Analysis: Russia-Iran alliance tactical, not strategic

Russia seeks to solidify Assad’s regime in an Alawite mini-state in the face of a Sunni onslaught funded by Gulf states.

October 26, 2015 08:11
3 minute read.
Hassan Rouhani and Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani during their meeting in Ufa, Russia, July 9, 2015.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Christian Russia and Shi’ite Iran’s military alliance to help keep Syrian President Bashar Assad in power is fraught with underlying tension, which could be exploited by Israel or the US.

Iran’s revolutionary expansionist agenda and its targeting of Israel is at odds with Russia’s long-term goals in the region.

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Russia seeks to solidify Assad’s regime in an Alawite mini-state in the face of a Sunni onslaught funded by Gulf states.

Russia President Vladimir Putin’s military buildup and activity in Syria caught the West off guard just as he did in other hot spots, such as Ukraine and Georgia. Putin is also filling in the vacuum of a retreating US in the region.

Iranian and other allied Shi’ite militia forces including Hezbollah, were not able to prop up Assad’s military alone and needed Russia’s help.

This leaves Russia as the most powerful player in Syria, and because its strategic interests do not entirely coincide with those of Iran’s Shi’ite axis, Israel and the US could seek some kind of deal or accommodation with Russia that would limit the Shi’ite axis.

Harold Rhode, a senior fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute and a former adviser at the Pentagon, told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday that Russian and Iranian long-term interests in Syria, and elsewhere, diverge.

“Russia does not trust Iran,” he said.

“Russia doesn’t want Iran to be an equal partner in Syria. Russia wants to rule the roost.”

Iran is trying to turn Alawites into Shi’ites, asserted Rhode, adding that Russia looks on this negatively.

For Russia, he said, the more members of the anti-Sunni coalition the better. “This is Russia’s traditional approach – divide and conquer.”

Foreign correspondent Yaroslav Trofimov said in The Wall Street Journal over the weekend that tensions could arise between Russia and Iran “if the fighting doesn’t go as planned in the coming months – and later if peace talks on how to divide the spoils of war become serious.”

Col. (Res.) Dr. Eran Lerman, a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, said in a recent report, “For Moscow, Assad is a client to be saved from the gallows.

For Iran, Syria is a key stepping-stone on the road to destabilizing Jordan; and, as Ayatollah Khamenei has ordered, to ‘turning the West Bank into the next Gaza.’” In his report, Lerman argued that Russia’s mission implies that it “has actually come to terms with the reality of a country irretrievably carved into separate domains.”

“Putin’s concern for Assad’s survival could give Israel some policy leverage, if Israel astutely navigates its way through the situation,” said Lerman, adding, “This means that Israel should not be tempted to support Saudi-led efforts to unseat Assad or otherwise bring about a decisive outcome in Syria’s civil war.”

Rhode says “Russia does not want a powerful Iran running an alliance in the Middle East near Russia’s borders.”

Iran pushes the “anti-non-Muslim agenda” worldwide, explained Rhode. For example, Iran is active in Russia as well, stirring up anti-Russian anti-non-Muslim sentiment, he said.

In a telling anecdote, in 1989, the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, sent a letter to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev inviting him to convert to Islam.

Russia prefers Muslims to be occupied fighting each other instead of turning their angst against non-Muslim Russia, continued Rhode.

“One third of Moscow is Muslim,” and Putin has told various foreign leaders that he sees himself as the protector of Russian culture, he said.

Russia and Iran “are tactical allies, not strategic partners.”

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