Utilizing Pressure Points: the Consequences of Russian Escalation Against Iran in Syria



Russian-Iranian political divergence on positions and competition for influence have led to frequent armed clashes between the two parties in different parts of Syria. The two parties seek to gain greater influence and the upper hand in the new Syrian equation at a time when Iran is facing a wave of intensified and unprecedented US pressure.
The whirlwind visits by Russian and Iranian officials to Damascus during the past few weeks were not arbitrary. Rather, the visit of each party served as a frantic race to ensure the loyalty of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and warn him of the consequences of submitting to the other party involved in Syria. However, Russia seems to be possessing the cards in Syria as its pressure on Al-Assad is vital in achieving its second goal of pushing Iran out of Syria after fulfilling its first goal of keeping Al-Assad in power at a time when Damascus is undergoing a comprehensive restructuring of its military institutions.
In the process of restructuring Syria’s military institutions, the Russians obligated Al-Assad to exclude pro-Iranian fighters. Moscow realized that all its achievements in Syria would be in the interest of Iran if it did not hasten to exclude these fighters. The Russian move came because Moscow does not have ground forces in Syrian territories and does not need a significant Iranian presence any longer after resolving the conflict in favor of Al-Assad. Thus, expelling Iranian militias from Syria became the most crucial issue for Russia.
The first indicator of the Russians targeting Iran in Syria is the Russian pressure on Al-Assad to restructure the Syrian army’s Fourth Armored Division, which is led by Iran’s prime ally in Syria Maher Al-Assad, the brother of Bashar Al-Assad, in order to strengthen the Division’s loyalty to Russia and to weaken Maher Al-Assad. The Fourth Division is considered one of the most equipped, armed and influential Syrian military divisions, and the closest to Iran due to its sectarian composition. Thus, Iran relied on it mainly to target the Syrian opposition since the beginning of the country’s crisis in early 2011.
Russia has been concerned about the growing dominance of the Fourth Division on the ground, in contrast to its ability to impose its strategic perspectives on Syrian territories to maximize its interests. Therefore, the Russians have intensified their pressure on Al-Assad since the beginning of 2019 to restructure the position of military institutions within the Fourth Division such as the General Staff, the Division of Management and Administration, and the Syrian Military Security Command, which is considered the most loyal apparatus to Iran, and to abolish the pro-Iranian National Defense Forces by carrying out the June 2018 resolution calling for the withdrawal of its powers and the seizing of its weapons.
The second indicator of the Russians targeting Iran in Syria is the Russian pressure on Damascus to disarm and dismiss hundreds of officers/commanders affiliated with Maher Al-Assad, and to investigate 600 of them in order to appoint pro-Russian officers to establish a new army that follows the direct orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin. These moves are aimed at controlling Syrian military training camps and to establish new military brigades under the command of officers loyal to Russia in Damascus.
The third indicator is Russia’s development of additional prisons to arrest Iranian militia fighters who violated Russian orders. The Syrian military and strategic expert Brigadier Ahmed Rahal tweeted on April 29, 2019 that 12 members of the Lebanese Hezbollah were arrested in the the two Shiite villages of Mukhtariah and Alkam in the Syrian province of Homs after raids were conducted by pro-Russian forces.
The fourth and most important indicator is the renewed outbreak of armed confrontations between pro-Russian and Iranian forces in Syria. The second series of confrontations occurred only three months after the first one which took place at the end of January 2019 in the Al-Ghab area of Hama. In mid-April 2019, the second series of confrontations occurred and lasted for seven days. Unusually, these confrontations amounted to the use of heavy weapons in different parts of Syria including Al-Rashidin, Al-Khalidiyah and Al-Nil, Daraa, Reef Hama, Hasakah, Deir ez-Zor, and Aleppo. As a result 12 people and two IRGC members were killed in Deir ez-Zor.
It seems clear that Moscow has two ways to curtail Iran’s influence in Syria. The first is building a strong pro-Russian military body to secure the Russian spheres of influence by buying the loyalty of commanding Syrian army officers. The second is the weakening of pro-Iranian militias and brigades by intensifying pressure on Al-Assad to dismantle the non-Syrian militias and to expel them from the areas where pro-Russian forces are stationed. The most prominent example of this is the expulsion of the pro-Iranian Fourth Division of the Syrian army from Sahl Al-Ghab by the commander of the Syrian pro-Russian Fifth Division, Suhail al-Hassan.
The Russian escalation against Iran in Syria has increased for several reasons. The first and foremost is Russia’s awareness of the significant US pressure and economic sanctions Iran is suffering from. The second is the US designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organisation as part of Trump’s policy to modify Iran’s behavior and to curb its regional activities. These conditions provided Russia with an opportunity to tighten the noose around all pro-Iranian militias in Syria. It was as if Russia was implicitly saying that Iran has to respond to Russian orders to withdraw its militias as well as threatening to target pro-Iranian terrorist organisations (whether soldiers or advisers) as Iran keeps repeating in its media.
The third is the growing Russian-Israeli coordination far from Iran at a time when Russia no longer needs an Iranian military presence in the Syrian provinces. It makes no sense that the Israelis dare to penetrate Syrian airspace and hit Iranian targets there without prior coordination with the Russians, meaning that Moscow is taking the national security of Israel in Syria into account.
The gap between Moscow and Tehran has widened due to the absence of common interests for maintaining the Al-Assad regime and mitigating the risks of the Syrian opposition and Daesh. Iran’s interests in Syria are inconsistent with its Russian counterpart. The Russian strategy is working on curbing Iranian influence while Tehran is repositioning its militias in all areas recovered from Daesh and the opposition. Thus, the Russian-Iranian divergence on the form of the new Syrian state is clear. The Russians prefer to strengthen the Syrian regime and to rebuild its state, while the Iranians want the Syrian regime to remain weak and subservient to Tehran so that it executes its schemes. The two sides also have disagreements on the means of sharing resources and reconstruction contracts.
The news, circulated by media outlets, of Al-Assad’s approval to lease the port of Latakia to Iran from October 1, 2019 during his visit in February 2019 to Iran has enhanced Russian endeavors to move against Iran’s influence in Syria. If the lease deal is implemented, Iran will gain a foothold in the Mediterranean. Russia, for its part, sees the deal as an Iranian scheme for influence in the Eastern Mediterranean.
From the foregoing, it appears that Russia is determined to curb the Iranian role and to ensure that Iran does not impede its interests. In other words, for Russia the commander of the Syrian army’s Fourth Division, Maher Al-Assad, has no future in the new Syria. Nevertheless, the violent nature of Maher Al-Assad may escalate clashes and confrontations with pro-Russian forces.
Therefore, the most likely scenario is the escalation of clashes between pro-Russian and Iranian forces in all parts of Syria. Russia is working to separate its spheres of influence from Iran’s in order to pave the way for long-lasting confrontations with pro-Iranian forces, particularly at a time when Iran is determined to gain a foothold in the Mediterranean. The Russians insist on curbing the Iranian role in Syria and turning the latter into a lever of influence for itself as expelling Iran from Syria is in the interests of Israel, Russia and the United States.

Editorial Team