AMMAN — Clad in masks and sitting on opposite sides of the room, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad met in Damascus in a well-publicized visit on Monday. 

The visit was announced suddenly just two days prior and comes amid intermittent clashes in Idlib between opposition factions and Syrian government forces and its allied militias. 

According to Syrian state-run media outlet, SANA, Assad and Zarif discussed the “Astana Process, and the developments in the north of Syria in light of the continuing transgressions by Turkey against Syria’s sovereignty and territory,” among other issues. 

However, the real purpose of Zarif’s trip “may have been to assure Damascus of continued Iranian support, and remind Moscow and Washington of Tehran’s resolve to continue playing a role in Syria,” Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Arab Gulf States Institute, told Syria Direct.

Iran has given Syria massive amounts of aid throughout the civil war, but a combination of unprecedentedly low oil prices and a coronavirus crisis at home jeopardizes Iran’s ability to continue to do so. 

The visit to Damascus could be Tehran’s attempt to reinforce its political support for the Assad government as economic aid declines, as well as to circumvent Moscow and push for its favored solution in Idlib province. 

Diverging interests in Idlib

Iran, in sharp contrast to Russia, has pushed to violate the current ceasefire agreement, established between Ankara and Moscow on March 5 to end Turkey’s Operation Spring Shield against Sryian government forces in northwest Syria. 

“There is a fundamental disagreement between Moscow and Tehran,” Alfoneh said. “Moscow wants to move towards a political solution in Syria, while Iran is there to stay and is pushing for a military solution in Idlib,” he explained. 

Iranian militias have massed on the front lines of southern Idlib and western Aleppo province and seem to be accelerating the pace of ceasefire violations, as its fighters have been involved in many of the skirmishes with opposition factions.

For its part, Russia seems to be content with the ceasefire agreement for the time being, reportedly limiting the movement of Russian soldiers in Syria to avoid coronavirus contagion among its troops. 

If Zarif was pushing Assad towards Iran’s preferred outcome in Idlib—a renewed offensive on the province—it would not be the first time that Iran has tried to amplify its role in the conflict via diplomacy. 

During both Operation Spring Shield in March and Peace Spring against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria in October, Tehran offered to mediate between Ankara and Damascus, a role that Russia usually plays.  

Tehran might have also sensed an opportunity to bring Damascus closer into its orbit, as Russia has recently publicly signaled its displeasure with the Assad government’s handling of national reconciliation and the situation in Idlib, most notably in an essay written by a top diplomat on April 17. In addition, a number of articles published in a Russian newspaper run by the owner of the infamous Wagner forces also aimed criticism at Assad last week. 

In his essay, the Russian diplomat criticizes Damascus for its short-sightedness and advises Syria to focus more on economic and political reconstruction rather than a reconquest of the remaining territories outside of its control via military force. 

Tellingly, the essay also warns that “the military campaign in Idlib has illustrated the limits of what’s possible” and advises that it is better to “keep the status quo” in the northwest and northeast of the country for the time being. 

Instead of a renewed military campaign, the diplomat explains, Russia will negotiate with Turkey directly in order to “seek meaningful compromises” in the northwest. These negotiations would likely occur outside of the Astana format, meaning a de-facto exclusion of Iran from the diplomatic process. 

Such a scenario would be a tough pill for both Damascus and Tehran to swallow. Bashar al-Assad seems determined to retake “every inch” of Syria and seems more interested in playing Russia and Iran off of each other than making genuine economic and political reforms. 

It also interferes with Iran’s ambitions for Syria, as it sees renewed hostilities in Idlib as key to its strategic interests. 

“Tehran’s insistence on a continued military campaign in Syria serves several purposes: Remind Damascus and Moscow of the utility of Iranian proxies, to prevent negotiations between Washington and Damascus, and to increase the risk of another refugee wave which would threaten the European Union,” Alfoneh explained. 

“All of these elements improve Tehran’s bargaining position, not only in Syria but also with political issues totally unrelated to developments in [that country],” he added. 

Though partners, for the time being, Russia and Iran have vastly different interests in Syria. Iran wants to maintain a military presence in Syria via its militias—made up of Syrian Shias and foreign fighters—and sustain its so-called land bridge to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

There is an additional ideological element involved, as Iran concentrates its reconstruction efforts on low-income housing outside of Damascus in an effort to build a base of popular support like it did in southern Lebanon and parts of Iraq.

Russia is interested in maintaining its air and naval base on the Syrian coast for power-projection purposes in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, as well as extracting natural resource contracts from Syria. It also sees military reform, namely, subordinating mostly-Iranian backed militias to Damascus’s command, as essential to the stability of the country. 

With two vastly differing visions for the future of Idlib province and Syria more broadly, Damascus sits at a crossroads of sorts between Moscow and Tehran. Zarif’s visit might have been an attempt to nudge it in Iran’s direction.