The Russian and Iranian Military Intervention in Syria

MDC Senior Researcher Prof. Eyal Zisser analyzes the implications of Russian and Iranian military intervention in Syria.

A dramatic new development in the Syrian civil war has the potential to alter the outcome of this nearly five-year long conflict: for the first time since the war erupted, Russian soldiers have been deployed on Syrian territory. Alongside them are members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), who were sent to reinforce Bashar al-Asad’s regime—possibly in coordination with Moscow. This Russian-Iranian intervention is intended to guarantee the survival of Asad’s regime. The importance of the latest Russian and Iranian actions is far-reaching, extending beyond the borders of Syria. What’s more, it demonstrates Russian and Iranian confidence, indicating that they were not deterred by the potential negative reaction from the international community, particularly the United States. They are exploiting what they perceive as Washington’s weakness, and its obvious reluctance to be sucked into new Middle East engagements.

This Russian intervention comes in stark contrast to recent assessments that it would like to avoid taking risks that might further damage its already ailing economy, following the failed U.S.-Russia dialogue on Ukraine in the spring that resulted in more U.S. sanctions on Russia. Similarly, the prevailing wisdom in the West regarding Iran – that following the nuclear agreement with the P5+1 in July, it would try and keep a low profile in order to avoid drawing more attention to its regional meddling, which extends from Yemen to Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq – proved to be wrong. Nevertheless, the Russian and Iranian involvement in Syria is still limited. It is hard to argue that a few thousand Iranian troops, or even Russian warplanes and several battalions of troops will be able to produce a decisive victory and bring an end to Syria’s bloody war. In any case, their intervention is intended to have as much of a symbolic effect as a practical one. It is likely to provide the Asad regime with a much needed morale boost; moreover, it will establish new ‘red lines’ in the civil war, and perhaps even for the future of the Syrian state.

This intervention is more than simply coming to the rescue of Bashar al-Asad. Its goal is to advance Russian and Iranian interests — regional and local alike. Both Moscow and Tehran view Syria as a forward line of defense. Russian policy makers fear that the fall of the Asad regime will further the spread of radical Islam to their own Muslim population, particularly in the Caucasus. The Iranians, for their part, fear that the possible collapse of the Syrian regime, with which it has been closely allied since 1979, will damage Iran’s regional standing, jeopardize its alliances in Lebanon and Iraq, and allow the Islamic State an easier path to the Iranian border.

These concerns are nothing new. From the very beginning of the Syrian civil war, Russia and Iran helped Asad fight the regime’s challengers. To be sure, sending thousands of troops to participate in the fighting constitutes an escalation, but as mentioned above, the Iranian and Russian troops are still not of an order of magnitude to allow the regime to restore its control over lost territory, especially in the east, which is in the Islamic State’s hands. However, it is sufficient to protect the territory controlled by Bashar, or anyone else who may succeed him at the head of the regime. This support provides additional protection for the regime’s loyal ʿAlawi population along the Syrian coast, whose devotion to the regime is guaranteed in all circumstances and at all costs. Russia and Iran appear to recognize that the Syrian state as we have known it for decades has ceased to exist. On its ruins there stands the Islamic State in the east, Kurdish enclaves alongside Sunni Arab rebel enclaves in the north and south, and Druze enclaves in the south as well, and the remnants of the state controlled by Asad’s forces – less than 25 percent of the country’s territory – that depends, to a large extent, on the support of Russia and Iran.

Indeed, it seems as if the IRGC is already acting as if they own Syria. They are active on the Golan Heights, having established a base of operations from which to confront Israel. They are not deterred from approaching the Israeli border, using local units that are directed by Iranian officers. On the Idlib and Zabadani fronts, Iranians are negotiating with the opposition Jabhat al-Nusra (“The Support Front”) in order to protect a number of Shiʿi villages in exchange for reducing Hizballah’s pressure on Jabhat al-Nusra in Zabadani (near Damascus). All of this activity is taking place as if the Syrian regime does not exist. The latest Russian-Iranian intervention comes at a time when Europe is having little success managing the largest wave of refugees it has known since the end of World War II. In Europe, there are already voices calling for an end to the Syrian civil war at any cost, seeing it as the engine driving the refugee crisis. The Europeans may soon reach the conclusion that Bashar al- Asad is not the source of the problem but actually part of the solution. The intervention is also taking place against the backdrop of persistent reports of contacts between the Syrian regime and the regional powers that stand behind the rebel groups. For example, it was reported that ʿAli Mamluk, the head of the Syrian regime’s security services, recently visited Saudi Arabia and then Egypt. His visit to the Saudi kingdom was part of a Russian-Iranian effort to reconcile the Syrian regime and Saudi Arabia.

This effort was bolstered by regional developments in recent months, starting with the death of Saudi King ʿAbdullah in January 2015. ʿAbdullah’s half-brother and successor, King Salman, as one of his first initiatives in power, changed the political and military leadership responsible for the Saudi involvement in the Syrian civil war. In addition to changes in Saudi Arabia, Turkey’s parliamentary elections in June 2015, which weakened the authority of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been responsible for Turkey’s intervention in Syria. Finally, in July, Iran signed the nuclear deal with the P5+1 countries that changed the nature of the relationship between Tehran and Washington.

During the past year, Bashar al-Asad has found himself with his back increasingly to the wall following rebel successes on all fronts in Syria. It seemed as if only a miracle could save him. It is no wonder then that his regime views these recent regional developments – in Saudi Arabia, in Turkey, in the international community – as something akin to a miracle.Still, Bashar is likely to discover that he is the main course, and not a guest at the meal being prepared in Moscow and Tehran. Indeed, the consensus in the West is that in any negotiated resolution to the Syrian crisis, a supreme effort must be made to preserve the institutions of the Syrian state and to prevent a repeat of the Iraq scenario that destroyed the state and its institutions, particularly the military, creating a void that allowed the Islamic State to emerge.This latest Russian-Iranian escalation exposes them to the danger of sinking into the quagmire of the Syrian civil war. Their problem is the firm U.S. position – probably shared by Riyadh and Ankara – that it will not strengthen the Syrian regime and enlist its help against the Islamist groups as long as Bashar al-Asad remains the head of state.

The challenge is this: Is it possible, for Russia, the U.S., and some of the regional countries, to square the Syrian circle and reach a negotiated solution to the crisis? Or could it be that Syria is condemned to continue the war indefinitely? If indeed the war continues, the Russian-Iranian intervention may prove to be the ingredient that extends the fighting and deepens the human tragedy unfolding in Syria as the price for obtaining the limited achievement of preserving Bashar’s regime on one-fourth of Syria’s territory. If this comes to pass, it will guarantee the partition of the Syrian state. But as noted earlier, Moscow and Tehran have broader interests, and the benefits they reap from this latest maneuver may well be outside of Syria.  

Eyal Zisser is Dean of the Lester and Sally Entin Faculty of Humanities at Tel Aviv University and a Senior Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies (MDC).