AMMAN — Days before the fifth anniversary of Russia’s direct military intervention in Syria, on September 30, Bashar al-Assad expressed his gratitude for Russian assistance “in the war against terrorism, and for the political support it has shown during the ongoing crisis in Syria.”
Assad’s remarks came during a September 7 meeting with a Russian delegation led by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and was preceded by the announcement of a Russian-Syrian agreement made last July. The agreement encompasses “more than 40 new projects in energy sector reconstruction, several hydroelectric power stations, and offshore oil drilling.” Additionally, “a work contract was signed for a Russian company to explore and drill for oil and gas off the Syrian coast,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov said.
In parallel, Damascus and Tehran also signed a military and technical cooperation agreement in July. Assad described the deal as a culmination of “years of shared work and cooperation to confront the terrorist war on Syria and the aggressive policies targeting Damascus and Tehran.”
Since the break out of the Syrian revolution in March 2011, Assad’s two main allies have provided military and economic support—which reached its peak with direct military intervention alongside Syrian government forces—in exchange for various concessions by Damascus. As a result, it is almost self-evident that Assad has lost his sovereignty over the country’s geography and resources. However, he has empowered himself by “manipulating his allies,” Russian military expert Anton Mardasov.
While “Moscow and Tehran guarantee his survival, Assad is the guarantor of their influence in Syria,” Mardasov, a non-resident researcher at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) and the Syria Program at the Middle East Institute in Washington, told Syria Direct.
But the most important lingering question is which of the two allies has the upper hand in controlling Syria’s resources and institutions and, by extension, the influence regarding the fate of the Assad regime in the short and long term. This is particularly evident regarding the government forces which Assad has entirely relied upon to hold power since 2011.
Sources who spoke to Syria Direct expressed varying opinions regarding who leads the Syrian military establishment and controls its decisions. However, the same sources, including a military source with the Assad regime, agreed that Assad—the commander in chief of the army and armed forces—can no longer manage his army independent of his Russian and Iranian allies. While “the military decisions that reach army personnel include the signatures of Syrian officers, strategic issues and pivotal decisions are not made without referring to Russia or Iran,” a military source in the 4th Division told Syria Direct under the condition of anonymity.
Delusional Russian-Iranian rivalry
The military operation “Peace Spring,” launched by Turkey against the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeastern Syria on October 9, 2019, presented an opportunity for Russia to enter the American sphere of influence east of the Euphrates River. As a result of an agreement with Turkey the same month, and another one with the SDF, Russian forces accompanied by the Syrian government patrols were allowed to deploy in SDF-controlled areas along the Turkish border.
Before that, Russia had worked to reinforce its presence in the eastern Deir e-Zor countryside controlled by Damascus but is effectively an Iranian zone of influence. Moscow transferred logistical equipment and weapons, making the northern area of the region a Russian zone of influence. At the same time, Iran and its militias retained the southern areas of al-Bukamel and Mayadeen. This move may indicate that the two parties are competing to extend their influence into the oil-rich eastern region.
But competition between Moscow and Tehran “has existed since the beginning, and will continue in multiple direct and indirect ways,” according to Yezid Sayegh, a researcher at the Carnegie Middle East Center. This rivalry, however, does not mean “a comprehensive confrontation between them, given the intersection of their interests related to preventing the fall of the Bashar al-Assad regime,” Sayegh told Syria Direct, referring to Russian-Turkish relations, which “do not reach the level of estrangement, despite the obvious contradictions. So why expect a rift between Russia and Iran?”
The same opinion echoed by Wael Alwan, a researcher at the Jusoor Center for Studies in Turkey. “Russian-Iranian rivalry cannot be called a conflict,” said Alwan, “because Russia is the one that got Iran to the Astana negotiating table.” That indicates “the presence of an understanding between the two countries about the future of Syria,” he told Syria Direct.
Alwan pointed to Russia’s assurances to both the United States and Israel, as part of the 2018 settlements in southern Syria, to “prevent the entry of Iranian forces or affiliated militias to the south. But Russia did not abide by that, because Iranian forces and Hezbollah militias entered al-Lajat, Tafas, and other cities in Daraa province.” Thus, Russia “does not want to slide into internal challenges in Syria with parties loyal to it.”
Russian military expert Mardasov agreed, saying that even if there were differences in Moscow and Tehran’s approaches to military operations, the two are looking towards the common goal of “Assad’s survival.” Accordingly, “Iran will not oppose any Russian-led military operation, because this allows its proxies to preserve their lives,” he said. However, Mardasov did not discount that Assad’s policy of balancing relations with Iran and Russia could “create an artificial competition between them, or increase the natural competition, for [Assad] to profit in the form of weapons or loans or otherwise.” It is also “possible for Damascus to force Moscow to make concessions under the pretext that if it does not, then Iran will,” he added.
Who is the military decision-maker?
In the early days of the Syrian revolution, after the Assad regime had lost control of the protests and the area under its control shrank in favor of opposition factions, Damascus relied upon local militias and cross-border militias financed by Iran. The most notable of these are Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the Quds Force, the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade and Asaib Ahl al-Haq. Meanwhile, until the end of September 2015, Russian support remained limited to military experts and supplying government forces with weapons and munitions.
With the growing role of the militias in general, “their recruitment patterns became segmented along regional, religious, and ideological lines, which can indicate growing localized autonomies and a widened circle of loyalty, as well as security and defense incoherence,” according to a recently published report by the US-based Atlantic Council. “This hybrid structure of the Syrian security sector forced decentralization on military decision-making in a system that had long been ultra-centralized,” the report added.
“While Moscow and Tehran improved the Syrian army’s battlefield effectiveness and reversed its territorial losses, such victory came at a high price as the Assad regime’s sole monopoly over the military decreased. Both foreign powers are increasingly involved in even the appointment of senior officers, unit commanders, and the leadership of intelligence commands.”
The two allies have divided up the military airports, with “airfields for the Iranians, others for the Russians, and airfields specifically for Damascus,” Kirill Semenov, a non-resident researcher at the Russian International Affairs Council, told Syria Direct. There are “military components working with the Iranians, such as the 4th Division, components working with the Russians, such as the 25th Division [known as the Tiger Forces under the leadership of Suheil al-Hassan],” Semenov added. There are also “brigades in which Russian military advisors and Hezbollah trainers work at the same time.”
In addition to the fact that government forces are not under Bashar al-Assad’s command, they also “do not have a single commander, especially since Iran supports some units and Russia supports others,” a Russian war correspondent embedded with the 25th Division told Syria Direct.
However, the military source with the 4th Division stressed that “the Russians have a large say, or rather the final word, in the military, including within brigades affiliated with Iran, such as the 4th Division or the Republican Guard.”
“The Russians interfere at the command level, in major security issues, and in major disputes between the army and the militias supporting it.”
But although “decisions in the Syrian army are fragmented and not subject to one party alone,” according to Sayegh, “the regime is the strongest party in the end.” While Russia’s influence in the army is more substantial than Iran’s,” he said, “it does not have the decision-making authority in the army, even if it has the upper hand in some of the units it deploys and finances.”
Nonetheless, Damascus remains unable “to make independent decisions about starting or ending military operations,” Semenov said, “because, without Russian support, [the Assad regime’s] military resources have not previously allowed it to realize a decisive military victory.” This, however, “does not mean that Assad cannot independently launch military operations,” Semenov, “but rather that he does not launch such operations without Russian support in order to avoid danger. Assad is not confident in his abilities. If he starts a military operation without coordinating with Russia, then he will bear the responsibility for it.”
Despite that, Assad remains “able to exert the necessary pressure on Russia to drive it to participate in military operations in Idlib, even though Moscow is not interested in those operations because they could spoil its relations with Ankara,” said Semenov. “Just as Assad is indebted to Russia for not falling, Russia owes him its presence in Syria, because that allows it to extend influence in the Middle East and North Africa.”
While Russia has the upper hand over Iran in influencing Assad’s forces, including the Syrian military establishment’s decisions, this does not diminish Iran’s malicious role in Syria, especially over the long term.
At the beginning of its intervention, Russia focused its attention on “the air force and strategic weapons, such as Scud [long-range, surface-to-surface] missiles with a range of 300-400 kilometers, located in the Qalamoun Mountains in Reef Dimashq,” a source who was close to the regime until 2011 told Syria Direct, requesting anonymity for security reasons. “Even after strengthening its presence on the ground, Russia still does not have large fighting units in Syria, except the military police whose role is limited to conducting patrols in the areas of its influence,” the source added.
On the other hand, according to the same source, “the [military] divisions working on the ground are, without exception, affiliated with Iran.” Furthermore, “commanders and personnel from Hezbollah and Iran are in every military division and battalion in Syria, whether as experts or fighters, alongside their role in spying on Syrian leaders and personnel.”
Alwan also believes that “Russian intervention was limited to the framework of the Syrian military establishment. Moscow aimed to regain army contracts and to organize it in its own interests.” Iran, on the other hand, “inundated Syria with militias and fighters and meddled in the government and society,” adding that “Iran is trying, by penetrating the army and government, to be more in control of society.”
Russia “aimed to plunder phosphates and gas,” said the source who was previously close to the regime, “and it is not prepared to pay [so much as] 100 dollars,” while “Iran is pumping millions of dollars into all who work with it.” He went on to say that Iran has not only infiltrated the government forces but has also “lavished enormous amounts of cash, to the degree that it bought the society,” alongside “naturalization operations [of non-Syrian citizens], the scale of which cannot be known because decrees related to granting [Syrian] nationality are not published.”
The source named several individuals close to Iran who recently rose to prominence, such as “lawyer Ziad Khalouf from the Qalamoun region, who invested in the border region [with Lebanon] in Jroud Arsal for the benefit of Iran, as well as two members of the People’s Assembly for Reef Dimashq: oil trader Subhi Abbas [linked to Lebanese oil companies] and Amer Kheiti, a businessman from Douma.” Although Kheiti has not played military roles for Iran, he is a member of the Syrian-Iranian Business Council and preside over its food committee. “He exploited the poor in Eastern Ghouta and uses his projects to control society,” said the source. “If Iran wants to recruit 10,000 fighters from Reef Dimashq, then Kheiti can get it done.”
Thus, although “both Iran and Russia are using Syria to achieve their interests, Russia will [eventually] leave. Its presence is limited to its investment sites and military bases, such as the Hmeimim Air Base and the port of Tartus. But Iran will control the land, so long as there is no real project to prevent it from implementing its plan,” the source concluded.
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.