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Jan 4, 2017 | 09:54 GMT

Russia Looks for an Exit in Syria

Russia Looks for an Exit in Syria
(VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Despite the shared cause of supporting Damascus, Moscow and Tehran will continue to differ in their commitment to the conflict.
  • As Russia concocts an exit strategy, its relations with Iran will steadily sour.
  • The divergences between the countries will exacerbate the differences among Syria's loyalist forces.

With their capture of Aleppo in late December, forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al Assad secured their biggest victory in the country's nearly six-year civil war. It is now clear that al Assad has weathered the critical threat to his administration's rule over key parts of the country. Military, diplomatic and financial support from Iran and Russia has played a tremendous role in the loyalist victory. But despite their shared cause in Syria and the considerable resources that each government has invested in the war, Moscow and Tehran do not see eye to eye on several issues related to the conflict. The two countries differ most notably in their commitment to the loyalist cause. Though Russia has already demonstrated its pledge to sustain and support loyalist forces in Syria, Moscow's commitment in the conflict simply does not rise to the level of Tehran's. Through its intervention in Syria, Russia is trying to boost its position in the Middle East, demonstrate its global stature, curtail the extremist threat and attain leverage in negotiations with the West. Iran, on the other hand, views the Syrian civil war as a critical front in an existential battle that directly relates to its geopolitical security.

Compared with Iran, which is committed to achieving a total military victory regardless of cost, Russia is less willing to remain involved in an open-ended conflict in Syria and would rather withdraw while its campaign is at a high point. The war in Syria is far from over. Even as the loyalist forces were winning the battle for Aleppo in December 2016, they lost the city of Palmyra to the Islamic State, a significant defeat. As the fighting grinds on, Russian defense planners are realizing that a military solution would likely require years of additional intervention. But years of further involvement in Syria would erode the current perception of Russian military effectiveness and could embroil Moscow in a Middle Eastern quagmire not unlike the United States' situation in Iraq. Russia is looking for a way out. 

One Foot Out the Door

For Russia to successfully extricate itself from Syria, however, there must be a negotiated political resolution to the conflict. Such a process would require the participation of rebel forces and their foreign backers, particularly Turkey. To that end, Moscow has steadily enhanced its dialogue with Ankara over Syria, even before the recent push to forge an agreement on a nationwide cease-fire. The battle for Aleppo revealed intensive Russian and Turkish efforts to reach a compromise that eventually produced an agreement for the rebels to exit the city in return for safe passage from the loyalist side.

The accord between Russia and Turkey was not straightforward, though, thanks to Iran's initial opposition to the plan. In Aleppo, Iranian-led militias quickly mobilized to block the rebel exodus, and Tehran acquiesced to an exit deal for the besieged fighters only once its own priorities were added to the agreement. (Iran stipulated that the besieged Shiite villages of al-Fuah and Kefraya be incorporated into the plan.) Furthermore, on Dec. 20 Tehran publicly criticized the Russian-supported U.N. Security Council resolution on Aleppo that had passed the day before. Complications surrounding the Aleppo evacuation recalled the September 2016 Syrian cease-fire effort that the United States and Russia brokered. That truce fell apart in large part because rebel as well as loyalist forces — some under the direct command of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officers — refused to abide by the agreement to halt hostilities. The IRGC has also expressed opposition to Saudi Arabia and Qatar's participation in an upcoming round of peace talks despite Russia's efforts to include them.

Disruptive Elements

Notwithstanding its considerable leverage over Damascus, Moscow has been frustrated in its attempts to dictate the direction of the Syrian conflict by the often-overlooked fact that its influence in the country is secondary to that of Tehran. This is hardly surprising considering that Iran contributes far more to the loyalist war effort than Russia does. Moscow lends its support primarily in the realms of diplomacy and air power. By contrast, Tehran has contributed what overstretched loyalist forces crave most: manpower. Iran has bolstered the loyalists with tens of thousands of militia fighters, including elite contingents of Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters. Moreover, Iran has proffered copious financial aid to help keep the Syrian economy afloat.

Russia is aware of these issues and is already moving to redress them. In late November 2016, the Syrian armed forces announced the creation of a new military formation — the 5th Corps — assembled with help from Syria's foreign allies, who would pay the fighters' substantial monthly salaries of up to $580. Though not yet confirmed, initial indications suggest that Russia will provide most of the support for the 5th Corps, including weapons and training. The addition of a Russian-backed ground element to the loyalist roster would offer Moscow a critical counterweight against the Iranian-backed militias that have won Tehran greater influence in Damascus.

Though the competition between Russia and Iran in Syria is stiff, it is important to not exaggerate it. Coalition warfare is inherently messy, and Tehran and Moscow are both still committed to their common cause, bolstering loyalist forces against their mutual enemies. Aware that infighting could undermine their shared mission, Russia and Iran are also working to ensure greater coordination on the battlefield. In fact, the two countries announced Dec. 20 that they would create a joint headquarters in Syria to coordinate their support for loyalist forces. Nevertheless, loyalist differences remain an important factor in Syria. These differences do not rise to the level of infighting often witnessed in the rebel camp — including disputes among rebel supporters — but they continue to affect the loyalists. Occasionally, the differences have escalated into outright accusations of betrayal, as was the case in the rebel victory over predominantly Iranian-led forces in the battle of Khan Touman. As Moscow increasingly considers an exit strategy from the Syrian civil war, the divergence in Russia's and Iran's commitments will become all the more apparent.

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