Russia and Iran: Split over Syria?

Defense News-Feb 8, 2017

Diplomatic activism by Russia in Syria is producing speculation about the Kremlin’s possible willingness to encourage genuine peace talks and spur transition from corrupt, incompetent and brutal family rule toward something stabilizing and inclusive. If Russia proves genuinely interested in converting military success to a sustainable political settlement, it would put Moscow sharply at odds with Iran and with the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Is Russian President Vladimir Putin truly prepared to turn a page in Syria? The litmus test will be Moscow’s view of whether or not Assad rule should be restored to areas eventually liberated from the Islamic State group..

Russian air power and Iranian-led Shia foreign fighters saved Assad from military defeat. Intervening militarily in Syria allowed Putin to tell his countrymen that Russia was back as a great power; that Russia had thwarted a purported American regime-change campaign in Syria. Iran, on the other hand, has supported Assad because Assad alone, in a nationalistic Syria, is willing to be Iran’s servant on all matters having to do with Lebanon’s Hezbollah: the terrorist long arm of Iranian penetration into the Arab world.

Having saved Assad and all but declared military victory, Russia may be asking itself now if Assad is a liability for its longer-term interests in Syria. It would be an apt question.

The Kremlin is aware of the regime’s shortcomings. Russia knows that a stable Syria — a place where it would be possible to have secure military bases and a strong, beneficial trade and defense relationship — is unattainable with Assad at the helm. When it comes to reconciliation and reconstruction, the name “Assad” is pure poison in Syria and far beyond. The Syrian equivalent of North Korea headed by a mass murderer may not be something Russia seeks as a long-term client.

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Hypothetically, therefore, Russia might be interested in a political transition formula that gradually marginalizes Assad and vests executive power in a national unity government. Iran, however, would have no such interest. Tehran knows that, beyond the Assad family and entourage, there is no Syrian constituency accepting subordination to Iran and putting the Syrian state at the disposal of a Lebanese terror organization.

Well-informed Syrian opposition figures say they are hearing from Russians that they are disgusted with the undisciplined, looting Shia militiamen brought by Iran to Syria. These Shia militias — including Hezbollah — advance Iran’s sectarian agenda and incite Sunni Islamist extremist backlash. They are kerosene on a fire Russia says it wants to extinguish.

Opposition representatives also claim to be finding Russian interest in helping them separate nationalist rebel forces from al-Qaida’s Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the former Nusra Front. The prerequisite for separation is a real cease-fire. When the nationalists and extremists are all under fire from Assad and Iran, they have no choice but to stick together. Enabling separation and the ultimate destruction of al-Qaida therefore requires Russia to keep a tight leash on the Assad regime and the Shia militias. But the regime and Iran — contrary to Russia — want to target as terrorists all anti-Assad rebels: even the ones Moscow recently invited to Astana, Kazakhstan, to discuss peace.

So: Russia and Iran may have conflicting views about the future of Assad. But do they really? Would Russia actually be willing and able to neutralize Iran’s toxic presence in Syria by getting the Shia militias out and then marginalize the polarizing Assad clique?

If Russia is able and willing to do so, clearly it would be for its own interests: a stable, unified Syria closely aligned with Moscow; a place that can attract the reconstruction investment and assistance so sorely needed. What Putin might want from Washington is a commitment to assist with reconstruction once decent, non-Assad governance is in place. Otherwise, if Putin calculates that the Assad-Iran page must be turned for the interests of Russia, then clearly there is need for a geopolitical inducement from Washington.

Naturally, Assad and his Iranian masters will push back if Russia sees them as obstacles to the kind of Syria that Moscow wants. The Kremlin’s ability to sideline the twin destroyers of the Syrian state may be limited. But does Russia even want to do it?

Central and eastern Syria will likely provide the answer. The United States aims to liberate these areas from the other side of Syria’s terrorist coin: ISIS. If Russia calls for Assad rule to be restored in areas liberated from ISIS — if Moscow wishes to reimpose the governance malpractice that made Syria safe for ISIS in the first place — then clearly it wants Assad and Iran in the Syrian saddle indefinitely, regardless of the consequences.

Speculation about Russia and Iran splitting over Assad is interesting. The truth will be found in Moscow’s view of what should follow ISIS. Washington is free now to elicit that view and answer the question.

Frederic C. Hof, director at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, served as a special adviser for transition in Syria at the State Department in 2012.