Analysis

Russia and Iran Are Increasingly Competitive in Syria

Lina Sinjab, February 2018

Iran and Russia are nominally on the same side in Syria, tied to keeping the regime of Bashar al-Assad in power. But their long involvements in the country and the conflict pit them against each other in the battle for influence.

Iran: Cash and land

Iran’s presence in Syria started shortly after the Iranian revolution, when it was welcomed by the late president Hafez al-Assad with the aim of creating a balance of alliances in the region and beyond. But its investment today is on a bigger scale than before.

To the end of 2016, Iran provided credits to Syria totalling $4 billion. Since then, it has provided an additional $3.5 billion worth of credit. Iran uses this to export goods to Syria. Damascus has also signed at least five cooperation deals with Tehran to invest in a port in the coastal city of Tartous, use 5,000 hectares of agricultural lands, explore phosphate mines south of Palmyra and license mobile phone operators, though most of these deals have not been implemented yet.

Iran is also expanding its presence in Syria through land ownership. It has acquired a large swath of land at the entrance of Damascus city centre, very close to the Iranian embassy on Mezzeh Highway, and a stone's throw away from the prime minister’s office. The site is said to be an Iranian cultural centre that Iran has been building for years, but it is expanding in size and the original building being constructed is now surrounded by several other buildings.

Russia: Hearts, minds and military power

Russia’s influence dates back to the Soviet era. Moscow supported Syria’s independence in 1946 and provided cultural and educational support; many current Syrian politicians and military officials were educated and trained in Russia. The first Russian naval base in Syria was established in Tartus in 1971.

Today, Russia has added investment plans to its Syria portfolio. There are Russian deals to build power plants, construct four grain mills in Homs at a cost of €70 million, pump gas near the River Tigris, and explore oil at the cost of $100 million and over a period of 25 years. The cost of Russian exports to Syria is around $200 million.

But there is also a clearer military footprint. President Vladimir Putin has signed a law ratifying a deal with the Syrian government allowing Russia to keep its air base in Syria for almost half a century with possible extension. During Putin’s latest visit to the military base in Hmeimem, President Assad’s presence was marginalized. The Russian president was there to support his soldiers and boost their morale but also to send a message to Syria’s leader about who was in charge – and who secured his position.

Moscow has also won favour among sections of the populace. Many Syrians are sceptical of Iran’s religious agenda and role in demographic change, and warm to Russia’s claims that it wants to maintain the pre-war social fabric of Syria. Moscow has played into this with local appeals like bringing in Sunni Chechnyan policemen to appeal to the Sunni majority in Aleppo, in contrast to the Shia militias that Iran relies on.

Battle for influence

There are suggestions that Russia also has a say in investment deals that Damascus has signed with Tehran or promised to secure for Tehran, which would explain why the phosphate mining and mobile phone deals, among others, have not been implemented yet. Many in Damascus believe that Russia is trying to block Iran’s economic expansion plans. Russian companies are reportedly already ahead of Iran in bids to explore gas.

Russia and Iran have also had stand offs in their efforts to expand each country’s military influence in Syria. When Iran-sponsored Shia militias blocked the evacuation of Aleppo, Russian warplanes attacked the towns of Kafraya and Foua to force the Iranians to implement the deal. In response, Hezbollah fighters prevented Russian soldiers from getting into Wadi Barada during the siege of the city and the water crisis there. Each one is trying to pressure the other in a point they master, Iran on the ground, Russia from the air.

So while Russia and Iran are current pragmatic allies in Syria, they are facing an increasing tactical divergence that may end up unravelling their marriage of convenience.

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Lina Sinjab is a Syrian journalist and Middle East correspondent at the BBC. Lina has extensively covered the Syrian uprising since its beginnings in 2011 and continues to follow developments in Syria and the region.