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Once-hidden Russian-Iranian disagreements over Syria are starting to surface. Moscow and Tehran are jostling to wield the main influence over the government of President Bashar al-Assad, adding further complexity to the still-far-from-complete endgame of Syria’s brutal civil war, say diplomats and analysts.
Both Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Iranians want to be able to present themselves as the true victors of the conflict that has left almost half-a-million people dead and to reap geo-strategic and business benefits from their propping up of President Assad, according to analysts.
But behind-the-scenes maneuvering — as well as local reports of pro-Russia forces clashing in northern Syria with pro-Iran government militias — suggest tensions are growing.
A shake-up last month in the upper ranks of Syria's state security agencies is being explained by some diplomats as the result of Russian pressure aimed at weakening President Assad’s brother, Maher, who is considered pro-Iranian.
In mid-April, at least a dozen fatalities were reported as a result of firefights breaking out between Russian forces and pro-Iranian militias in the northeastern city of Aleppo. The clashes reportedly broke out near a market in the city’s Khaldiya neighborhood and quickly escalated.
Pro-Tehran militias have accused Moscow of coordinating with Tel Aviv on recent Israeli airstrikes on Iranian military targets in Syria. Their complaints are echoed in the Iranian media.
Earlier this year, after meeting Russia’s Putin in Moscow, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Russian leader is anxious to reduce the Iranian military presence in Syria. He said most of their discussions had focused on Iranian entrenchment in Syria. Israeli officials later told reporters that Putin hadn’t placed any limitations on Israel’s targeting of Iranian military units in Syria or of Tehran’s ally, Hezbollah, the radical Lebanese Shi’ite militia. Israeli air raids have been mounted with increasing frequency in recent years.
“The policy is that we will continue to act and it's accepted with understanding,” said one of the officials.
A recent column in a Syrian newspaper close to the Assad government pulled back the veil a bit on the rivalry between Moscow and Tehran, accusing both of Syria’s allies of promoting their own interests “even if it means suffering for the Syrian people.”
Writing in the Syrian daily Al-Watan, columnist Rif’at Ibrahim Al-Badawi said Russia and Iran are in frenetic competition and pushing rival initiatives, both of which are tainted by their own strategic interests.
He said Iran is attempting to shape a rapprochement between Damascus and Ankara with the aim of developing a regional alliance among Iran, Turkey and Syria. Russia, he said, is determined to weaken Iran’s presence in Syria and is urging Assad to cleave closer to Saudi Arabia.
“The frequency of the visits to Damascus by Iranian and Russian officials, one after the other, is not coincidental. These visits were a hectic race to convey messages to the Syrian leadership, including proposals aimed at reaching an arrangement with Syria,” the columnist wrote, according to a translation by the Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute. Al Watan is owned by Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of Assad.
Much of the competition between Russia and Iran is over economic spoils and opportunities. Russia was awarded in 2018 the exclusive rights to produce the country’s oil and gas, and Putin has made clear that Russian firms should be given priority when it comes to reconstruction contracts. Last week, Russian officials said they were close to finalizing details on a near-quarter-century lease on Syria’s lucrative seaport at Tartus, where the Russian navy has a base, useful for projecting power in the Mediterranean.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Borisov told the state-run Tass news agency, “We have made considerable progress on that matter and hope that a contract will be signed within a week and the port of Tartus will be used by Russian businesses for 49 years.”
Meanwhile, Iran announced it has resumed a plan for a railway line from Tehran through neighboring Iraq to Damascus. The Syrian government says it intends to lease another port on its western coast at Latakia to Iran in October, in response to an official Iranian request.
Iran has provided more than $7 billion in credits to Syria since the war erupted, saving the Assad government from financial ruin. The result for Iran has been the signing of at least five cooperation deals, giving the Iranians the use of 5,000 hectares of agricultural land, the rights to phosphate mines south of Palmyra and control of the licenses for mobile phone operators. But while signed, most of the deals are yet to be implemented.
Until recently, Iran and Russia, long-time rivals, displayed unprecedented levels of cooperation in their defense of Assad. Russia provided the air power and Iran the ground forces with Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah and Shi’ite fighters from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Cooperation hasn’t broken down yet, but the competition between Russia and Iran is sharpening.