Russia and Iran’s Alliance of Rivals in Syria

Iran works with both the Russian air force and the Free Syrian Army — forces on the opposite sides of Bashar Assad’s good graces. Then there are the Kurds.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Iran’s Hassan Rouhani after the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly, New York, September 28, 2015.
AP

“My brother really loved Iranian music and film and was very close to Iranian culture,” recalled Zeynab Mughniyeh, the sister of Imad Mughniyeh, the senior Hezbollah official who was bumped off in 2008. She described his love for Iranian culture during an interview at a screening of the new Iranian film “Songs of My Homeland,” in which she has a small role.

The propaganda film, directed by Abbas Rafei, recounts the crimes of the Islamic State. The story tells the tale of Sara, a Christian, and Nasser, a Muslim, whose plans to marry are upset by ISIS’ kidnapping of Sara. Nasser is forced to find her and bring her home.

The movie, filmed mostly in southern Lebanon in Arabic, is one of the first cinematic creations of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. It’s part of the “soft war” declared by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to counter Western culture’s infiltration into Iran and halt alleged Western efforts to besmirch Iran’s name and drive a wedge between it and Arab states.

“Daesh is an American invention,” Mohsen Rezaee, a former commander of the Revolutionary Guard, said at a memorial ceremony, using the Arabic name for the Islamic State. “It’s an invention whose goal is to give the West an excuse to interfere in the affairs of regional states.”

And because the principle guiding Iran is “good relations with all countries,” as Khamanei said the other day, Iran has to depict itself as a country that is prepared to fight the Islamic State, which threatens countries in the region.

Iran doesn’t suffice with cultural works to fight the Islamic State. It’s the only foreign country to send ground troops to Iraq and Syria to battle ISIS, and also fight rebel groups that have been trying to topple Bashar Assad for the past five years.

Iran’s presence in Syria stands at some 5,000 Revolutionary Guard fighters and officers, and another 25,000 fighters under Iranian command, including Hezbollah, Iraqi Shi’ite militias and Afghani and Pakistani refugees now receiving $500 a month for their military service. Iran also supplies drones, engineering and demolition experts, and pilots.

Kurdish fighters

Iranian forces operate in coordination with the Russian air force, which receives information from the Iranians on Islamic State and rebel forces. Iran also works with the Free Syrian Army and Kurdish militias in northern Syria. It has thus created a paradoxical coordination system among fighters whose ideologies and political goals often clash.

The Free Syrian Army, for example, wants Assad out and has harshly criticized Iranian and Russian involvement in the area. But it is helped by Russia’s attacks on the Islamic State, and according to opposition websites, its leaders recently held talks with senior Russian officials.

The absence of a decisive American decision to send assistance and backup troops, save for a few dozen special-forces troops who train Kurdish fighters, doesn’t leave many options for the militias defined as pro-Western. Thus, when Russia ramps up its presence in Syria, more militias are apt to see Moscow as an ally.

Russia’s intervention doesn’t excite Iran, which fears that the political process could leave Russia the main sponsor in Syria. Tehran still loyally supports Assad, while reports from Russia indicate President Vladimir Putin’s readiness to relieve him of his services should Moscow put together a significant military and political Syrian opposition. The opposition would see Russia as its master and ensure Moscow’s military presence even after regime change.

Interestingly, competition between Iran and Russia doesn’t hinder commercial ties between the countries. Iran is expected to buy from Russia 100 Sukhoi airliners, to export enriched uranium to Russia based on the nuclear agreement with the big powers, and to award it commercial contracts worth billions of dollars.

This cooperation, like supplying Iran with Russian S-300 missiles, is part of Russia’s effort to win a share of the Iranian investment action once sanctions are lifted. But deals like these and the expected bounty for foreign investors haven’t trickled down to the people, who haven’t felt much of a change in the economy.

Homelessness and drug addiction

The Iranian regime has reportedly decided to move 400 female drug addicts from the cardboard boxes where they’ve been living in a southern Tehran park into permanent housing.

According to official statistics, over 1,000 female drug addicts have not received treatment, but unofficial estimates run much higher. One NGO, founded by businessmen and other civic-minded Iranians, seeks to assist over a million homeless people. It has placed large refrigerators in Iran’s impoverished neighborhoods for the benefit of the homeless.

Private contractors have been recruited to build, at their own expense, residences for the homeless, and the NGO intends to expand its operations to cities across Iran. These initiatives underline the shortage and suffering, and mainly the state’s apparent powerlessness to fund socioeconomic activity as it extends billions of dollars of credit to Syria, gives it direct aid and produces anti-ISIS propaganda films.

From here stems President Hassan Rohani’s haste to carry out the nuclear-agreement section that sets a schedule for dismantling centrifuges, after which economic sanctions will be lifted. Tehran says it has dismantled 6,100 centrifuges so far, and it hopes to announce by February's parliamentary elections that Iran has entered a new economic era.

Before that, Iran has to handle comments by the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran conducted nuclear-weapons design until 2009. According to the nuclear deal, Iran doesn’t have to provide every detail on its former nuclear program.

But Western opponents of the deal argue that Iran might have been working on nuclear-weapons design recently. The IAEA will have to give the final word on December 15 when it meets to discuss the findings.

Observers expect that the IAEA chief and most delegates won’t want to disrupt implementation of the deal. Rohani would thus be free to dive into the parliamentary election campaign, hoping to use the nuclear deal and the attendant economic promise to help his supporters and the reform movement win a nice chunk of parliament, if not a majority.

Not only are reformists and their conservative opponents anxiously awaiting these elections, but also the American, Syrians and Russians to see if Iran will change its policy toward Assad.