On the surface, the Islamic Republic and Russia have been on the same side since the conflict in Syria erupted in March 2011. Both countries have maintained the same arguments and narrative: That the Assad government is a representative of the Syrian people and that the government is fighting illegitimate terror and militant groups.
In comparison to Russia’s involvement in Syria, Iran’s interventions from the outset of the conflict — in the form of military, financial, advisory and intelligence assistance — were much more noticeable. Since the uprising began in Syria, the Iranian regime has spent an estimated $30 billion, or between $3 and $4 billion a year, to keep Bashar Assad in power.
Russia did not begin deploying its armed forces in Syria until 2015, by which time the oppositional and rebel groups had captured a significant part of Syria’s territory and the Assad regime appeared to be on the verge of collapse. Russia’s intervention was mainly in the form of airstrikes, although, from 2011 to 2015, Moscow did use its leverage as a member of the UN Security Council to veto any resolution that demanded Assad resign or that excluded the Syrian government from international settlement negotiations.
Strategically and geopolitically speaking, Syria is more critical for Tehran than Moscow. Russia’s strategic interests in the Mediterranean are intertwined with the political establishment in Damascus because the Syrian port of Tartus — its second largest — houses Russia’s only naval base in the region. In addition, Syria has been purchasing arms from Moscow for decades. Nevertheless, while the Syrian regime is secular and the Iranian one is theocratic, Damascus is Iran’s most important regional proxy and disorder in Syria would throw into disarray the key pieces on Iran’s strategic game board, namely Hezbollah and Hamas.
Although they have built a formidable partnership, Tehran and Moscow have also been competing with each other to exert more influence in Syria. Assad has shrewdly played his role in maintaining the support of both countries, but Iran now appears to have won the competition because it has taken a different approach. Moscow concentrated on a top-down approach, wherein it sought to strengthen the regime in return for strategic concessions while enabling Assad to keep buying arms from Russia. On the other hand, the ruling clerics of Iran shaped Syria through both a top-down and a bottom-up approach. The bottom-up approach constitutes infiltrating the Syrian social, political and economic systems and forming militia groups and non-state actors loyal to Tehran.
No matter who rules Syria, Iran will maintain its influence in the country in the long term. For example, Iran has already signed lucrative contracts to provide electricity, obtained a license to become a major mobile phone service operator — which will allow it to keep communications in Syria under surveillance — and has received thousands of hectares of land from the Syrian regime for farming or setting up oil and gas terminals. Tehran has also been buying up more Syrian real estate and land, giving it a considerable amount of power over its neighbor.
Iran has also reportedly been altering the demographics by repopulating certain areas with Shiite families who support Hezbollah and its other militia groups in an attempt to consolidate its influence in Syria for the long term, as well as to bolster Assad’s rule. The Islamic Azad University is opening new branches in Syria, while Tehran has been building Shiite mosques and investing in expanding Shiite shrines across the country.
Iran now seems to have won its competition with Russia when it comes to strengthening Syria’s air defense systems. Iran’s armed forces chief of staff Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri last month met Syrian Defense Minister Ali Ayoub and they reached a comprehensive agreement that emphasized “the necessity of the withdrawal of all foreign armed forces having entered Syria illegally.” Bagheri said: “We will strengthen Syria’s air defense systems in order to improve military cooperation between the two countries.”
The Iranian regime has also strengthened its coalition of Shiite forces and militias, some of which invaded Syria from Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Lebanon. Many of these Shiite militias have already become the bedrock of Syria’s sociopolitical and socioeconomic infrastructures. By having military bases and personnel in Syria, it is less costly for the Iranian regime to manufacture and export weapons to its proxies in Syria’s neighboring countries, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its special operations unit known as the Quds Force have also been building a permanent military base just south of Damascus and have significant control over some Syrian airports. The regime now enjoys a military presence close to the border of a major rival — Israel. This helps Tehran in its attempts to tip the long-term regional balance of power in its favor.
Overall, Russia and Iran’s involvements in Syria have evolved from a partnership to a competition for wielding more influence. As of now, the Iranian regime clearly enjoys the upper hand.