Russia’s Operations in Syria and Iran’s Policies in Region

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Seyyedeh Motahhareh Hosseini
Assistant Professor of Political Science & Expert on Central Asia and Caucasus Affairs

The first question that is raised following the presence of Russians in Syria is to what extent this presence has been useful? Has Russia achieved its strategic goals in Syria, or have necessary grounds for the achievement of these goals been provided in recent months following Russia’s presence in Syria? In reality, Russia has not gained any remarkable achievement in Syria yet because no important region has been so far liberated in Syria; the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and its army have not been able to make remarkable advances against militants in strategic regions, especially in areas around the capital, Damascus; and the difficult siege of Damascus has not been broken yet. On the other hand, no clear-cut security and intelligence activity has been seen on the side of the Russian forces. For example, they have not been able yet to identify important members or sites of Daesh, or to destroy them. If identification of Daesh forces, who are originally from Russia or Caucasus, is taken to be one of the important goals pursued by Russians in Syria, it must be noted that no news on Russia’s success in this regard has been so far released by Russian media or sources.

It seems that Russia is faced with two major problems in Syria: the first problem is that it cannot transfer heavy weapons as well as remarkable number of ground forces to Syria and, secondly, it has no good understanding of the situation on the ground and Daesh forces in this Arab country. Therefore, it does not seem to be able to defeat Daesh or play an effective role in promoting its own plans or those of its allies in the region.

A recent development in this regard was negotiations between Iran and the United States, which after achieving an agreement on Iran’s nuclear case, have continued their talks over Syria and the situation of the country’s President Bashar Assad. The two sides have apparently clinched preliminary agreements as well. The clear point is that neither Iran insists that Assad must remain in power in Syria for good, nor the United States insists on his rapid deposition from power, because both sides believe that there is a middle road which would see Assad staying in power until the situation in the region calms down, stability is restored, and Daesh is brought under control. Here, Russia has found itself in conditions when it has no trump card in Syria yet and its policies are, one way or another, a function of agreements between Iran and the United States.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to restore his position in international system and play a decisive role in important developments of the region at a time that Russia’s foreign policy apparatus is feeble and the country’s economic weakness has been made worse as a result of Western sanctions against Russia, thus practically barring the country from playing the role of a regional superpower. At the same time, conflicting interests of Iran and Russia have at times introduced Iran as a major regional actor opposite to Russia. Iran is an actor that has been so far successful in dealing with crises in the Middle East and due to its familiarity with the situation on the ground in these countries, having good relations with forces that oppose radical Sunni militants in Iraq and Syria, the ability to fight Daesh, proportionate and friendly relations with Iraqi Kurdistan Region, and most importantly, due to its ability to prevent spillover of war from Syria and Iraq into its borders, has been able to take proper advantage of opportunities and avoid the existing crises.

If negotiations continue between Iran and the United States and the United States recognizes Iran’s policies in the region, Russia will appear as a loser or subordinate power. In this way, once again and in terms of the regional chess game, it would be Russia who would lose a large part of its trump cards in the conflict of interests between Tehran and Moscow. As a result, it must seek new opportunities in order to reduce the existing threats to a minimum and gain concessions.

It seems that lack of coordination among various organs in charge of Russia’s foreign policy, and systemic inability of this country for taking solid moves toward its foreign policy goals are major reasons behind shakiness of Russia’s policies in the region. At the same time, in view of recent suspicious attacks on Russian planes, Moscow has not only failed to achieve its main goal of presence in Syria, which was preventing spread of Islamist extremism toward Caucasus, but has instigated part of its Islamist opponents inside the country to get active against Russia by taking advantage of new tools.

Key Words: Russia, Operations, Syria, Iran’s Policies, Strategic Goals, Bashar Assad, Daesh, Russia’s Success, The United States, Vladimir Putin, Middle East, Foreign Policy Goals, Islamist Extremism, Caucasus, Hosseini

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*Photo Credit: The Irish Times