The triumphalism in Russia over the success of Russian diplomacy in welding together cooperation between Russia, Turkey and Iran in Syria has faded as relations between Moscow and Ankara have gone sour. This raises the question of whether Russia's relations with Tehran will also deteriorate. Rosbalt media's senior columnist Alexander Zhelenin, queried three Russian Middle East experts on this very question. They agreed that there were numerous points of friction between Russia, Iran in Syria, a problem exacerbated by the overlapping zones of influence, and the absence of a central authority. Ironically, what may be holding the tensions between Iran and Russia and Iran is Turkey. Both sides realize that if they fight each other, the prime beneficiary will be Turkey.
Zhelenin's survey follows below:
In Syria, Military And Political Confrontation Between Pro-Russian And Pro-Iranian Groups Is Increasing
"Will Russia's cooperation with Iran in Syria turn into a military conflict, like those that have periodically flared up recently between Moscow and Ankara lately? According to a number of media reports, in Syria, the military and political confrontation between pro-Russian and pro-Iranian groups is increasing. The same applies to Tehran oriented representative of the ruling Assad clan on the one hand and those oriented towards Moscow on the other.
"In particular, it is noted that the Russian military are trying to increase the influence of the Fifth Corps of the army of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (which is under their control). They are opposed by the pro-Iranian Fourth Division under the command of the Syrian leader's brother Maher Assad, who is oriented towards Tehran.
"Let's note that the intensification of collisions between Russia and Iran occurs not only because of the war in Syria, but also against the background of the growing military conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the Trans Caucasus - a region where Moscow, Ankara and Tehran have largely opposite interests.
"Rosbalt's observer talked to oriental studies experts about how plausible is the threat of a direct military clash between Russia and Iran.
Russian Expert Sazhin: 'The Contradictions Between Russia And Iran In Syria Have Been Evident For Some Time'
"Vladimir Sazhin, Senior Researcher at Institute of Oriental Studies of Russian Academy of Sciences:
"'The contradictions between Russia and Iran in Syria have been evident for some time. They began to manifest themselves immediately after the defeat of ISIS. The collisions were mainly about Syria's future. Moscow doesn't quite like the way Tehran sees the country's future. The Iranians have strong positions within the circle of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and in his special service agencies. The Russian Federation also has established positions in the same circles, as well as in some Syrian units. Assad, in turn, can play upon the contradictions between his allies.
"'Moscow is also worried that Iran has recently been engaged in a 'peaceful offense' in Syria. I mean, that the Iranians are now doing everything possible to strengthen the positions of Shiites in Syria, whose population is predominately Sunni. Additionally, Iran actively infiltrates the country's economy. In particular, Iranian businessmen are actively buying up land and infrastructure facilities in Syria.
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"'There is no serious military confrontation between Moscow and Tehran in Syria so far, although in recent years there have been clashes between pro-Russian and pro-Iranian security forces. However, I do not think that this will lead to a direct confrontation between Russia and Iran.
"'Recently, it was reported that units of the Lebanese 'Hizbullah' were leaving Syria. The question arises: why? - Firstly, they have tasks to accomplish in Lebanon as well. Secondly, [they left Syria] due to pressure from Russia, which considers this group's influence in Syria as not exactly beneficial.
"'In addition, Israel, which has good relations with Russia, does not wish to have either Iranian armed groups or Hezbollah in Syria. At the same time, the withdrawal of this group from Syria will greatly weaken Iran's position in this country.
"'In this sense, the interests of the Russian Federation and Israel in Syria coincide to some extent. One might get an impression that now Iran's positions in Syria are weakening. There may be many reasons for this, including the fact that the current situation in Iran is quite difficult. It is quite possible that they simply do not have the strength and resources for such a large-scale activity.'
Russian Expert Malashenko: 'We Are Already Accustomed To The Turkish 'Headache,' But What The Iranian One Will Bring Us Is Unknown'
Alexey Malashenko, Head of Research at "Dialogue of Civilizations" Institute:
"'It is a definite fact, that relations between Iran and Russia in Syria are tense. There is competition between them, it has been going on for a long time and with mixed results. The fact that Russia is stronger is also understandable. But Tehran is providing a huge amount of weapons to Syria. They provide money too. The exact amount is unknown, but we are talking about billions of dollars. There were reports that the sums involved about eight billion dollars figures annually.
"'In addition, there is a struggle for Assad between the Russian Federation and the Islamic Republic. Despite the fact that the Syrian leader is pro-Russian, he will not mess up relations with the Iranians. And not because he is an Alawite (there is an opinion that the Alawites are Shi'ites, like the Iranians, although this is not entirely true), but because he understands that he cannot completely 'prostrate himself' before Russia.
"'In Syria, Iran is represented by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which is subordinate exclusively to the country's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and to no one else. The leadership of the IRGC professes very radical views: the battle to spread Shiism, the battle to establish Iranian influence in the region. This will continue, and will create additional difficulties for Russia in Syria. The Iranians support not only local groups in this country, but also the Lebanese 'Hizbullah.'
"'The very same Fourth Division under the command of Bashar al-Assad's brother Maher is not completely autonomous from official Damascus, but in certain cases it also defends the Iranian interests. The Fourth Division, plus the IRGC and Hezbollah, is a combustible mixture, and Russia annoys them for a variety of reasons. One of them, for example, is that Moscow has very good relations with Israel.
"'This tension will be resolved either between Damascus and Moscow, or in the Moscow-Tehran-Damascus triangle. If the latter scenario will obtain, then this is very bad. If things were not bad enough with Turkey, last thing we need is Iran!
"'There will be constant tension between the Iranian IRGC and Russian units in Syria, while official Tehran will say that it has nothing to do with it (because it needs our weapons and continues its games with America). The fact that Iran is a headache for Russia in Syria is absolutely certain. We are already accustomed to the Turkish 'headache,' but what the Iranian one will bring us is unknown.'"
Russian Expert Magid: Russia And Iran Are Forced To Cooperate In Syria, Since Turkey Has Assembled A Huge Militia In The Northern Regions That It Controls
Mikhail Magid, Middle East Expert:
"'Conflicts in southern Syria (and in some other regions) between pro-Assad loyalists have been going on for a long time. President Bashar al-Assad relies on two external forces: the Russian Federation and Iran. The presence in Syria of the armed forces of these countries or the Shi'ite militias (brought by the Iranians from all over the Middle East) is not the only problem. The other thing is the deep infiltration of the Russians and Iranians into the structures of the Syrian regime.
"'The infiltration of the Iranians is deeper, and is tied to both their proximity to Assad and the pro-Iranian position of Assad's younger brother, Maher, who commands most of the security forces. Iranians send their own or loyal commanders to various army units and pro-Assad militias (National Defense Forces (NDF) and Local Defense Forces (LDF)). The Iranians are trying to blend in with the Assadists as closely as possible, by providing their commanders, recruited militants, etc. One such formation is the Fourth Division. Russia is trying to do something similar with the Fifth Corps.
"'In Syria, the Assad regime controls about 65 percent of the country's territory, and these areas are divided into zones of influence of the Russian Federation and Iran, as well as of the forces associated with them. The zones of influence overlap, and clashes erupt intermittently between the pro-Russian and pro-Iranian formations.
"'There are two main reasons for this: first, there is the military-political factor. Iran and its loyalists are considered the main adversaries of Israel, and it [Israel] ruthlessly attacks them in Syria, striking them with its air forces about once a week for several years now. In contrast, the Russian Federation and Israel have established a relationship of trust. Russian air defenses that seemingly should cover the Russian Federation's allies – Bashar al-Assad and the Iranians – do not attack Israeli combat aircraft. Russia does not want to suffer losses from the strikes of the Israeli Air Force, which are the most powerful in the region and possess such types of weapons that Russia does not have (stealth F-35 aircraft, combat drones, etc.). Russia does not want conflicts with Israel and the risk to its forces, so it negotiated with the Israeli leadership to withdraw pro-Iranian militias and military units from southern Syria and replace them with pro-Russian units. But in practice this didn't not happen, because the Assad regime provides Syrian passports to pro-Iranian militants and sends them to the Israeli border in the guise of Syrians.
"'The Iranians and their supporters perceive their presence in southern Syria (near the Israeli border) as a strategic asset in the confrontation with the Jewish state. All this irritates Russia and its allies, interferes with their plans to normalize relations with Israel and may be one of the reasons for the clashes between pro-Russian and pro-Iranian forces.
"'The second factor is political and economic [in nature]. The fact is that the Syrian Assad regime, (in the form that it existed prior to the start of the civil war in Syria) is long gone. There are groups of militias loyal to the regime (in certain areas they can be completely independent) and military units, whose commanders can also do as they please. The system has long been, to put it mildly, decentralized. Due to weak central funding and control, the local pro-Assad military and militias, just like the anti-Assad ones, live by collecting tribute from the population: from local businesses, workers, farmers, municipalities.
"'These processes unfold against the background of chaos in a war-ravaged country, brutal US sanctions, inflation and poverty.
"'All this has been happening for some time and has become a habitual part of Syrian reality just like the struggle for finance streams between anti-Assad groups on the territories they control, which is taking place for exactly for the same reasons and in the same format.
"'However, Russia and Iran are forced to cooperate in Syria. Turkey has assembled a huge militia in the northern regions that it controls. I'm talking not only about the anti-Assad militants, but about the Turkish military itself. These are tens of thousands of soldiers and officers with eight thousand units of military equipment. A sharp weakening of the anti-Assad forces could lead to the expansion of Turkey and pro-Turkish militias. Therefore, most likely, the Russian Federation and Iran, as well as the forces loyal to them within the Assad regime, will cooperate, despite all the conflicts that arise between them.''
 Rosbalt.ru, October 20, 2020.