The Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) and the Institute for Iran-Eurasia Studies (IRAS) published a joint report addressing their nations’ differences over Syria which finally breaks the taboo about openly discussing them and will hopefully inspire more regular expert interactions on these important issues.
Breaking The Taboo
It had hitherto been taboo for many in the Alt-Media Community to discuss the differences between Russia and Iran in Syria for fear of unwittingly playing into the West’s divide-and-rule scheme against two of its main rivals, yet the failure to publicly discuss them led to the creation of an alternative reality whereby many people felt pressured by the community’s gatekeepers to imagine that no such differences even exist. This “political correctness” amounted to a de facto policy of censorship that in turn led to the creation of terribly inaccurate analyses about those two’s relations in the Arab Republic. That’s thankfully beginning to change, however, after experts from the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) and the Institute for Iran-Eurasia Studies (IRAS) published a joint report last week titled “Russia and Iran in Syria and Beyond: Challenges Ahead”. This publication sends the message that it’s finally acceptable to publicly discuss their problems in Syria, especially Russia’s close relations with “Israel”, and will hopefully inspire more regular expert interactions on these issues.
Three Main Challenges
The 32-page document is much too detailed to concisely summarize so interested observers should read it in full at their convenience. For those who don’t have the time to do so, then the main point is that Russian-Iranian relations in Syria have thankfully shown more resilience than their critics expected, but some serious divergences remain despite several significant convergences. Both sides for the most part have shared views on multipolarity, anti-terrorism, and regional security, but they don’t see eye-to-eye when it comes to Syria’s ultimate political settlement, the countries participating in Syria’s reconstruction, and Russia’s excellent relations with “Israel”. These three issues serve as a major impediment to their closer coordination in that conflict, yet the Russian side seems to underestimate just how uncomfortable the last two issues make Iran feel. This is obvious after reading the report, which is divided into a jointly published introduction followed by a comprehensive elaboration of the Iranian and Russian points of view.
Sidestepping Iran’s Most Serious Concerns
The introduction admittedly acknowledges all three of these issues, including the threats that Iran feels from growing Gulf participation in Syria’s reconstruction process and its very deep suspicions that Russia secretly supports “Israel’s” regular strikes against it and its allies’ forces there, but the Russian experts don’t do much to address these concerns other than repeat the platitude that Russia’s intention to be an “honest broker” stabilizes regional affairs. Iran, meanwhile, didn’t shy away from sharing two particularly blunt assessments about Russian intentions in Syria. Their side wrote that “For Russia, which in some cases ignored Assad in the past, removing Assad and replacing him with a figure who does not have his problems, and yet preserves his legacy, is probably a better option” (than keeping him in office). They also condemned Russia’s close ties with “Israel” as “the only dark point in Iran-Russia relations in Syria.” Moreover, they questioned why Syria still hasn’t been able to use the much-vaunted S-300s that Russia dispatched in 2018 to defend it from “Israel”.
The China Factor
Another interesting point to take note of was Iran’s suggestion to include China in a forthcoming international conference on Syria’s reconstruction, the proposal of which was completely ignored by the Russian side which instead focused on the importance of securing Arab and European support instead. It might just be an innocent omission on Moscow’s part, but it could also possibly signal that the Eurasian Great Power wants to ensure that the People’s Republic doesn’t reap the economic dividends that Russian military power was responsible for creating. Russia might believe that it could “indirectly manage/supervise” Arab and European investments in Syria but might not be able to do so when it comes to Chinese ones, potentially losing control of the reconstruction process. From the Iranian perspective, China is a much more reliable investment partner for the Islamic Republic than Russia is, and Tehran might believe that including Beijing into this framework could lead to the eventual dilution of some of the more “politically unsavory” aspects of Moscow’s policies in Syria.
Quid Pro Quo
This interpretation of the implied messages that Iran seems to be sending through its joint publication with Russia isn’t just the author’s wild speculation like some critics might instinctively claim, but is actually a pretty accurate reflection of the intentions that the Russian side explicitly laid out in the text. Not only did it practically dismiss Iran’s concerns about their country’s relations with “Israel” apart from passively touching upon them in the jointly written introduction, but they also expressed frustration with Damascus over its “inflexibility” in their section on Russia’s viewpoints towards the conflict, thus hinting at a degree of unease over the Syrian leader’s uncompromising position on certain issues. Moreover, a Russian expert unambiguously wrote that “Russia has already made significant investments in Syria, and it needs to reap the economic benefits in the form of different contracts, access to resources, exploration of shale oil and gas off the Syrian coast”, thus making it clear that Moscow feels that it deserves to retain a privileged economic position in the Arab Republic.
The Ball’s In Damascus’ Court
These differences — for as important as they are — don’t seem to be insurmountable though and could be more effectively managed by Syria playing a larger role in balancing between its two top allies. President Assad doesn’t have to politically compromise for anyone, be it Russia or whoever else, no matter how difficult the circumstances have become. Damascus, however, also isn’t in a position to force Moscow to militarily take its side against Tel Aviv, but it can continue to expand its military ties with Tehran through the planned purchase of anti-air and other defense systems in order to boost its deterrence capabilities independently of Russia. Syria, which desperately needs as much reconstruction aid as possible, also probably won’t turn down any Gulf offers so long as there aren’t any political strings attached such as weakening its relations with Iran. What it can do, however, is directly reach out to China to include it in Iran’s proposed international conference on this topic in order to reassure the Islamic Republic that Damascus is listening to its concerns.
However one personally feels about the several key challenges to Russian-Iranian relations in Syria, the very fact that they’re being so frankly discussed at the highest levels of both countries’ academic communities shows that the prior taboo on publicly talking about them has finally been broken. Whether it’s Iranian experts’ speculation about Russia’s true stance towards President Assad’s political future and the imperfect nature of Moscow’s “balancing” act between their country and “Israel”, or Russia’s efforts “to ensure the actions of Damascus and Tehran are well-coordinated and do not sabotage Moscow’s initiatives” behind its back like one of its experts fears might be happening, everyone in the Alt-Media Community should now feel comfortable talking about these issues in the open. Ignoring these problems won’t make them go away; to the contrary, that previously implied policy of “political correctness” arguably made them much worse. Now that they’re being tackled head-on by Russian and Iranian experts, it’s time for everyone else to address them as well.