Recent reporting gives the impression that Moscow and Tehran are parting ways in Syria. The Kremlin has called on all foreign military forces—except for its own—to leave the country. Tehran has loudly and indignantly rejected the Russian invitation. American officials might be tempted to feel encouraged: a temptation that should, for the time being, be resisted. Moscow knows that without Iran and its Shia militias the Assad regime is bereft of ground combat forces. The point of this supposed contretemps may be to lull Washington into complacency; to consign Syria to Russia, to implement President Trump’s stated desire to leave quickly, and to secure Bashar al-Assad in his place indefinitely.
It is understandable that American officials want Moscow to play a positive role in ending Syria’s internal violence, encouraging Tehran to withdraw its Quds Force personnel and foreign mercenaries, and somehow putting the country on the path to a post-Assad future. The Kremlin has every reason to encourage American hopes and American credulity.
For years it has told Washington counterparts that it is not wed to Bashar al-Assad, that its Syria-related interests differ from those of Iran, and that it is seriously committed to peace talks, de-escalation, and constitutional reform. This has been music to the ears of American officials trying to accommodate one commander-in-chief determined not to upset Iran over Syria, and another who has signaled his willingness to abandon eastern Syria just as soon as ISIS (ISIL, Daesh, Islamic State) is defeated.
In recent months, however, Moscow’s non-stop mendacity over Assad regime chemical weapons use and its violent disregard of de-escalation zones it helped create; has undermined its Washington believers. Indeed, Russia’s inability or refusal to deliver its client to Geneva peace talks has not been lost on American officials who are every bit as hopeful for Kremlin good deeds as were their Obama administration predecessors. Getting the United States back on board with a “let Moscow handle it” agenda is essential for Russia, especially given the threat posed by the potential post-ISIS stabilization of eastern Syria.
Moscow and Tehran both understand that a properly resourced and executed post-ISIS stabilization of Syria east of the Euphrates River would be a real threat to the one thing they agree on completely: the indefinite preservation of Bashar al-Assad as the titular President of Syria. An American effort with strong regional and European support could, with the vital ingredient of local Syrian leadership, reverse the greatest failure of the Syrian revolution by producing an attractive alternative to the violently kleptocratic rule of a family and its entourage. It is manifestly in the interests of Iran, Russia, and the regime to stop stabilization cold.
In February armed Russians crossed the Euphrates River and tried, unsuccessfully, to capture an oil field liberated from ISIS by coalition air and Kurdish-led ground forces. Iranian-led militiamen have seized, but failed to hold territory east of the Euphrates. And now Bashar al-Assad is threatening to take eastern Syria militarily, as he tries to re-cast sectarian family rule as Syrian nationalism.
No doubt Tehran and Moscow differ sharply on aspects of Syrian policy. Moscow has no interest at all in helping Iran and its Lebanese franchise (Hezbollah) establish an anti-Israel “resistance front” along the eastern base of the Golan Heights. Neither is Russia well-disposed toward Iran’s efforts to replicate in Syria what it has done in Lebanon, by creating a heavily armed parallel state to do its bidding. But these are details to be worked out in the context of a common Iranian-Russian objective: the political preservation of Bashar al-Assad.
For Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad is Exhibit A in Russia’s supposed return to great power status after decades of humiliation: a powerful domestic political tool for Putin and his oligarchs. For Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Assad may literally be the only Syrian willing to subordinate his country to the needs of Lebanon’s Hezbollah: the jewel in the crown of Iran’s regional expansionist policy. These powerful domestic political imperatives overshadow myriad differences in objectives, strategy, and tactics. They mandate cooperation for the one thing they agree is essential: the preservation of Assad.
Whether the recent sharp exchange between Moscow and Tehran was rehearsed and staged is not known here. Perhaps Moscow is trying to do two things at once: reacquire and reinforce Washington’s credulity toward Russia’s intentions and capabilities, tapping into the administration’s anti-Iranian sentiment; and signal Tehran that it is imperiling their joint client by provoking Israel dangerously with the “resistance front” agenda in Syria’s southwest
In the end, however, Moscow knows that Iran’s departure from Syria would leave Assad with a ground military force more adept at looting from United Nations humanitarian convoys than firing and maneuvering professionally. It hopes to manage both Washington and Tehran in Syria. It hopes to kill off the stabilization of northeastern Syria and the “resistance front” in the southwest.
Russia getting Washington to believe again in the Kremlin’s capacity for doing good in Syria is vital for (a) keeping in place a family whose policy of state terror has helped to undermine American relationships in the region and far beyond, while (b) boosting Putin politically at home. An administration eager to wash its hands of Syria will eagerly accept as reality press reports of Tehran-Moscow conflict. If such eagerness does not exist, caution is very much in order.
Frederic C. Hof is a nonresident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.