When Russian jets entered Syrian airspace in late September, contrasting rumors spread across the Levant about the future role of Iran and Hezbollah in the Syrian conflict. Several Lebanese reports suggested that after the battle of Zabadani, wherein the Party of God had been prominently involved since its start in July 2015, Hezbollah was going to withdraw from Syria.
These reports echoed some perceived tensions within the high-ranking officials in the Syrian army, and the rising discomfort in recent months caused by Iran’s increasing involvement in Syrian ground operations. In April, the death of a powerful former officer of the Syrian mukhabarat (intelligence services), Rustom Ghazali, apparently related to his sympathies with anti-Iranian stances, shed some light on the seriousness of such inner rift. It is well-known that a group of Syrian officers revolted when Iranian generals and Hezbollah commanders took the lead in ground operations. All this may have a lot to do with military sensitivity to drastic fluctuations in status and power relations. However, doctrinal complaints by secularist Syrian officers and political figures are likely to have further strained tensions. This secularist faction believes that the further sectarian touch that Iran and Hezbollah have been giving to the conflict, by depicting it as a “sacred defense” (al-difa’a al’muqaddas) [of the Shi’a against Sunni takfiri groups], has further worsened the already damaged secularist-nationalist façade of the Syrian Army.
However, contrary to what has been contemplated recently, the entry of Russian airpower and ground troops in Syria (deployed around the Russian naval base in Tartus, and in the Syrian base of Jableh, near Latakia), is not at all the result of a solitary coordination between Moscow and Damascus, and is not redrawing hierarchies on the ground. Quite the contrary, the Russian intervention is not pushing proxies out of Syria, nor supplanting the Iranian role in the current war, but is actually strengthening existing transnational alliances. There is perhaps even more than that: what is emerging from these recent activities points to coordinated action between Moscow and Teheran.
The battle launched in Aleppo on October 16 was indeed clearly relying on the quadrangular coordination of Russian jets, the Syrian army, Hezbollah and, for the first time, Iranian troops taking part in military operations.
The architect of this new stage of the war could not have been either Assad or Putin, but more likely General Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ foreign operations, who visited Moscow in July 2015, allegedly to convince Putin to send its fighter jets to Syria. Suleimani himself was in Syria recently, as the Lebanese TV channel Al-Maydeen (close to Hezbollah) reported. Incidentally, the unprecedented presence of Iranian troops in the battle theater had already been proved by the death of another major Iranian general, Hossein Hamedani, killed on the battleground on October 8.
It is difficult to say if Russia’s decision to intervene in Syria was actually taken during the meeting between Suleimani and Putin. However, the visit of the Iranian general to Moscow stands in sharp contrast with the rather symbolic visit of Bashar al-Assad to the Russian capital last 21 October. In spite of the red carpet that welcomed him, Assad’s trip to Moscow – the first official trip of the President since the revolution started in 2011 – was perhaps meant to show off something that is not, i.e. that the President of Syria still has a role in drawing and developing the strategy about his country.
Whilst Russian air strikes have been by and large reported targeting rebel controlled-areas, and not directly the Islamic State (ISIS), there might be a very cynical rationale behind this, which has already started to inform the new phase of the Syrian war. This strategy seems planned in two steps, of which fighting the Islamic State is the last. Indeed, although the Islamic State is clearly a threat to Iran and Russia alike, it is definitely not a strategic priority, as ISIS is unlikely, if not unable, to be included in any potential internationally brokered plan of political transition. Accordingly, the very priority of the Syrian-Russian-Iranian axis is to annihilate anti-ISIS rebels, who are still perceived and treated by Western governments as future political interlocutors.
As the West remains convinced that removing Bashar al-Assad is a necessary condition for any future political reassessment of Syria, Tehran and Moscow have understood that eliminating all possible political alternatives to the new “Lion of Damascus” is a must-do to guarantee continuity to Iranian and Russian economic and strategic interests in Syria.