Russia and Iran in Syria: Friends or Foes?

An overconfident enemy is an enemy that is easy to trick and to trap.

FOREIGN MINISTERS Sergei Lavrov (C) of Russia, Walid al-Muallem (L) of Syria and Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran attend a news conference in Moscow in April. (photo credit: REUTERS)
FOREIGN MINISTERS Sergei Lavrov (C) of Russia, Walid al-Muallem (L) of Syria and Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran attend a news conference in Moscow in April.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Iran deceptively disguises its troops as Syrian forces to avoid detection and to mislead Israel and the West about its capabilities, the extent of its presence in Syria and its close relationship with Russia.
The conventional wisdom from recent news coverage of the Iranian presence in south and southwest Syria indicates that Iran’s dominance in the country is coming to an end. Russia, playing the long game for influence, has aligned with Israel on security issues – and playing to US concerns, is helping Israel secure its borders from Iranian incursions and attacks. Supposedly, Russia has even gotten Hezbollah (but not the Iranians) to withdraw from the border. In exchange, Moscow expects the Trump administration to work closely with the Kremlin to secure its triumphant reentry into Europe, and to protect its interests in selling gas to European countries.
The White House, meanwhile, is supposedly looking to Russia, this narrative goes, to assist in opposing China’s rising hegemony.
Iran, the experts say, cannot fight against the joint efforts of Israel, Russia and the United States. It is struggling with internal issues and keeping the regime in power. Indeed, in the past week, Iranian currency dropped 30% in expectation of the restoration of sanctions, while massive protests broke out all across Tehran.
In addition to domestic troubles, according to Amir Taheri, an Iranian-born conservative author and chairman of the European branch of the Gatestone Institute, Iran is facing a betrayal by its closest ally in Syria – Russia. Taheri reports, as seen on Twitter, that Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Javad Zarif’s adviser, “ambassador” Ali Khorram, appeared on the “daily Aramn in Tehran” today and made the following statement: “Russia has stabbed us [ the Iranian regime] in the back both on Syria and on price of oil by ganging up with Saudis. We shouldn’t count on Europeans either. We are heading for difficult & dangerous days.”
According to Taheri, the regime was back-stabbed in the following ways:
1 – By not giving Iranian troops and mercenaries air cover when Israelis attack and kill them,
2 – By forcing Iran to withdraw its troops far away from borders of Lebanon and Israel into a piece of desert on the Iraqi border, and
3 – Excluding Iran from decision-making on Syria’s future.
BUT HOW accurate are these observations – and is there more to the story?
The rumors of the regime’s imminent collapse may be at least somewhat exaggerated for the time being, as are speculations about its supposed falling out with Moscow. Indeed, while the regime may be internally weak, it has shown itself adaptable to the external challenges and continues pouring resources into securing its influence abroad – not what the ayatollahs would be doing if they seriously felt threatened.
For instance, the news of eight Hezbollah fighters being killed in Yemen by the Arab coalition shows the extent of funding for various operations that Iran continues to provide, despite the fact that the widespread protests are at least in part fueled by the country’s struggling economy. Iran even sent out a flotilla to the Gulf of Aden, which will ensure continuous flow of weapons and others supplies into Houthi hands. In Iraq, Iran quickly secured a political victory by co-opting the former nationalist Muqtada al Sadr into a coalition with a Tehran-backed party.
The land corridor from Iraq to Syria has not been destroyed, thus providing an easy way to make a quick getaway for Hezbollah and other pro-Iranian forces operating in Syria. It is easy to fool the international community about one’s true intentions if these forces can quickly reposition themselves once the need arises.
Iran is deeply embedded in Syria, and no amount of wishful thinking or positive psychology will argue that fact away. As Assad’s power grows through a methodical retaking of the lost territory, Iran finds itself in an increasingly advantageous position. Israel’s continuous strikes against Iranian targets have not deterred Tehran from continuing to supply illicit weapons to Assad and militias, even at the risk of additional attacks. That signifies not desperation, but confidence in Iran’s long-term goals.
MEANWHILE, the much-touted success of separating Russia and Iran may have been one of the most successful disinformation campaigns, by multiple actors for divergent reasons, in recent times.
From Israel’s perspective, being seen as having influence over Putin is advantageous and makes Jerusalem look more powerful.
Admitting the limits of its efforts would be tantamount to giving the enemy free access to its vulnerabilities. For Russia, it is a matter of showing off its political prowess in balancing the interests of two different partners. It further legitimizes Moscow’s efforts in the Middle East. For Iran, there is nothing to lose and everything to gain from having the US and others be deluded into thinking it has been weakened and is leaving the area.
An overconfident enemy is an enemy that is easy to trick and to trap. And for the United States, promoting this narrative means supporting President Trump’s agenda and his handling of Iran. In reality, Iranian forces have not actually backed away from Israel’s borders, and Hezbollah continues to operate in the vicinity.
Although Israel had succeeded in neutralizing Iran’s efforts near the borders for the time being, Iranian forces remain a viable threat – although all parties involved agree that it is best not to admit in public the extent of Iranian influence. Russia has agreed to abstain from intervening in Israel’s anti-Assad and anti-Iranian operations – however, the extent of damage to Iran’s interests is difficult to assess.
It is doubtful that a regime that has spent over a year building bases throughout the country would be foolish enough to leave sensitive advanced weaponry close to the surface where any air strike could destroy the expensive and possibly irreplaceable arms at a moment’s notice.
Furthermore, lest we forget, Iran’s proxy Hezbollah is armed to the teeth with advanced ballistic missiles and can cause much destruction, long before Iran is finally forced to withdraw. These missiles are transported all over the Middle East – to Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and the Houthis in Yemen. Hezbollah, armed with hundreds of thousands of missiles, is also working with the Iran-funded Hamas to build a terror infrastructure in Lebanon. Iran is anything but defenseless.
RUSSIA ON the other hand, may be in a disadvantageous position, having significantly smaller forces in Syria, no proxies of its own, and having to rely on Iranian and Syrian ground troops and political maneuvering for its greatest successes – there is only so much that an air force can accomplish. Indeed, Russia has continued working closely with Iran, which is backing her success. Most recently, it engaged in an attack on Syrian Sunni rebels in southwestern Syria, not far from Israel’s borders.
These rebels, not backed by the United States or anyone else, found themselves in disarray. This bombardment jeopardizes a US-Russia deal focused on the de-escalation zone near the Jordanian and Israeli borders. After more than a year of honoring the deal, Russia’s involvement in the campaign of renewed aggression shows its determination and commitment, rather than any sign of a fallout.
Iran, for its part, knowing the limits of its own capabilities and wishing to limit the costs of current engagement, prefers not to enter into protracted direct confrontations with Israel – though Tehran is willing to sacrifice bases, people and arsenal to achieve bigger victories simply by powering through the attacks.
More importantly, Tehran recognizes the weaknesses of its allies. Assad’s army is poorly trained; Iran closely backs Syrian forces and provides military backing of its own proxies and soldiers every step of the way.
Most disturbingly, however, as was revealed by rebels, is that Iran has adopted a new strategy of camouflage which makes selling the narrative of its separation from Russia and impending withdrawal much easier. Iranian soldiers and proxy members now disguise themselves as Syrian soldiers, often embedding themselves among Assad’s troops, going as far as carrying Syrian IDs. If killed, they are not easy to distinguish from the regular forces. And they are not easy to capture alive to detect differences in accents and other differences from the Syrian army.
This latest strategy has not been publicly discussed by the Pentagon, leaving the false impression that the war effort is going in a much more favorable direction for the United States and her allies than may in fact be the case.
Perhaps to achieve a victory over Tehran, if that is in fact the objective, it is time to admit that the enemy continues to engage in disinformation and to sow confusion. Only by understanding Iran and Russia’s methods can Israel, the United States and others, engaged in countering Iran’s influence, find a workable path to victory.
Irina Tsukerman is a human rights and national security lawyer, who has written extensively about geopolitical issues, particularly in the Middle East and Africa, for a variety of US and international publications.