On Syria, Iran Realizes: If You Can't Stop the Russians, Join Them

After a long period of tension, Russian use of an Iranian base to launch strikes against ISIS suggests a shift in relations between the two nations.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
A Russian Tu-22M3 bomber on the tarmac at an Iranian air base near Hamedan, August 15, 2016.
A Russian Tu-22M3 bomber on the tarmac at an Iranian air base near Hamedan, August 15, 2016.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The secretary general of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, can chalk up an impressive achievement. After a long period of tension between Tehran and Moscow, in which the Russian forces in Syria pushed the Iranians to the sidelines, Shamkhani, who is also in charge of the ties with Russia, managed to turn things around and bring about military cooperation between the two nations - the stationing of Russian bombers at the Hamadan base in western Iran.

This however is not about coordination of military operations in Syria, receiving Iranian authority for Russian strikes or a turnabout in Iranian strategy. Iran still regards Russia as a threat to its influence in Syria, both in the fighting and especially after a diplomatic solution is reached. Still, it is indicative of a change in relations between the two nations.

The defense ministers of Iran, Syria and Russia met in Tehran about six weeks, but nothing concrete came out of their meetings. “The end of the good days between Russia and Iran,” was the headline of an article that appeared on the Iranian news site Aftab, which is close to President Hassan Rafsanjani. “The entry of Russia into the Middle Eastern arena is not helpful to any of the parties in the conflict in Syria," it said. "This is not ideological involvement, but rather stems from political considerations whose purpose is to take advantage of the new balance of power in the world after the withdrawal of the United States." Other media outlets in Iran wrote that “Russia is closer now to Israel than to Iran."

What happened all of a sudden? Iran, and not only Russia, is making a cold political calculation by which if it can’t stop Russian influence in Syria, and if both nations agree over the need to keep Assad in power, it is better to join Russia, rather than face off against it.

In this frame grab provided by Russian Defence Ministry press service, Russian long range bomber Tu-22M3 flies during an air strike over Aleppo region of Syria, Aug. 16, 2016.Credit: AP

The renewal of ties between Russia and Turkey also did its part in creating this collaboration. As part of that rapprochement, Moscow and Ankara decided to establish a cooperative committee on intelligence, military and policy matters. Only days after Putin and Erdogan met in St. Petersburg, military delegations of the two countries met to decide on military policy vis-a-vis Syria. On Monday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu declared his country’s willingness to carry out joint strikes with Russia against Islamic State bases. But more than Turkey seeks cooperation against ISIS, it is working to block cooperation between Russia and the Syrian Kurdish forces, which Turkey considers terrorist organizations cooperating with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK).

In fact, what has been created here is a triad of interests: each country with its own agenda, which it will try hard to achieve under the cloak of the joint war against ISIS. That would also explain the indifference of the United States toward the Iranian-Russian-Turkish partnership. Washington has no strategy on how to solve the crisis in Syria, and as long as it can go on receiving Turkish, Russian and even Iranian help in the war against ISIS, it welcomes the renewal of ties between Turkey and Russia, as well as Iranian action.

Meanwhile, as part of the diplomatic teamwork between Russia and Turkey, it seems that the latter will be willing to compromise when it comes to the possibility of President Bashar Assad remaining in office and a representative of his regime even taking part in the diplomatic process to end the civil war.

What Iran, Turkey and Russia have not agreed on is the nature of the fighting in Aleppo and the possibility of conquering the besieged city. Turkey fears a flight of thousands of refugees into its territory, Russia made clear last month that the conquest of Aleppo is not an objective that is close at hand, and only Iran is pushing the Syrian regime to take the city, despite the blows the Syrian army and Hezbollah have taken in this battle.

Iranian permission for Russian planes to operate from its territory is of course an important military advantage, because it shortens flying distance to the targets, but even without the use of the base Russia managed to carry out its strikes unhindered. On the other hand, the Iranian gesture is declarative, and more than it is directed at assisting Russia, it is intended to make clear to Saudi Arabia that the strategic agenda in the Middle East will not be decided in Riyadh. If a few months ago Saudi Arabia declared its willingness to take part in the battle for Aleppo, it now faces an inconvenient alliance between Turkey, Iran and Russia, precisely after Turkey grandly joined the Sunni coalition established by Saudi Arabia for the purpose of stopping Iran’s influence.

But beyond these new alliances and shows of diplomatic prowess, no military solution has been found that can decide the war in Syria. Battles and attrition bombings will continue for many long days, whether the planes come out of Hamadan in Iran or the Russian airfield of Khmeimim near Latakia in northern Syria.

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