A disagreement between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his ally, the Iranian regime, has been on the cards for some time.
The mutually beneficial relationship has lasted for a long time, and it’s truly thanks to the Iranians that Assad and his regime have not entirely collapsed.
The Iranians formed a massive army consisting of militias from different countries to fight on behalf of the Syrian regime, which saw its own army break down either due to defections or human losses.
Russian activity in Syria
During the past few weeks, we noticed that Russian President Vladimir Putin has started to personally manage the issue of the Syria crisis in a very careful and involved way. Then photos by American intelligence revealed Russian activity in Syria. According to this footage, a runway and airstrip for helicopters have been added to Latakia’s airport. Changes have been made to aircraft shelters and the civilian airport has thus been transformed into a military base.
Iran and Russia have for four years tried to implement one plan – preserving Assad’s rule. However, they’ve begun to discover the impossibility of that.Abdulrahman al-Rashed
In addition to all this, the Russians are also using an air base near Damascus. Hundreds of prefabricated buildings arrived from Russia, probably houses for more than 2,000 Russian military personnel.
The Americans’ suspicions increased after the Russians submitted hundreds of requests, to several countries, for permission for their military jets to cross their airspace to Syria, and assemble there.
It was also confirmed that the Russians are developing the Syrian city of Tartus to become their naval military base, after the port had previously been a mere ‘gas station’ and maintenance facility for Russian ships!
So – what are Moscow’s intentions? Is it military move against NATO? Is it saving Assad from falling? Or is it a plan to activate the idea of dividing Syria by transferring Assad and his regime to the coast and establishing an Alawite state?
In an article published Wednesday in Al-Hayat daily, Ibrahim al-Hamidi wrote a thorough analysis on the matter, but from a different perspective. He said the plan of Russian military intervention does indeed aim to save Assad – but not from ISIS or the armed Syrian opposition, but from its main ally: Iran!
Although Ibrahim al-Hamidi’s point of view greatly disputes some of the givens of the cooperation, his article is interesting and important. Al-Hamidi assumes that the Iranians want to move a weak Assad aside, and that they seek political rapprochement with the United States, which is currently in a continuous confrontation against the Russians over the Ukrainian crisis.
Dispute between Russia, Iran
Al-Hamidi says there is a dispute between the Russians and the Iranians and that the former oppose the latter’s projects, such as their attempt to achieve political and demographic change and which the Russian foreign minister called “social engineering.”
The Iranians have tried to swap the residents of two Shiite towns and transfer them to Zabadani in Syria, emptying the latter of its Sunni residents. However, I think that the theory of Iranian domination is a guaranteed failure due to demography itself! The Shiites in Syria are a very small minority – just 5% – and Sunnis are around 80%, unlike the case in Iraq and Lebanon. This has been the reason behind Iran’s failure in Syria until today – Iran, which pledged to restore the Assad state to what it used to be before the Syrian uprising, erupted but failed, despite all it spent.
Foreign powers came to Syria with plans that are difficult and perhaps impossible to achieve, such as gathering enemies in one government. Another plan, for example, would consider ISIS as the only enemy. A third plan suggested dividing Syria and establishing an Alawite or minorities’ state along the Mediterranean coast.
Iran and Russia have for four years tried to implement one plan – preserving Assad’s rule. However, they’ve begun to discover the impossibility of that, as Syria is no longer one united people, with united army and security force.
Enmity also increased against Assad because he’s responsible for the murder of 250,000 people. The easiest of plans would be to oust him, but in whose favor? It will not be possible to task the armed opposition with governing the country unless there’s a regional Arab-Iranian-Turkish consensus. The Syrian reality has become very difficult, and it will become more complicated if it’s true that there’s an Iranian-Russian dispute.
The Middle East will change after the nuclear agreement with Iran. Tehran may swing politically towards the U.S. in opposition to the Russians’ policy.
Maybe this is why Putin wants to make a preemptive move in regard to this change, by suggesting the solution itself: a governance that includes Assad and some opposition forces protected by Russian forces – and without Iran’s Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah and the rest of Afghani and Iraqi Shiite militias.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.