In the second of a three-part series, Agha Hussein investigates how developments in Syria correspond to an ongoing Iran-Russia rivalry.
Rivals of the West in their own right, Iran and Russia today are major power players in the Syrian imbroglio. Their convergence of interests in helping eradicate extremist terrorist proxies utilized by an array of rival states against their mutual Syrian ally has allowed them both a significant degree of say in Syrian affairs and how that country’s future will pan out
However, their cooperation against the terrorist threat has often been the pivot of inaccurate portrayals of Russia-Iran ties and the extent of their shared interests versus their many highly divergent objectives in Syria, many of which are rooted in events and policies predating the beginning of the war there in 2011. With a proper look at ground realities in Syria and the overall shifting alignments of foreign actors involved there, the profoundly divergent intentions and views of Russia and Iran regarding that country’s reconstruction phase and its future become readily divergent.
One flashpoint of this brewing diplomatic conflict is Syria’s Latakia Port. Explored in the first installment of this series, the port was leased by Iran in a move that Russia feels directly threatens its military and economic dominance over Syria. Russia has its own military presence in Latakia, home to the Russian-controlled Hmeim Airbase and the Russian-operated Tartus Port. To complicate the matter further, Baniyas Port, located between Latakia and Tartus, is also being strategically used by Iran.
The threat that Iran poses to Russian military dominance in Latakia was explained in an April 2019 Asia Times report by Sami Moubayed, a Syrian historian and writer based in Damascus. Moubayed elaborates:
Iran could ‘could limit and possibly obstruct Russian surveillance and intelligence gathering, jam their radio-electronic technology, and jeopardize Russian air-defenses, aircraft, and the lives of military personnel”
Moubayed also cited a 2017 incident in which an Iranian request to the Syrian government for 1,000 hectares of land in Tartus city which was to be used to build an oil and gas port was “nixed” by Russia due to its proximity to Russian military facilities. Moubayed adds that Russia, ostensibly by leveraging its influence with Damascus, also made sure that an Iranian request for 5,000 hectares of land near Damascus International Airport for agricultural use was rejected as well.
Russian efforts to curb Iran’s strategic depth in Syria predate more recent efforts by Gulf Arab states toward the same end. Setting aside a mutual desire to eradicate terrorists on the ground, Russia and Iran’s plans for Syria diverge greatly.
Russia’s desire to see sanctions on Syria lifted is shared by Iran, yet its vision for a sanctions-free Syria is sharply antagonistic to Iran’s. Russia wants to see Syria become economically integrated with the Gulf Arab states in the GCC, who it seeks to see out-do the deals and contracts Iran has already procured from Damascus.
According to a December 2019 article by Igor Matveev for Al-Monitor, the former head of the Trade and Economic Division of the Russian Embassy in Damascus announced large investments linking Russia’s Tartus Port in Syria to the Gulf Arab coast via a new railway.
Matveev added that Russia has been strongly encouraging GCC and EU investments in Syria while eagerly welcoming any prospect for the lifting of sanctions which, in turn, would allow a broader range of Russian companies to enter the Syrian market. He also mentioned that Russian companies active in Syria have been competing with Iran for participation in Syria’s reconstruction since before sanctions were even imposed.
Even viewed purely from a financial-economic perspective and sans broader strategic-military interests as will be explored in the following sections of this installment, Russian preference for GCC and Western economic involvement in Syria makes it stand out as a rival to Iran. This is because of what Matveev describes as a split between ‘wartime entrepreneurs who benefit from Iranian projects and their rivals, traditionally parties aligned with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, other Arab Gulf monarchies, Lebanon and the West’.
The Israel Factor
As predicted by this author in January 2019, Russia and the GCC together with Israel will function as a trio in challenging Iran and its Resistance infrastructure in Syria, a plan complimented by Russia’s own greatly ramped-up defense and trade ties with the GCC since 2017. Russia, whose export earnings are boosted by U.S. sanctions on oil-and-gas competitor Iran, also pulled major Russian corporations out of the Iranian market after U.S. sanctions were reimposed on Iran in late 2018.
These well-timed moves connected directly to Russia’s desire to see Syria align itself with its Gulf Arab neighbors instead of the Iranian-led Resistance. Russia’s propping up of Saudi Arabia at a time when the Saudis are struggling with their disastrous Yemen War and recent thawing of relations with Washington is directly relevant to its refusal to stand by Iran in practice and not just vague rhetoric.
Matveev recognizes Iran’s attempts to create an uninterrupted land-link from Iran through Iraq, Syria and into Lebanon as well as its economic projects in Syria, as prime Israeli – and by extension U.S. – targets. He describes Russia as a plausible partner in seeking to counter these designs.
In a 19 January 2020 article for the Arab Weekly, Moubayed recalled a situation in 2018 when Russia deployed its military police near the Israeli-Syrian border as a “guarantee” to Israel following the latter’s complaints that a purely Syrian Arab Army-patrolled area would allow a Hezbollah comeback. The Russian Defense Ministry later confirmed that the deployment came in response to a direct Israeli request. Israel’s characteristic hubris, where it sought to declare where Hezbollah had the right to move inside of Syrian territory, where it was invited assist it with the war against Israel-supported terrorists, was thus accommodated by Russia. The Russian military police would seek to ensure Hezbollah stayed far from Israel, who, notably, refuses to finalize its own international borders and constantly seeks expansion.
Suffice to say, despite Russia presenting itself as an arbitrator in Syria and attempting to portray its countering of Iran as ‘de-militarization’ between enemy states in Syria, Moscow has done little about Israel’s continued unilateral aggression. It has, however, continued with the ‘contain Iran’ policy.
The ‘contain Iran’ pursuit penetrates Syria’s military
Another aspect of the ‘contain Iran’ strategy pursued by Israel, again with Gulf Arab countries playing second fiddle, is the goal to weaken ties between senior Syrian and Iranian military-intelligence cadres by altering the very structure of the Syrian military.
Moscow-based geopolitical analyst Andrew Korybko pointed out in October 2018 that a consensus was beginning to form among Kremlin-funded think tanks that Iran’s influence over Syria’s military had to be curbed. Placing in this context an erstwhile Russian Defence Ministry pact with Syria to train Syrians for free in Russian cadet colleges, Korybko described Iran’s continued presence in Syria (central to the functioning of the Resistance infrastructure described in detail in the previous installment of this series) as clashing with Russia’s vision of a post-war Syria. That vision, Korybko claims, includes multiple stakeholders, including Israel, despite its evidently nefarious designs for Syria.
Examples of Russia’s catering to intrusive Israeli demands vis a vis Syria’s military arose soon enough. In a July 2019 article for Al-Monitor, a non-resident expert at the state-funded Russian International Affairs Council, Anton Mardasov, described the situation leading to the July 7 removal from his post of General Jamil Hassan, the head of Syria’s Air Force Intelligence Directorate, as a clash of interests with Russia. General Hassan had apparently refused to accept certain Israeli demands, drawing the ire of his Russian counterparts.
In fact, as Mardasov states, a meeting mediated by Russia and led by General Hassan was conducted a month prior between Israeli and Syrian officers. Russian commanders were present at the meeting and supported Israeli demands to move ‘pro-Iranian militias’ further from the Israel-Syria border and for the incorporation of the 5th Assault Corps, formed in 2016 under Russian guidance to incorporate former anti-government rebels into the Syrian military. General Hassan is quoted as angrily ending the meeting after proclaiming Iran “the true partner of the Syrians.”
The push to replace senior Syrian officials with ones lacking any affinity or connection to Iran resulted in several major reshuffles in 2018, with the Russian influence behind Damascus’ choices evident. Damascus would, after all, not make changes seen as unfavorable by Iran without its powerful ally Russia not leveraging it to do so.
The story follows an earlier report by the Syrian military-connected al-Masdar News which cited a source in Damascus as stating that the pressure to remove General Hassan likely “comes at the request of Saudi Arabia, who is working to build an alliance in Syria with Russia and the United Arab Emirates.”
The myth of a Russia-backed Iranian pipeline
A theory was floated years ago that the motive of the initial anti-Assad coalition in Syria was to disrupt a transnational energy project that would run through the country and invariably disrupt the geoeconomic ambitions of powerful players in the region. This idea has long formed a vital cog in the now demonstrably false narrative that Russia was backing Iran’s Resistance coalition as a bloc.
The theory held that a pipeline, allegedly Russian-backed, would deliver natural gas from Iran to the European market after crossing through Iraq and Syria. The pipeline, the theory held, earned the wrath of the GCC, the U.S. and Europe, who desired a rival pipeline that would deliver gas from Qatar, through Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria.
Iran, Iraq and Syria indeed signed a $10 billion agreement for a pipeline in July 2011, with talks for its signing reportedly going back to 2008.
The theory states that Assad chose the Iranian pipeline over the Qatari one, offered to him in 2009, because Qatar, with Western backing, sought to compete with Russia’s monopoly over the European gas market.
Unfortunately, it is based on false assumptions, a lack of historical context and misreadings of the nature of Russia’s ties with Iran. The theory also consequently obstructs the reality that certain interests opposed the Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline and sought to inflict punishment upon Syria for being a part of a project so emblematic of Syria’s pro-Resistance alignment.
There is no evidence suggesting the Qatari pipeline was ever under serious consideration and bigger obstacles yet stand in the way of such a Western-GCC ‘anti-Russian’ project having been planned, let alone pitched to Assad.
Qatar does not construct land pipelines, relying instead on a large shipping fleet to carry its gas exports in liquefied form (LNG). This practice resulted from the historical opposition from Qatar’s only land neighbour, Saudi Arabia, to pipelines carrying Qatari gas. Saudi Arabia, in fact, also has a history (pre-dating the June 2017 blockade of Qatar and severing of its status as a GCC member) of opposing Qatari pipelines in general, even when used to export gas to fellow GCC members such as the UAE and Kuwait.
Along with these factors, an April 2018 article by Beirut-based journalist Paul Cochrane exposes yet more holes in the theory. Cochrane points out that Qatar’s target market has long been the vastly populous Asian continent and not Europe and that a Qatar-to-Syria pipeline to target the European market across the Mediterranean Sea would, in terms of construction, maintenance, and transit fees, be expensive compared to continuing to ship to Asia.
Cochrane further counteracts the notion of Qatar as having borne West-backed ambitions to compete with Russia’s gas monopoly by citing an $11 billion purchase of a 19.5% share in Russia’s oil company Rosneft in December 2016 by the Qatar Investment Authority and commodities trader Glencore.
The actual Russian rival for the European gas market is, in fact, Iran, who unlike Qatar, has long sought undisturbed access to Europe for its gas exports. Sanctions provide the obvious obstacle to this, scaring European buyers and intermediary banks from being part of transactions involving the purchase of Iranian oil and gas and preventing Iran from buying modern machinery to fully exploit its reserves. This favors Russia and its dominance in the European market by sidelining a major competitor. Russia itself would find the Iranian pipeline counter to its interests if it began materializing.
The theory is thus evidently false and misrepresents the state of Russia-Iran relations. There is, however, a very real vested interest that supported the war against the Syrian government with a major objective being the sabotage of Iran’s regional energy ambitions. To this enemy, the notion of Iran connecting a pipeline to the Mediterranean Sea via Syria for gas exports to Europe constitutes nothing short of a red line and, concurrently, there exists ample historical context for this particular actor’s crusade against Iranian energy exports and Iran’s economic well-being.
That enemy is Israel.
The real opponent of an Iranian pipeline
Israel’s interest in stifling Iran’s energy exports by keeping it away from European buyers goes back decades, as does Iran’s interest in reaching those buyers.
The Iran Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA), conceived by the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in 1995 and duly passed by Congress by 1996, demanded that then-president Bill Clinton sanction any company investing more than $20 million in Iran’s oil and gas industry.
Several companies, from France’s Total to Russia’s Gazprom and American Conoco, secured exploration and drilling contracts with Iran in 1997 and 1998. This caused Clinton consternation in implementing the Israel-centric ILSA as U.S. trade interests stood at direct odds with Israeli interests. Clinton ultimately gave in to AIPAC’s pressure on this, and numerous other occasions, such as in 1995 when he issued an executive order canceling Conoco’s contracts with Iran to develop its offshore gas fields. The development of Iranian gas fields using foreign capital and expertise was a pre-requisite to the country’s ability to fulfill its own gas needs and becoming a prolific exporter.
In 2001, ILSA was extended for five years as AIPAC worked its legendary ‘charm’ over Congress. According to Andrew Killgore, a former U.S. diplomat and co-founder of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (WRMEA), Exxon Mobil lobbied then-President George Bush against ILSA’s extension but could not rival AIPAC’s influence. Since that period, numerous additional sanctions against Iran have been added.
Israel’s exclusive parochial interest wanted Iran’s economic growth stunted. No other party possessed this interest and when a Western business-oriented diplomatic consensus for a nuclear deal (JCPOA) with Iran in exchange for sanctions relief was reached in 2015, Israel’s lobbyists and the immense Zionist presence in the Trump administration’s highest posts scuttled the deal in 2018.
The Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline: A red line for Israel
A stable Levant with pro-Iran governments would inevitably see serious talks for such a pipeline begin and eventually culminate in the dreaded pipeline, whenever its official signing took place. The pipeline would mark an achievement for Iran, who would no longer need to rely on its sanctioned shipping traversing the highly militarized route from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea and upward from the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean to reach Europe.
The enhanced proximity of Iranian gas to Europe and thus more steady, sustainable supply combined with cheaper rates could also tempt Europe further to defy U.S. sanctions and import from Iran. In this scenario, conflagration and war was Israel’s best bet to ensure the entire length and breadth of such a pipeline would be vulnerable to bombings and attacks.
Russia and Israel’s similar views on the Iranian pipeline
The extremely contrasting approaches of Israel and Russia to Bashar al Assad’s Syria may make their present partnership there seem perplexing. However, given that Syria’s Resistance alignment has remained the sole reason for Israeli, and thus U.S. and NATO, hostility to it, a less-warlike approach toward the same purpose of ‘containing Iran’ in the form of the GCC’s Russia-backed neo-Arab project explored in part one of this series, serves Israel’s goal in a less direct and more phased-out way.
The Russia-Israel partnership in Syria thus does not stand out as aberrational or incomprehensible but as natural and smoothly-progressing. Russia does not endorse the pipeline and benefits directly in terms of its own export earnings from cut-off Iran from the European market.
Russia and Iran’s clashing motives for aid to Damascus
Iran’s years-long line of credit and monthly oil supplies to Damascus during the war served to keep it from weakening further and thus making more concessions to states seeking to weaken ties to Iran. The oil supplies have been especially strategic over the course of the war due to the majority of Syria’s oil wells being occupied either by the U.S. or by the U.S.-backed anti-government Kurdish rebels of the ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF).
When U.S. sanctions on Iran were re-introduced in late 2018, Iranian oil shipments to Syria began to get blocked as they traversed the Suez Canal to enter the Mediterranean Sea. Iran’s line of credit to Syria was also halted.
A fuel crisis soon hit Syria and severe shortages of gasoline, cooking gas and petrol resulted. Iran adapted by sending oil to Syria by truck through Iraq – a more expensive means of transporting oil – and negotiating land passage with Turkey across its territory to its Mediterranean ports for dispatch to Syria’s ports. It also redirected ships blocked from the Suez to travel the much longer distance circling the African continent to enter the Mediterranean Sea from the Gibraltar chokepoint.
Two shipments of oil from Iran in May helped ameliorate the crisis, but Syria’s Russian ally was notably absent. Even Lebanon, an economically weak state with huge numbers of Syrian refugees to manage, aided Syria with whatever amounts of oil it could spare during the crisis.
Russia, despite having oil companies such as Stroytransgaz already present in Syria prior to the sanctions-era and thus a sustained supply of Russian oil for operations in Syria, neglected to assist Damascus with crippling oil shortages. It abstained for political reasons and not due to any logistical constraints. Russia also bears none of the dilemmas Iran does in terms of the risk-laden journey to Syria, as Russian shipments of oil to Syria sail easily and in tranquility to the Mediterranean after traversing the Sea of Marmara via the Bosphorus Strait from Russia’s Black Sea ports.
In the context of its ‘contain Iran’ policy, the seemingly curious Russian decision not to aid Damascus, however, made a great deal of sense.
Analyzing the matter in an April 2019 article, Korybko stated:
It’s seemingly inexplicable that one of the world’s top oil exporters and most masterful perception management practitioners wouldn’t gift its “ally” emergency fuel shipments as a humanitarian gesture or at least sell it what it needs under a deferred payment plan, especially when considering that it’s owned all of the country’s oil and gas infrastructure since last year and regularly ships large amounts of oil to the country in order to meet the huge demands of its fuel-hungry Aerospace Forces there. On top of that, Russia even sells gas to its American adversary in spite of the sanctions that its customer imposed on this industry, proving that the “power of the dollar” is just as much of a Russian mantra as an American one, so it doesn’t make sense why it won’t do the same for its Syrian “ally” in exchange even if it’s through an oil-for-goods “barter agreement” like Russia has with Iran. Evidently, the Russian leadership is deliberately holding off on helping its Syrian “ally” for reasons that have nothing to do with economics but everything to do with politics.”
Korybko highlights Damascus’ consternation regarding the constitutional amendments Russia drafted for Syria as a reason for its withholding of oil aid during the crisis. Syria’s hesitancy in implementing the changes has been a cause of irritation for Russia.
The draft constitution bears several aspects that further Russia’s ‘contain Iran’ anti-Resistance goal. References to Syria as the frontline Arab state against Zionism are omitted while open-ended language relating to political groups centered on ethnicity being outlawed sets the pretext for Syria’s ruling Arab nationalist Ba’ath Party and its cooperative rivals of the Syrian National Socialist Party (SSNP) to be dissolved.
Given that Syria’s anti-Zionist socio-political-strategic culture is what makes it pro-Iranian and given that Syria sources its anti-Zionism from Arab nationalism, this caveat would work to the advantage of Russia, Israel and the GCC against Iran.
Furthermore, as Korybko points out, Russia’s draft constitution contains clauses regarding Syria’s territorial integrity that include mention of Syria’s borders requiring national referendum by all Syrians to be changed. However, there is no mention of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights or the Syrians residing therein. A referendum is proposed for the purpose of consensus on Syria’s borders after which the constitution is to be promulgated, but the mention of the Golan Heights or the Syrians residing under Israeli occupation there is not made, thus leaving them out of the referendum.
Also mandated are Syria’s peaceful ties with neighboring countries and the denouncement of war. With no mention of the Golan Heights issue, this leaves Syria losing its legal right to retake the Golan Heights militarily.
With the Golan Heights surrendered, Russian, GCC and Israeli pressure on Syria to wrap up Iranian military installments would appear more rational, while Iran’s presence would lose some of its purpose. Iran and Hezbollah’s intentions to liberate the Golan Heights would also be seen as violating the ‘good neighborliness’ aspect of the draft constitution, giving the ‘contain Iran’ trio an excuse to double down on leveraging Damascus to tell Iran to leave.
While the fate of this draft is unclear, despite much ado in the Russian and even Iranian camp about the constitutional process, its motives clearly involved reducing Iran’s footprint in Syria.
Feature photo | Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in Jerusalem to discuss the war in Syria. Photo | Ria-Novosti via AP
Agha Hussain is an independent researcher based in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. He specialized in Middle Eastern affairs and history and is an editorial contributor to Eurasia Future, Regional Rapport and other news outlets. Read more of his work on his personal blog.