An article in Fars News Agency says Russia has reached out to all key internal and external stakeholders in the Syrian conflict to shape up the future of the country, but it cannot ignore Iran’s role and interest in Syria. “Although Russia has supported the Bashar al-Assad government through its air force, it has been Iran and the resistance axis that has carried out most of the fighting on the battlefield. Without these efforts and sacrifices [by the Iranian forces and its proxies], Russia would certainly be unable to confront the terrorists in Syria,” wrote the outlet, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.). “Therefore Russia cannot ignore Iran’s role as a regional power and as a neighbor [of Syria] which has offered many economic-security proposals to [Syria],” it added. According to the article, Moscow is seeking to facilitate a political settlement to end the Syrian conflict and create a “coalition government” in Syria to preserve its gains. The article says Russia will keep its military presence in Syria at the Hmeimim air base in Latakia and Tartus naval base based on agreements between Moscow and Damascus in 2015 and 2016. The article concludes by warning that the United States and its regional allies are still plotting to unseat Assad through diplomatic channels, and urges the Iranian government to step up a diplomatic offensive parallel to military efforts to foil such efforts.
Comment: As the article indicates, Tehran is wary of Russia’s multi-front diplomatic efforts aimed at shaping the future of post-war Syria. Tehran has long been worried about a potential “grand bargain” between Moscow and Washington over Syria at the expense of Iran’s interests. Russia’s diplomatic engagement on the Syrian conflict with Iran’s regional rivals such as Israel and Saudi Arabia also troubles Iran. In addition, while Iran is part of a trilateral process with Russia and Turkey to facilitate “peace talks” between Damascus and moderate opposition forces, Tehran feels it is isolated in the parallel U.N.-sponsored Geneva process.
While Russia and Iran have been cooperating closely in the Syrian conflict, their vital interests and endgame strategy in Syria are not entirely the same. The Russian military intervention was instrumental in avoiding the fall of the Assad regime. But now that Damascus and its allies are in control of key population centers, Russia is apparently seeking to reduce its military role and find a political solution to end the conflict in Syria and preserve its gains there. Iran, however, still favors a military victory and seeks to consolidate the presence of its proxies there for its broader regional agenda – mainly against Israel. Early this year, when Russia was working with Turkey to secure a ceasefire deal with the Syrian opposition, Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani told visiting Syrian Prime Minister Imad Khamis in Tehran: “Syria’s enemies must not be allowed to tactically exploit the opportunity of ceasefire and political talks to reinforce, rearm and fund terrorist groups and rebuild their operational capabilities.” Moreover, Iran sees Assad’s hold on power as a red line.
But all this does not mean that the Moscow-Tehran strategic cooperation in Syria will end anytime soon. As the article points out, Russia needs Iran’s cooperation in Syria as Iranian-led forces are in charge on the ground. U.S. National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster recently said that “about 80 percent of Assad fighters are Iranian proxies.” Indeed, Iranian-led forces are playing a key role in providing security for Russian military personnel in its Syrian air and naval bases.