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Russia, Iran and the New Mideast Order

Viewpoints, January 2017
Prof. Eyal Zisser

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A little over a year ago, in September 2015, Russia returned to the Middle East after an absence of almost two decades. The Kremlin sent troops to Syria to fight on behalf of President Bashar Assad and installed naval and air bases on Syrian territory, indicating that it intends to remain in place for a very long time.

During the past year, the Russians managed to strike severe blows against the rebel camp, thus ensuring the survival of Assad’s regime, at least in the western part of the country. Matters reached a climax in December, when Syrian forces, with Russian backing, conquered the largest city in Syria, Aleppo.

Following the fall of Aleppo, Moscow succeeded in bringing the rebels and their main supporter, Turkey, to the negotiation table, to discuss a possible peace agreement that might bring the Syrian civil war to an end.

Ironically, Russia’s achievements in Syria demonstrate that the regional shake-up engendered by the “Arab Spring” released not only the genie of Islamism from the bottle (with the appearance of ISIS), but also opened the gate for Russia’s return to the region as a major player. However, it has become clear that Russia is not acting alone. Iran and its Lebanese Shi’ite protégé, Hezbollah, in particular have become a kind of active platform assisting the Russians in their efforts to regain their place in the Mideast sun.

This being the case, it turns out that the Arab Spring, which, on the face of it, was supposed to be a Sunni Arab awakening, not only failed to weaken the Shi`ite axis in the region, but rather strengthened it. For, in the eyes of many, by standing alongside and closely cooperating with Russia, Iran has become a power-broker contributing to stability in the Arab lands, even if the price is the advancement of Iran’s own aims in those lands.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and President of Iran Hassan Rouhani put the seal on the Moscow-Tehran alliance at a meeting in the Iranian capital; Credit: President of Russia website.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and President of Iran Hassan Rouhani put the seal on the Moscow-Tehran alliance at a meeting in the Iranian capital; Credit: President of Russia website.

In short, Russia’s return to the region was accomplished while cooperating with Iran, which, in exchange for handsome benefits, helped paved the way for Moscow. Thus, in Syria the Russians bombard from the air while the Iranians have fighting boots on the ground. It can safely be assumed that at the base of the Russian-Iranian cooperation, of which the Hezbollah organization is a part, lies an agreement between Moscow and Tehran on the division of Syria – and in essence the whole Middle East, including Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon – into spheres of influence.

Turkey’s part in all this is rather complex. At first it tried to combat Iran’s growing influence in the region and sabotage Russia’s moves in Syria. Then it changed direction.

“It may be assumed that the Moscow-Tehran alliance will continue to flourish in the foreseeable future”.

Faced with the Kremlin’s heavy hand, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan decided to draw close to Moscow and to try to reach understandings with it – and indirectly, with Tehran as well – understandings that would protect Ankara’s immediate interests in Syria and, in particular, promote Turkey’s efforts to block Kurdish aspirations for independence in northern Syria.

Turkey’s drawing close to Russia strengthened Moscow, for with this the Russians were put in a position from which they could maneuver freely between Ankara and Tehran and employ a policy of “divide and conquer” in order to advance Russia’s interests at the expense of both Turkey and Iran.

It is clear that there are significant differences of opinion between Moscow and Tehran regarding Syria’s long-term future. Will that country be a protectorate of Russia? Or will it be under Iranian influence, and perhaps even Iranian control, with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah fighters stationed permanently on Syrian soil?

However, it is quite likely that in the short- and intermediate-terms Moscow and Tehran will find it beneficial to put aside their differences and maintain their present entente that is directed against the Sunni radical groups, several Sunni Arab states that support the radicals, and, of course, the United States and its presence in the region.

It may therefore be assumed that the Russian-Iranian alliance will continue to flourish in the foreseeable future thanks to the compatible interests of the two sides and their success in stabilizing the regime of Bashar Assad..

Prof. Eyal Zisser is Vice Rector and the Yona and Dina Ettinger Chair of Contemporary Middle Eastern History at Tel Aviv University.