Russia and Iran are Conflicted Over Syrian Spoils of War
With the war in Syria decided, a new phase of the conflict has begun: the allocation of spoils. In the middle of it are Iran and Russia. Now, that the war in Syria has been militarily concluded, the actors involved are seeking to convert their successes on the battlefield into political influence and profits during the country’s reconstruction.
For this purpose, Russian President Vladimir Putin created the post of a special envoy to Syria under his command on May 25 and instructed him to oversee Syrian ruler Bashar al Assad directly. Moreover, the Kremlin instructed the ministers of defense and foreign affairs to negotiate with Damascus — in other words, order it — to secure new military bases, but also economic benefits in Syria in favor of Russia.
Understanding Who Currently Controls Syria
Currently, Syria is divided into four spheres of influence: First, the United States, which is holding its hand over Kurdish self-government in northeastern Syria. Second, Turkey, which is establishing parallel statehood in the northwest of the country. Third, Iran, which controls the region along the Lebanon border, strengthens Hezbollah terrorists and secures the areas around Aleppo that are inhabited by Shiites. Fourth, Russia, which essentially claims the rest of Syria.
The latter makes increased Russian influence for Putin all the more critical since the fight for the distribution of post-war Syria between Russia and Iran has begun. Russia is hence interested in reducing Assad’s scope, particularly when it comes to repaying war debts to Tehran. And not without reason. A member of the Iranian Parliament’s Foreign Policy Committee recently said that Syria should repay Iran “$ 20 to 30 billion” that Tehran reportedly spent to support the Assad regime.
Russia vs. Iran
Accordingly, the main power struggle is occurring between Russia and Iran. It is why Putin currently intends to curtail Iran’s influence in Syria moving forward. Strategically, Russia claims the entire Mediterranean coast of Syria in order to control its ports, from which goods can be delivered to Central Asia. Moscow also plans to operate most of the airports, including those in Qamishli on the border with Turkey, as well as two strategically essential highways, which are expected to generate billions of dollars in tolls each year. Iran, meanwhile, seeks to secure access to the Mediterranean but also plans to advance to the Israeli border in its attempt to destabilize the region further.
Iran Doesn’t Want Peace or Stability in Syria
Moreover, while Russia seeks a stable Syria as a model for its sphere of influence, and is pushing for a reformed Syrian army to counter Iran’s influence, Tehran is not interested in peace, nor in a functioning Syrian state and a Syrian army that can sustain itself. The latter became apparent when Iran and the regime undermined the de-escalation zones and “reconciliation agreements” with which Russia sought to allow some regional autonomy and create order. The project failed, which is one of the reasons for the recent violence and protests in southern Syria, and once again reconfirms Tehran’s status as the region’s primary factor of destabilization.
A New Chapter of the Syrian War
However, Moscow is not only challenging Iran with its plans. Turkey and the USA also continue to play a role. The zones that control Turkey and the United States include the vast oil fields and Syria’s grain chamber. According to the Kremlin’s wishes, both should be in Russian hands in the future. Furthermore, although the United States will probably withdraw its last few troops from Syria — through these plans could change come November — Turkish troops have settled for the long-term in northwestern Syria, much to Putin’s dismay.
And thus, while the war in Syria has been decided, it certainly has not yet ended. The prerogatives are shifting. The humanitarian and geopolitical disaster remain unchanged.