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April 25, 2019 No.
8022

Columnist In Syrian Daily Close To Assad Regime: As Russia-Iran Disagreements In Syria Increase, Each One Pressures Regime To Accept Its Initiative For The Region

In a scathing column published April 22, 2019 in the Syrian daily Al-Watan, which is affiliated with the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, Rif'at Ibrahim Al-Badawi accused Syria allies Russia and Iran of individually pressuring Syria politically and economically to accept political proposals leading to the actualization of each of their interests – even if it means suffering for the Syrian people. Al-Badawi argued that the once-hidden Russia-Iran disagreements are now out in the open, and that the two countries are now in a frantic race to convey messages promoting divergent initiatives to the Syrian leadership. While Iran is attempting to improve, and even revive, Syria-Turkey relations, with the aim of forming a regional alliance, Russia is working to nudge the Assad regime closer to Saudi Arabia and the other Arab countries, with the aim of weakening Iran's influence on Syria and in the entire region.

Al-Badawi writes that both Russia's and Iran's actions are tainted by economic and political strategic interests. Further, he accuses Syria's allies, particularly Russia, of deliberately planning and creating the fuel crisis – which has been paralyzing the country for weeks – as they collaborate with Syria's rivals with the aim of pressuring Syria into accepting their proposals. Al-Badawi stresses, however, that Syria is carefully and judiciously examining the proposals and will choose one that is compatible with its interests and will preserve its Arab character.


Rif'at Ibrahim Al-Badawi (Source: watanipress.com, December 14, 2018).

In this context, it is noteworthy that in recent months, there has been an increasing number of reports, particularly on Syrian opposition websites but also in the Arab and foreign press, on Russia-Iran struggles for influence in Syria. Each is striving to strengthen its influence in the Syrian security apparatuses and in the militias fighting on the ground, while weakening the other side's influence and presence. These struggles are manifested in fierce clashes on the ground between pro-Iran and pro-Russia militias, that have reportedly claimed many deaths on both sides.[1] Likewise, there have been reports of arrests of pro-Iran Syrian activists, both by Syrian security apparatuses acting on instructions from Russia, and by the Russian military police force itself in Syria.[2] It has also been reported that the changes earlier this month in the upper echelons of Syria's state security apparatus – including the replacement of the chief of staff – were a result of Russian pressure, and were aimed at weakening President Assad's brother, Maher Al-Assad, who is considered close to Iran, and his associates, and to replace them with officials loyal to Russia.[3] 

The following are excerpts from Al-Badawi's column:[4]

"The frequency of the visits to Damascus by Iranian and Russian officials, one after the other, is not incidental. These visits were a hectic race to convey messages to the Syrian leadership, including proposals aimed at reaching an arrangement with Syria... [The proposals of] each [i.e. Russia and Iran] are in accordance with the language and perspective [of each vis-à-vis Syria]...  It is clear that Syria is in no hurry... and that it is judiciously examining the new proposals to see which are compatible with Syrian interests – for fear that it will become embroiled in disputes and conflicts of interest and [will then be subject to] additional pressures – especially in light of the severe fuel crisis in the country because it is besieged.

"It is also clear that this time, the messages of Syria's allies [Russia and Iran] are coming from opposite directions, reflecting the unique and separate view of each. What is certain is that generous proposals from [two] rival [countries], Turkey and Saudi Arabia, have been streaming into Damascus, and are aimed at establishing routes for political and security cooperation; they have been described as positive.

"Damascus, [as noted,] is diligently considering all options and initiatives. Tehran is pushing Damascus to adopt what it calls a high-quality initiative, which is aimed at reshuffling the cards of the conflict between Syria and its neighbors, chief of them the [Turkish] Ottoman neighbor. The purpose of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif's [April 16, 2019] Syria visit was to relay [reciprocal] messages between Ankara and Damascus, as part of an Iranian effort to promote political and security arrangements to the point where relations between the two countries are revived – even if initially limited to intelligence cooperation...

"Russia, [on the other hand,] seeks to bring Damascus's positions closer to those of Riyadh, by pushing Syria to implement UN Resolution 2254 and to accelerate the formation of the constitutional committee [so that this will happen] prior to the Sochi summit slated for the end of the month [April]. Russia is depicting this effort as serving the interest of rapprochement among the Arab states, preparing ground for Syria's return to the Arab League, and contributing to breaking the political siege [on Syria] and defusing the existing conflict [between Syria and the Arab states], in preparation for a future resolution of the crisis.

"However, it is impossible to separate the fast pace of events and the influx of initiatives to Damascus from [the fact] that these countries... [are seeking] to strengthen their roles and their alliances and secure their strategic interests – even if it causes suffering for the Syrian people.

"From Iran's efforts with its Ottoman neighbor, it can be learned... that Iran is acting [now] with absolute determination to create common interests among countries that border [it], so as to ensure the broadest possible coordination [among them], and also to secure the interests of the peoples, primarily those linked to Iran via Islam and ideology. This would assure Iran a larger role, and grant it considerable political influence in laying out the characteristics of the region, especially with regard to the struggle with the Israeli enemy.

"Thus, the [once-]concealed disagreements among Syria's allies are now out in the open. It is no longer a secret that Russia, in response to a clear demand from the Gulf, aspires to weaken Iran's influence, which is growing and expanding at the expense of the influence of Arab Gulf states in the region – a situation that explains the Russian-Saudi rapprochement in the face of the Iran-Turkey rapprochement. It is now clear that the glut of initiatives is not for political purposes alone, because the outcomes will be translated into economic profits…

"In light of the tangle [of interests and relations of the various forces operating within it], Syria is experiencing a true crisis and a suffocating siege, amid the slump in the import of crucial fuels... This crisis cannot be isolated from the pressure Syria is experiencing to actualize the aims of the initiatives and proposals presented to it. This is because the fuel crisis currently facing Syria did not happen even at the peak of the war there; thus, one wonders at its timing.

"There are strident voices from [Syria's] Russian ally giving excuses for [Russia's] refraining from supplying fuel to Syria, claiming that transporting it is costly – even though it is half the distance from Russia's ports to Syria's ports than from Iran's ports to Syria's ports. [Even though] transporting fuel from Iran to Syria costs much more than transporting it from Russia, Syria consistently [manages to] pay this cost.

"As for Iraq's failure to help Syria in this crisis regardless of its geographic proximity to it, our Iraqi brothers replied that they are committed to the U.S.-Saudi resolution [prohibiting providing fuel] to Syria that is aimed at ratcheting up the pressure on it.  

"What is happening in the Syrian arena in the wake of the suffocating crisis is deliberately planned by Syria's allies and rivals, together and separately, with the aim of pressuring [Syria] into accepting either the Russian or the Iranian proposal. That is, the boycott on Syria is a disguised boycott aimed at achieving particular aims that will secure the interests of one of the allies...

"As we await the opening of the envelopes [containing] the proposals and arrangements, we say to those so expert at fishing in murky waters and at seizing opportunities to play upon people's pain and whose shrill voices are heard on social media and elsewhere: Play no part in pressuring Syria. [Rather,] come to its aid, because what [Syria's] rivals and allies have not accomplished with bloodshed they will not accomplish today with a disguised boycott, whose goals are now clear.

"We say with full confidence that the Syrian leadership will consider only a proposal that guarantees that the heart of the Syrian Arab Republic will continue to be fully Arab."

 

[1] For example, it was reported in January 2019 that power struggles were taking place in Damascus between pro-Iran and pro-Russia militias; in January and February 2019, clashes erupted in the Sahl Al-Ghab region in northern Hama between the Syrian Army's Fourth Division, headed by Maher Al-Assad, the president's brother who is considered close to Iran, and the Fifth Corps, set up by Russia and headed by Suhail Al-Hassan, reputed to be a Russian protégé. Reports surfaced in January and March 2019 on clashes in the southern Syrian city of Dar'aa between pro-Russia and pro-Iran militias, while similar clashes were reported in April in the town of Al-Mayadin, in the Deir a-Zour region, and in eastern Aleppo. Baladi-news.com, January 20, 2019; Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), January 21, 2019; Orient-news.net, January 22, 2019, January 23, 2019, February 27, 2019; Horanfree.com, March 26, 2019; Aljazeera.net, April 19, 2019; Al-Modon (Lebanon),  April 20, 2019.

[2] Orient-news.net, February 17, 2019,  March 6, 2019, April 11, 2019; Syriahr.com., February 2, 2019.

[3] Al-Modon (Lebanon),  April 5, 2019; Orient-news.net, April 8, 2019.

[4] Al-Watan (Syria), April 22, 2019.