Beirut: Another layer in the battle for Syria has been evident for years yet has only now come to the worldâ€™s attention. ToÂ Iran and Israel, this battle lies at the core of all that has been taking place in Syria since March 2011, when the uprising to topple President Bashar al-Assad began. To the Iranians, Assad has mainly meant a reliable ally in any future confrontation with Israel, whether between the Islamic Republicâ€™s closest partner â€” Lebanonâ€™s Hezbollah â€” or a wider confrontation that could involve Iran itself. This is why Tehran anticipated a grave danger when Assadâ€™s position was threatened and thus promptly stepped in to make sure that he stays in power. This may also explain why Iran has never tolerated any consideration of an alternative to Assad, as the Iranian leadership is convinced that he is the only one in Syria who has the courage to give the Islamic Republic a frontier position against Israel.
But Iran is not Assadâ€™s only ally. Russia is also a staunch partner of the Syrian regime. Preserving Assadâ€™s position has been a matter of consensus between Tehran and Moscow over the past years. Moreover, to this day, it is the only thing that Russia signed up for in its cooperation with Iran. As such, Tehranâ€™s maneuvering to position itself against Israel in Syria is not anything that Russia is ready to provide cover for or sacrifice its relations with Israel for. At this point in time, Russia is keen not to shake up its status in Syria after having ended up as a strong player there, whether in a war or indeed any sort of confrontation between Iran and Israel that could change the status quo. Meanwhile, in Tehran, thereâ€™s still vagueness about what Moscow is really seeking in Syria, displayed in the variety of voices on what to think of Russiaâ€™s policies.
While the official Iranian stance tends to present the situation as if nothing new is happening, field sources in Syria reflect something different: that the framework of the Syrian war is changing. Tehran University professor Emad Abshenas explained to Al-Monitor that Iran sees its relationship with Russia as an alliance and that, in his view, the same applies to Russiaâ€™s view of Iran. â€œThe confrontation with the US in the Middle East keeps the coordination between Russia and Iran at its highest levels, Abshenas said, adding that Russia and Iranâ€™s interests in Syria and the region have not yet changed in a manner to end their cooperation. â€œTo Russia, Israel is a friend, while Iran is an ally â€¦ and Russia coordinates its relations with both sides on this basis.â€
In this vein, Abshenas suggested that Moscow fears that any confrontation between Iran and Israel could attract other players to Syria. He said, â€œThey are trying to diffuse tensions between a friend and an ally, but â€¦ Israeli media has been trying to portray the situation as Iranian-Russian tension. This is not true, especially after US President Donald Trumpâ€™s withdrawal from the nuclear deal. Iran is closer to Russia and China than before.â€
On June 4, tension on the ground reached anÂ unprecedented levelÂ when a Russian force deployed near Hezbollah positions in Qusayr on the Syrian-Lebanese border. According to a source from the Iranian-led alliance in Syria who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, the move reflected an attempt by the Russians to test the waters of Iran and Hezbollah in a very sensitive area. â€œThey had plans to build a base near the area, and during a meeting a couple of days after the incident, our officials told the Russian commanders clearly that we wonâ€™t tolerate such moves in the future. They denied that they were there for a base and stressed that any future moves are going to be coordinated,â€ the source stated.
â€œRussia changed from a strategic ally to another regional player,” said Iranian journalist Siavash Fallahpour in an interview with Al-Monitor. He added, â€œIran and Russia coordinate on high levels when itâ€™s about the pro-Western armed militants who oppose the regime in Syria, but when it comes to Israel, the situation is different. Russia is committed to Israelâ€™s national security, though in Iran, those who believe in this relation [with Russia] still bet on it; they say that after all thereâ€™s a big difference between the Russian approach toward the Islamic Republicâ€™s role [in the region] and the Western approach. Russia preserves its interests, and this understandable, while the West doesnâ€™t reflect [anything] but enmity.â€
What precisely, then, are Russiaâ€™s interests when it comes to Iranâ€™s presence on the southern borders of Syria, on the frontier with Israel, and how is this clash of interests between Moscow and Tehran going to be managed? These questions may need to be answered by both sides, especially after reports indicating that the Russian position onÂ Iranâ€™s presence in southern Syriadoes not greatly differ from that of Israel. As for Iran, it seems that the tide is high enough to be challenged. In this vein, Secretary of Iranâ€™s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani indicated in an interview June 2 that Iran â€œstrongly supports Russian efforts to drive terrorists out of the Syria-Jordan border and bring the area under the Syrian armyâ€™s control,â€ stressing that Iran isnâ€™t in the area. â€œWe have said before that Iranian military advisers are not present in southern Syria and have not participated in recent operations [there],â€ he said.
The tide could be high in the south, but this is not the case for the rest of Syria â€” at least this is whatÂ Hezbollah Chief Hasan NasrallahÂ promised June 8 when he said that the â€œentire worldâ€ cannot force Hezbollah out of Syria. â€œIsrael was betting on President Assad’s ouster and it saw its interest in the militants, but today the Zionists have changed their objective in Syria and are saying that the battle’s objective in Syria has become to expel Iran and Hezbollah,â€ Nasrallah added. Addressing Israel, he said, â€œYou Zionists have to admit that you have been defeated in Syria and that you have failed to topple the pillar of the resistance.â€
On this, Abshenas suggested that Iran wonâ€™t withdraw from Syria unless it is guaranteed that its allies will be in full control. He stressed that the Syrian-Iranian alliance is at its peak, saying, â€œEven if it will affect relations with Russia, the axis that brings together Syria, Iran and Hezbollah will continue, because this is part of Iranâ€™s national security, and Iran canâ€™t tolerate any harm to this bond because whenever itâ€™s loosened itâ€™ll be easier to hit each side alone.â€ (Courtesy Al Monitor)