlands and France in May 2005. The main fork in the road for Eurasian integration today is the lack of convenient ‘integration scales’: a deeper integration implies more heated conflicts, and it becomes more difficult to gauge the effects of integration decision-making. However, the main advantage of the existing situation is that it is natural.
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The situation as regards the Middle East with its mosaic-like structure, special antilogous dynamics and complicated intertwining of strategic and tactical lines is a different matter. Here Russian-Iranian relations are far from unequivocal. They are identical or close on some issues and substantially divided on others. Thus, Russia is developing cooperation with Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt in various areas while Iran’s relations with these countries are openly hostile. However, this difference in positions allows Russia to act as a mediator that can prevent escalating tensions into a direct clash. This was evident in the prevention of a large-scale armed conflict between Iran and Israel during Syrian army operations in the southeast of Syria.

The situation in Syria remains one of the main hot spots in the Middle East. Since 2013, Russian-Iranian relations in Syria could be described as a partnership, and after Russia’s direct involvement in the Syrian conflict on the side of the Syrian government in 2015, the two countries became allies. (While on a visit to Israel, the Secretary of the Russian Security Council stated that Russia and Iran are “allies and partners” in Syria.)

Relationships in the Russia-Iran-Turkey triangle are more complicated. The first two countries are allies, but Turkey is merely a partner because it supports forces hostile to the Syrian regime. This cooperation seems paradoxical at first sight and it could only have developed because Russia and Iran played a decisive role in preventing a coup in Turkey in 2016. This made it possible to launch the Astana process. In turn, owing to Astana, and after the ISIS clean-up in 2017, the mixed forces of the radical Islamist opposition and overt terrorists were locked in four de-escalation zones, of which three were purged in 2018 whereas the fourth, which covers Idlib Province and adjacent areas, turned into a kind of a collection zone where Islamists and terrorists from the other zones were sent. This was accompanied by the cooperation of the Syrian Army, the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, Iran and other allied forces (Hezbollah, etc.) with Turkey’s relatively positive neutrality. In the process, Turkey was resolving its own goals in Syria (occupation of part of its territory, confrontation with the Kurds, and the attempt to create a parallel government on these territories, which would be run by alternative forces to the Syrian regime).

It is noteworthy that as a result of this process, the Syrian regime, assisted by the allied (primarily Russian and Iranian) forces, managed to consolidate under its control over three quarters of the country’s territory with two thirds of the population (considering that over 7 million people, first and foremost Sunnites, were ousted from the country and more than half of them landed in Turkey).

Of the territory uncontrolled by the government, the main part (over 20 percent) in the northeast is under the mixed control of the Syrian Kurds and the US-led international coalition. Fighting ISIS, these forces moved in parallel with the Syrian Army and not a single serious clash between them occurred during that time. Credit for this largely goes to the continuous contact between the Russian and US militaries, although the role of the Iranian military in preventing such clashes should not be underrated, either

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It is obvious in this context that despite the focus of the world media on Idlib, the problem of the northeast remains the focal point for ending the conflict. In practical terms, Damascus and the Kurds should reach an agreement on a final settlement. A broad understanding between Russia and the United States (if not a consensus) on the Kurdish issue is obvious. Less is known about Iran’s shadow role in this. However, along with the Russian military, the Iranians took part in preventing clashes between the Syrian Army and the Kurds. They have communication channels with the Syrian Kurds, and these facts show that Russia and Iran at least maintain close positions on the Kurdish issue in Syria.

The Idlib problem will be resolved in parallel as follows: there is no need for the Syrian Army to clean up the entire province. It will be enough to clean up three sections bordering on the provinces of Latakia, Hama and Aleppo, lock up the Islamists and terrorists in the remaining part and freeze this situation. This process is already underway and is marked not only by a fairly broad understanding but also by cooperation between the Syrian, Russian and Iranian militaries in the field. The main problems are rooted in Turkey, but joint pressure on it may yield the desired effect.

Given these conditions, the conflict will be settled in general terms. Only the small territory of Idlib and the Turkish occupation zones will remain, but there is an opinion that in time they will increasingly become Turkey’s headache.

In effect, the current situation already signifies the beginning of the transfer to a post-conflict phase that, given the said terms, will develop on a larger scale in the not so distant future.

At this point, one of the main issues will be the ability of Russia and Iran to use the capital of trust developed during the conflict and transform it into cooperation on Syria’s recovery. If the answer is “yes” it will be possible to talk about the strategic character of Russian-Iranian relations in Syria. If different approaches to military construction and an understanding of one’s role in the Syrian economy prevail, Russian-Iranian cooperation will be described as merely tactical and already something from the past.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.