The rocky partnership between Russia and Iran in the Syrian conflict is entering a turbulent period. The unprecedented US-Russia-Israel security summit due to take place in Jerusalem next month has no other explanation.
A tersely worded White House statement on May 29 said that the summit, which will be attended by the national security advisors of the US and Russia — John Bolton and Nikolai Patrushev — will discuss regional security issues. The Israeli media expect that the focus will be on Syria — Iran and “other destabilising actors”.
Out of the two competing narratives regarding Russian-Iranian cooperation in Syria — one, that Russia and Iran are time-tested allies who smashed the West’s geopolitical conspiracies over Syria, and, two, the contrarian view that their alliance is but a marriage of convenience — the latter seems to be gaining ground. The great game theorists and acolytes of Eurasianism will be disappointed.
Israel insists that Iranian forces must leave all of Syria. So far, the Russian position has been that Iranian involvement in Syria is legitimate under international law and it is unrealistic to expect Iran to abandon its self-interests. However, reports began appearing lately that a standoff between Russian soldiers and Iran-backed militias in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo is casting shadows.
Details are murky. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (based in London) said fighting may have been triggered over competing for control of city checkpoints, which brings in a lot of money for forces on the ground. A second interpretation is that the standoff followed recent Israeli air strikes near Aleppo, which some Iran-backed militias suspect to have been with Russian involvement through coordination with Tel Aviv.
At any rate, the Voice of America reported on May 27 that Russian military police last week carried out a raid against Iranian-backed militiamen stationed at Aleppo international airport and that “in the aftermath, several Iranian militia leaders were arrested.” The VOA highlighted that the victors in the Syrian conflict are now turning against each other in a scramble for the spoils of war.
The Russian-Iranian rift also resonates in an extraordinary report on May 27 in the Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta (which has links with the Russian establishment), that Iran is equipping a military port, Baniyas, near the Russian bases in Latakia on Syria’s Eastern Mediterranean coast.
An unnamed diplomatic source told the daily, “Iran’s activity near Banias may have a destabilising effect not only for the region, but also for the (Russian) forces, which are trying to stabilise this region. It’s important to have a closer look at what is going on around the port because in the future it may become Iran’s military base near the Mediterranean Sea.”
(Syria’s Mediterranean coastline)
The report added, “Iran’s access to the Mediterranean Sea deprives Russia of its monopoly on economic presence in Syria’s coastal areas and creates certain security risks. The territorial proximity of Iranian facilities, regardless of their purpose, may not only technically complicate life for Russian servicemen, but also put them under surveillance. However, it is difficult to stop Damascus from maintaining close contacts with Tehran, which granted Syria loans estimated at between $6 bln and $8 bln during all the years of the civil war.” (By the way, Baniyas Oil Terminal connects the great Iraqi oil fields of Kirkuk via an 800-km long pipeline with a capacity of 300,000 barrels per day.)
The daily concluded that “Russia is concerned that Iran seeks to do the same thing in Syria as it did in Lebanon, namely to create a force similar to Hezbollah, despite Moscow’s effort to restore the Syrian state.”
What is going on? Moscow seems to co-relate Iran’s conduct in Syria with Russia’s support for Iran in its standoff with the US over the nuclear issue. Thus, on May 28, the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov made an unannounced trip to Tehran to discuss the Iran nuclear deal.
Upon his return to Moscow, in an interview with the government daily Rossiyiskaya Gazeta, Ryabkov sternly warned Tehran against “reckless steps” in regard of the 2015 nuclear deal. Ryabkov said, “We also cautioned the Iranian side against withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which would represent a qualitatively new step in the direction of destabilisation… Russia’s position includes an element of cautioning Iranians from reckless steps.”
No doubt, these sharp remarks, publicly made, imply a stern warning that Moscow’s support to Tehran in the latter’s standoff with the US is conditional. Arguably, Moscow may have decided that it is advantageous at this point to distance itself from Tehran — and also to let world capitals know about it. Coincidence or not, the White House announced the scheduling of the unprecedented trilateral US-Russia-Israel security summit no sooner than Ryabkov returned from Tehran.
What does Russia hope to gain out of the forthcoming trilateral summit in Jerusalem? Quite obviously, Moscow hopes to cash in on Israel’s leverage over Bolton to improve the US-Russia bilateral relations, which are languishing.
To be sure, Moscow is aware of Bolton’s hawkish views on Iran and will expect a reciprocal gesture from him too in a theatre of the highest importance to the Kremlin — Ukraine. Of course, it so happens that the new Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky is a Jew himself and the Ukrainian oligarch Igor Kolomoisky who mentored him has been living in exile in Israel.
In sum, the pantomime of the trilateral security summit in Jerusalem can be a ‘win-win’ for Russia. If Bolton cooperates, some of the pending issues in Russian-American relations can be brought to the negotiating table at last. Indeed, if Washington does not act as spoiler, the Kremlin is cautiously optimistic that it can mend fences with Kiev.
The bottom line is that Moscow is wary of getting sucked into Iran’s “resistance” politics in Syria. Whereas Iran considers its cooperation with Russia in Syria (and the Middle East in general) as a means to consolidate its new role as regional power, for Moscow, Israel is a special case for its Middle Eastern policies.
The Russian strategy, partly at least, has been to keep Iran in its orbit and use it as a bargaining chip to cultivate Sunni Arab states, but that has exhausted itself. Meanwhile, Israel has overcome its isolation in the Arab world, thanks to its confrontation with Iran as well as the attraction that Israeli technological capability holds for the Arab states.
Russia has diverse ties with Israel — and Netanyahu has ensured that contradictions in their regional interests do not get exacerbated. Suffice to say, Russia seeks a Syrian settlement in coordination with the US and Israel as an imperative need. The domestic opinion takes a dim view of continued Russian entanglement in Syria.
However, do not expect Russia to burn all its bridges with Iran with which it has wide-ranging cooperation in Syria and Middle East, the Caspian, Afghanistan, etc. The Russian predicament boils down to this: It will not challenge the US sanctions against Iran, but a US-Iranian military confrontation will put it in a tight spot, while on the contrary, it may end up loser in a US-Iranian direct engagement leading to Iran’s integration with the West, something that Tehran elites always sought.
(Iran-supported Shi’ite militia in Syria)
This is a conundrum that Russia has to contend with because Iran’s project to create a militia force in Syria that functions like Hezbollah in Lebanon and forms the “resistance” against Israel and the US aims at extending its deterrence power and is linked to its national defence — and, make no mistake, in the final analysis, Russia does not belong to the eco-system of the Muslim Middle East.
The clock is ticking. Iran cannot be stopped on its track unless sanctions are lifted and it is allowed to live a normal country. Iran pinned hopes on the 2015 nuclear deal but that turned out to be a pipe dream. And Ryabkov’s visit to Tehran underscores that Moscow is now expecting Iran to remain committed to a deal that neither brings any benefit to Iran nor the other guarantors are prepared to underwrite through concrete actions for fear of provoking American wrath.
As Dennis Ross wrote this week, “But what kind of deal would Trump be willing to strike? It is unlikely to be one based on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s 12 conditions for negotiations: those are seen by the Iranians as tantamount to requiring regime change. During his visit to Japan, Trump was clear that he was “not looking for regime change”. Instead, he said, his goal was “no nuclear weapons,” which leaves room for maneuver… This would require Trump to decide how much he is prepared to give up.”