Divergent Interests

How real is the supposed Russian-Iranian dispute in Syria?

By Abdel Bari Atwan

With the Syrian army reportedly poised to move south with the aim of retaking Quneitra and Deraa and reopening the border crossing with Jordan, there has been renewed talk – louder than ever in recent days — of Iranian and Hezbollah forces withdrawing from the area in compliance with Israeli demands, and of a dispute between Russia and Iran over the latter’s presence in Syria and the need to terminate it.

These growing reports of a quarrel between the two sides appear to be exaggerated and are probably being deliberately leaked and played up. There are several reasons for supposing this, not least because it is premature to raise the issue at present. The war in Syria is still raging, and the conditions that led to the deployment of Iranian military advisors and units in the country continue to apply.

The Iranians have no problem withdrawing their forces or experts from Syria because they had no presence there before the war. They and Hezbollah did not go into the country with Israeli or Russian permission, but to protect a strategic ally that risked being defeated and having its regime toppled by US- and Gulf-backed armed groups that had taken over 70% of the country’s territory and set up an array of Islamic emirates with diverse loyalties and affiliations.

Regarding the story of the Russian-Iranian row, it is worth pointing out that there is strategic partnership between the two sides which predates the Syrian crisis by many years. Talk of a dispute was triggered by the remarks made by Russian President Vladimir Putin after he met with Syrian President Bashar al-Asad in Sochi on 17 May , when he called for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Syria. His intended reference was clearly to US forces, but it would have been disingenuous to exempt Iran’s forces which, like Russia’s, were deployed at the request of the Syrian government.

Moreover, Putin linked this withdrawal to the start of a political process in Syria. This process has not yet been launched, and even if had, 20% of Syria’s territory remains outside its army’s control.

It is a mistake to portray Iran and Russia as regional adversaries, as many do. They may have divergent interests, which is natural and to be expected between allies, but they are far from being in conflict — as in the daydreams or wishful thinking of the many parties that failed to achieve their goals in Syria and lost billions of dollars in the process.

Putin could not have achieved his success in Syria without the presence of Iran and its paramilitary allies, above all Hezbollah. The latter began withdrawing its forces after the completion of its mission of its own accord, not in response to pressure from Russia or Israel, and there is nothing to prevent it from redeploying or even reinforcing them should the need arise.

The growing talk about the withdrawal of Iranian forces from southern Syrian to avoid a confrontation with Israel, or to deny it the pretexts it uses to put pressure on Russia on the grounds that the area is included in the Russian-US de-escalation agreements, does no mean it will be spared a Syrian army offensive to recover it. Eastern Ghouta was also included in the de-escalation agreements, but who controls it now, and what happened to the armed groups that used to hold sway in it, notably Jaish al-Islam?

The Russians are adept, indeed expert, at pursuing a policy of stages, launching trial balloons and employing leaks, especially with regard to Syria. Their reported disputes with Iran should be viewed in that light.