September 23, 2019 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1475

Struggle Between Russia, Iran For Control Over Syria's Centers Of Power

September 23, 2019 | By O. Peri and H. Varulkar*
Iran, Russia, Syria | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1475


In its war in the past years against the opposition forces and terrorist organizations in Syria, the Bashar Al-Assad regime has received substantial support from its two major allies, Russia and Iran. However, in the last year there have been increasing reports – mainly in the media of the Syrian opposition but also in the Arab and global media – about a struggle between Iran and Russia for control and influence in Syria. This struggle, which takes place amid the regime's gradual recapture of most of Syria's territory, reflects each country's desire to ensure its future influence over the Syrian state,[1] over its leadership, especially the military echelon, and over the economy, thus securing itself a share in the profits from the rebuilding of the country.

This struggle between Russia and Iran takes several forms:

  1. Power struggles on the ground between militias and Syrian forces backed by Iran on the one hand and Syrian forces backed by Russia on the other, in various parts of Syria, which sometimes flare into severe clashes with dozens of casualties on both sides, and occasionally even lead to direct clashes between Iranian and Russian forces.
  2. A struggle for control of the Syrian security and armed forces, as part of which both Iran and Russia strive to install figures close to them in senior positions. According to reports, Russia has the upper hand in this domain, and its influence over the Syrian security forces is growing. It seems that, following its directive, dozens of new appointments have been made in the security and armed forces, and hundreds of Syrian officers considered close to Iran are being investigated on charges of corruption of collaboration with the terrorist organizations. Russia has even formed a new Syrian unit whose purpose is to limit Iran's influence over the state institutions, and there are claims that it has plans to establish a new Syrian army free of Iranian involvement.
  3. A struggle over strategic sites, in particular air and sea ports. Both countries are striving to take over these sites for political and economic reasons, and the Syrian regime, suffering from a severe economic crisis, has no choice but to tolerate this blow to its sovereignty in return for a promised supply of various resources, especially oil, and in return for debt relief. One of the major sites of this struggle is the Aleppo international airport, where several clashes have taken place between forces close to Iran and forces close to Russia. The two countries are also competing for a foothold in the port of Tartus.

Despite many reports presenting Russia as the dominant source of influence over the Syrian security and armed forces, this should not be taken to mean that the Iranian influence has been pushed aside. In practice, Iran continues to operate Syrian forces loyal to it, as well as numerous Shi'ite militias, in various parts of Syria, mainly in the east. At the same time it is also deepening its social and cultural penetration of Syria by distributing aid, establishing Shi'ite schools and cultivating religious sites, among other measures.[2]

This report reviews the multifaceted struggle for influence between Russia and Iran in Syria. 

Cartoon in Saudi daily: "The Russia-Iran conflict rises to the surface" (Makkah, Saudi Arabia, February 11, 2019)

I. Struggle For Control On The Ground Between Iran-Backed Militias, Russia-Backed Forces

The competition between Russia and Iran often leads to severe armed clashes in various parts of Syria between forces and militias backed by each of the countries, both of which are seeking to tighten their control on the ground and expand their zones of influence. The Iran-backed forces in Syria include Shi'ite militias, chief of them the Lebanese Hizbullah and the Afghani Liwa Fatemiyoun, as well as Syrian forces that are close to Iran and operate under its guidance. Prominent among the latter is the Fourth Division, under the command of Maher Al-Assad, the brother of President Bashar Al-Assad, and the National Defense Forces. As for the forces associated with Russia, chief of them is the Fifth Brigade, which Russia established. It includes former members of opposition factions who have reconciled with the regime, and its commander is Suheil Al-Hassan, who is considered very close to the Russians.[3]

Fighting between these Iran- and Russia-backed forces has been reported for months; it apparently takes place in various parts of Syria, with many casualties on both sides. In January 2019, there were reports of clashes between pro-Russian and pro-Iranian forces for control of the capital Damascus,[4] and of clashes between the Fifth Brigade and Maher Al-Assad's Fourth Division in the Sahel Al-Ghab area, near Hama in the north of Syria.[5] In March 2019 there were reports of clashes in the Daraa area in the south,[6] in April of clashes in the Aleppo region in the north,[7] in June of renewed clashes in the Daraa area,[8] and in July of fighting in Deir Al-Zor, in the east.[9]

On July 13, 2019 there was a report of an armed operation against Russian forces in the Daraa region. [10] Although the attack may have been part of the renewed popular armed resistance against the Syrian regime and its allies, which resurged in January 2019 in the south of the country, especially in Daraa,[11] according to some assessments it was actually part of the Iran-Russia struggle in Syria. An opposition force active in southern Syria, the Southern Front, stated that, according to information at its disposal, pro-Iranian forces had carried out the attack.[12] Syrian oppositionist Hassan 'Abdallah said that, as part of their competition for public support in the south, Russia was assassinating figures close to Iran.[13]

As stated, there have also been reports of direct confrontations between armed forces of the two countries. On April 19, the Turkish Anadolu news agency reported on clashes in the city of Al-Mayadin, in the Deir Al-Zor Governorate, between forces of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Russian military police, which resulted in the death of two IRGC operatives and the injury of four Russian troops. There were also reports of clashes between the two sides at the Aleppo international airport.[14] It should be noted that the Syrian regime, which usually refrains from commenting on such reports, issued a statement denying the incidents.[15]

Fourth Division Commander Maher Al-Assad, loyal to Iran (right) and Fifth Brigade Commander Suheil Al-Hassan, loyal to Russia (left)

II. The Struggle For Control Of Syria's Security And Armed Forces

The struggle for control of Syria's security and armed forces is manifested in Russian and Iranian intervention in the appointment of high-ranking security, military and intelligence personnel, as well as in efforts by each country to dismantle militias loyal to the other and to arrest their members in an attempt to impede their activity. Many reports indicate that Russia has the upper hand in this domain.

In the recent months, Syrian opposition websites and the Arab media have reported on personnel changes and reshuffles in the upper echelons of Syria's security and military forces.[16] The reports indicate a growing Russian influence over these apparatuses. For example, the personnel changes made in April in the top echelons of Syria's security forces were reportedly initiated by the Russians and were intended to weaken Maher Al-Assad and his associates and replace them with figures loyal to Russia.[17] Among the decisions allegedly influenced by Russia was even the appointment of Salim Harba as the Syrian army's new chief-of-staff. According to a Syrian source, the Iranians consider Harba to be close to Russia, and therefore throughout the Syria crisis he was excluded from the leadership of the Fourth Division and the Military Academy in Damascus; in 2016 he even appeared on Syrian television in civilian dress as a commentator on military strategy, rather than as a member of the military, but following Russian intervention he was restored to a top military position.[18]

On May 21, the Lebanese online daily reported that Russia had ordered Ghassan Bilal, the director of Maher Al-Assad's office, who is considered close to Iran, to be placed under house arrest in order to thwart his appointment as head of Syria's Military Intelligence, after Iran recommended him for the post.[19] Also, on June 19, new appointments in the Syrian Special Forces and Republican Guard, considered to be especially loyal to President Assad, were reported; noted that these appointments too had been ordered by Russia.[20]

Iran, for its part, intervened in the appointment of former Military Intelligence chief Muhammad Mahla as a security advisor to Assad, in order to maintain its influence in the presidential palace. Mahla's successor in the Military Intelligence, Kifah Moulhem, is likewise considered to be close to Iran.[21]

Russia's influence was also manifested in another round of appointments, in the top echelons of the Syrian security and intelligence apparatuses in July 2019. This round included the appointment of new heads for Syria's Political Security Directorate, General Intelligence Directorate, Criminal Intelligence, and Airforce Intelligence Directorate. According to, the appointees are aware that Russia can have them dismissed or even assassinated if they fail to heed its directives or if they cooperate with the Iranians.[22] Experts cited by the Syrian opposition website also assessed that the appointments had been made under instructions from Russia as part of its bid to control Syria's military and intelligence apparatuses.[23]  

According to reports in the Arab media, Russia also initiated the establishment of Branch 108,[24] responsible for securing public facilities in Syria, in a bid to curb Iran's influence and keep it from taking over important government institutions.[25] A Syrian source told that Russia placed this branch under the command of officers close to it, in order to prevent Iran from gaining control of the Syrian regime by means of its own associates, such as Maher Al-Assad and figures close to him.[26] Another report claimed that Russia established the force to prevent a military coup against the Syrian regime by pro-Iranian officers who are frustrated with the regime and with Russia's control of its decisions.[27] On August 18 reported that over 140,000 Syrian soldiers and officers are subject to Russian control, and that Russia in fact wants to form "a new Syrian army" free of Iranian involvement.[28]

Russian Efforts To Weaken Or Dissolve Militias Loyal To Iran

In addition to installing figures close to it in key positons in the military and security apparatuses, Russia is also acting to neutralize militias loyal to Iran, mainly by arresting their members, and is even acting to dissolve them. Various reports have it that the main target of Russia's efforts is the Fourth Division, under the command of Maher Al-Assad, who, as stated, is close to Iran. After reported, on January 23, that Russia seeks to dissolve this division, the division issued a statement threatening anyone who is considering its dissolution.[29] Several months later, in April, the website again reported that Russia is acting to weaken forces loyal to Iran, such as the Fourth Division and the National Defense Forces, and is pressuring the regime to stop funding them and remove them from areas where pro-Russian forces are present.[30]

It is also said that Syrian security forces, acting under instructions from Russia, are arresting members of Iran-backed militias and other Syrians loyal to Iran. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights published on February 2 that the Syrian security forces had arrested members of the National Defense Forces in various parts of the country, including the coastal region, Homs, Hama, Damascus and the south;[31] on June 3 it was reported that two Fourth Division officers close to Iran had been arrested in the Quneitra area;[32] and on August 1, reported that Russia had issued arrest warrants for five Syrian officers, most of them from the Eighth Division, which, according to the website, is likewise dominated by officers close to Iran.[33]

An officer who defected from the Syrian army, Ahmad Al-Rahal, told on April 11 that over 2,400 Syrian officers close to Iran had been arrested and placed in special wings that had been built for them in the prisons, and that, conversely, Syrian forces loyal to Iran had arrested soldiers and officers identified with Russia.[34] Also, there are reports that pro-Iran activists are being arrested by the Russian military police itself, such as 17 members of the Iran-backed Iraqi Shi'ite Al-Nujaba militia, who were arrested on March 6 in Aleppo,[35] and the pro-Iranian commander of the Al-Taramih militia, Ibrahim Al-Khalil, who was arrested on May 2 in the town of Qamhana near Hama.[36]

Furthermore, Russia is reportedly acting to gain the loyalty of militias backed by Iran. In this context some reports stated that the Palestinian Liwa Al-Quds militia, active in Aleppo, has shifted its loyalties from Iran to Russia.[37]

Iran has also made direct arrests, for instance of a former commander of an opposition force, now close to Russia, who was arrested by IRGC operatives on July 29.[38]

III. The Struggle For Control Of Syria's Air And Sea Ports

One of the main aims of the Iran-Russia struggle for power and influence is controlling strategic sites in Syria, for whichever country gains this control can use it to further its own military and economic interests in advance of the rehabilitation of Syria. These struggles focus on Syria's air and sea ports.

Damascus International Airport

Many reports on websites identified with the Syrian opposition have discussed the possibility that Russia would lease the Damascus International Airport on a long-term basis and invest in expanding it. Economic commentator Alaa Asfari explained that leases that might potentially be signed with Russia included initiatives for rebuilding airport infrastructure and investing tens of millions of dollars in upgrading it "without harming [Syrian] ownership [of it]." He added that this was because the work would be carried out using the build-operate-transfer (BOT) model, under which a private entity receives a concession from a public body to fund, design, build, and operate a public facility for a specified time.[39] Damascus airport director Nadal Muhammad confirmed that there had been meetings with Russian companies in this matter,[40] as did a source in the Russian Embassy in Damascus.[41]

In this context, it is important to note that, according to various reports, the area around the airport has long been considered a stronghold of Iran, and is the site of the IRGC's Syria leadership headquarters, which has been in charge of the deployment of the various pro-Iran militias in the country.[42] In April 2019, it was reported that Iran had evacuated its bases and weapons depots in the airport's vicinity based on understandings with Russia, in order to prevent further Israeli attacks in the region.[43] Likewise, on July 18, 2019, the Syrian opposition website Al-Hall reported that Hizbullah had closed down its main command post on the Damascus airport road being warned by Russia that neither it nor Iranian militias should continue to maintain a presence in the region for fear of Israeli attacks.[44]

Journalist Khaled Al-Halabi told the opposition website that Russia seeks control of the airport as part of its plan to possess strategic sites in Syria, and to that end it must expel the Iranian forces from the region.[45] Other commentators expressed doubt that the Syrian regime would allow Russia to control the airport, explaining that reports on its possible lease to Russia were a tactical move aimed at pressuring Iran and getting it to expand its economic aid to Syria.[46]

In response to reports on the matter, the Syrian Transportation Ministry's announced on May 19 that in discussions at the December 2018 joint Russia-Syria conference, Russia had proposed that it upgrade the airport, but that so far neither the two sides nor anyone else had held negotiations about this airport or about any other Syrian airport.[47] However, according to a June 18 Al-Hall report, Russian companies were actually entering the airport and examining options for investing in it.[48]

Aleppo And Al-Nayrab Airports

Another focus of struggle is Aleppo International Airport and the adjacent Al-Nayrab military airport. Some reports claim that Russia seeks to take control of it in the same way as the airport in Damascus.[49] According to the Lebanese online daily, Russia wants to upgrade the airport, which requires the Iranian forces to evacuate it, but Iran, understanding the importance of the Aleppo and Al-Nayrab airports for maintaining its influence in the region, refuses to give them up, especially since they constitute the fastest and most direct supply route to its militias in northern Syria, and evacuating them may cause it to lose its other bases in Aleppo as well.[50]

The Russian attempt to expel the Iranians from the Aleppo airport has at times sparked direct and intense clashes between forces backed by the two countries, resulting in fatalities on both sides.[51] These clashes have been occurring intermittently for several months. On April 20 there was news of direct confrontations in the vicinity of the Aleppo and Al-Nayrab airports between Liwa Al-Quds militia, currently backed by Russia, and several Iran-backed forces – Liwa Al-Baqer, the Aleppo Defenders Corps and Hizbullah – as part of which Iranian militias arrested several operatives of Liwa Al-Quds.[52], a Syrian opposition website, reported on May 23 that Iran uses the Al-Nayrab military airport to train its militiamen in the operation of armed drones, and assessed that these drones have been used to attack the Russian Khmeimim Airbase in Syria, among other targets.[53] If this report is accurate, this threat constitutes another reason for Russia to remove the Iranian presence from the airport. Several days later, on May 26, there were further reports of severe clashes, with casualties, between Russia- and Iran-backed forces.[54]

Reports of clashes in the airport area continued in June.[55] However, on July 8 it was reported that the intervention of Russian and Iranian officers had yielded an agreement between the two sides to stop the hostilities and maintain their positions until the end of the regime's military campaign in the Hama and Idlib governorates.[56]

Latakia Sea Port

In addition to gaining control of the airports, another goal of Syria and Iran is to gain control of Syria's sea ports, in Tartus and Latakia, and thus secure their presence in the Mediterranean, which is important for strategic, political, economic and military reasons. In March 2019, following a visit by President Assad to Iran, it was reported that the Syrian regime had decided to transfer the management of Latakia port to the Iranians. According to the London-based Al-Arab daily, Assad agreed on this with Iranian officials on February 25, during his Iran visit, and the Syrian company in charge of the port formed a committee to discuss this matter with the Iranians.[57]

The official Syrian media refrained from addressing this issue, but on April 7 a source in the office of the Iranian Presidency confirmed that talks were underway on transferring control of the Latakia port to Iran, in return for the erasure of Syria's debt to Iran for the material and military aid it has provided. The source added that the agreement is to be signed during Iranian President Rohani's visit to Syria, which has yet to be scheduled. The Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta assessed that the agreement will come into force in early October 2019.[58] According to the London-based daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Iran promised Syria that the port would be used to bring Iranian oil into Syria as a remedy for the country's energy crisis.[59] Syrian researcher 'Abbas Sharifa claimed in April 2019 that Iran has already taken charge of the port, although the agreement has not yet been signed.[60]

President Assad with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei during the former's February 2019 visit to Tehran (Source:, February 25, 2019)

Iran's ambition to consolidate its presence on the Syrian coast is not new. On November 26, 2016 Iran's chief-of-staff Mohammad Bagheri said that his country meant to build sea ports in Yemen and Syria,[61] and in January 2017 Iran indeed signed a contract to build an Iranian port in Syria.[62] According to the opposition website, the Syrian regime had a plan to lease the Wadi Qandil area, north of Latakia, to the Iranian Defense Ministry for a period of 99 years, but Russia prevented this.[63]

In this context it should also be mentioned that Iran is working to build a railway from its territory to Latakia port via Iraq. Yahya Safavi, an advisor to Iranian Leader Ali Khamenei, stressed on June 12 that the railway project would increase the volume of Iranian export to Iraq and Syria and yield large profits for Iran.[64] Many commentators have noted that the project can help Iran to bypass the U.S. sanctions on Iran and Syria and to export its oil in violation of these sanctions. According to the London-based daily Al-Arabi Al-Jadid, high-ranking Iranian officials have been holding meetings with their Syrian counterparts in an effort to accelerate the project. The daily also mentioned that the railway is planned to pass through Aleppo, which, as mentioned, is the site of power struggles between forces loyal to Iran and those loyal to Russia.[65] This is likely to have an impact on the implementation of the project.

Tartus Sea Port

The reports on the decision of the Syrian regime to place the Latakia port under Iranian control angered Russia, and, according to a March 16, 2019 report in the London-based daily Al-Arab, even caused a crisis of trust between Russia and Syria. According to the daily, Russia fears the move will jeopardize its interests in Syria, especially considering the proximity of the Latakia port to Russia's Khmeimim Airbase, and also fears that Iran will not just manage the port but take the opportunity to build a naval base within it. The daily assessed that the competition between Iran and Russia over the port of Latakia also stemmed from the huge profits to be had from developing it, especially during the stage of rebuilding Syria.[66] The opposition website reported, citing a Syrian commentator, that following Assad's visit to Tehran, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned him that his survival depended on Russia alone and that if Russia stopped supporting him, Iran would not be able to defend him.[67]

In response to the handover of the Latakia port to Iran, Russia turned to tighten its control over the port of Tartus, where it operates a naval base In 2017, Syria and Russia signed an agreement placing this naval base in Russian hands for 49 years, with an option for renewal.[68] On April 20, 2019, following a meeting with Assad, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov announced that Russia would sign an agreement with the Syrian regime to lease the entire port – not just the naval base within it –for the same number of years.[69] Echoing the Iranian promises to provide Syria with oil via the port of Latakia, Russian sources promised that, if the expanded agreement on the port of Tartus is approved, Russia will provide Syria with oil as a substitute for the Iranian oil.[70]

The news of the leasing of the port of Tartus evoked criticism in Syria, mainly on social media. Prominent among the critics was Doureid Al-Assad, a cousin of the president, who decried the takeover of Syria's strategic assets by its allies.[71] Other Syrians remarked that Assad apparently has no problem "selling" the homeland to foreigners in order to stay in power.[72]  In response to the criticism, Syrian Transportation Minister 'Ali Hamoud clarified that the deal did not involve a lease but rather an investment contract for expanding the port and increasing its profits, which he said would help Syria cope with the siege that has been imposed on it. "Syria has not given up the port," he said. "It is Syrian and will remain a Syrian [port], managed by a power allied with Syria."[73]

On June 12, 2019, the Syrian parliament approved the contract placing the port under the management of the Russian company STG Engineering.[74]

Iran, for its part, also continues to seek a foothold in the port of Tartus. On August 16, the Russian Sputnik news agency reported that it had obtained the minutes of a meeting between Syrian officials and the Iranian company Khatam Al-Anbiya,[75] in which it was agreed that the company would build a new, multipurpose port in the Al-Hamidiyah area south of Tartus. Syrian officials said at the meeting that the Iranian company would manage the port for 30-40 years.[76] On August 29, 2019 the Syrian government daily Al-Ba'th confirmed this report.[77]

* O. Peri is a research fellow at MEMRI; H. Varulkar is Director of Research at MEMRI.


[2] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1430, Websites Opposed To The Syrian Regime: Iran Continues To Consolidate Its Presence In Southern Syria, In Violation Of Understandings Between Russia, Israel, Jordan, January 4, 2019; Inquiry & Analysis No. 1131,  Shi'ization Of Syria: In Damascus, Unprecedentedly Extensive Observance Of The 'Ashura, November 13, 2014. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported in late June 2019 that, despite Russia's efforts to curb Iran's influence in Syria, the latter was continuing to consolidate its presence in the south and east of the country and in the Damascus region, and to recruit Syrians into its militias using religious propaganda and financial incentives., June 24, 2019.

[3] Suheil Al-Hassan is also the commander of the Tiger Forces, special Syrian units established in 2013 which are extensively supported by Russia. In late August it was reported that the Syrian regime had changed their name to "Division 25 Special Mission Force" and subjugated them to the armed forces' central command. It is not yet clear what impact this will have on the Russian aid extended to these forces., August 29, 2019.

[4], January 20, 2019.

[5] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), January 21, 2019.

[6], March 26, 2019.

[7], April 20, 2019.

[8], June 24, 2019.

[9], July 3, 2019.

[10], July 13, 2019.

[12], July 13, 2019.

[13] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 12, 2019.

[14], April 19, 2019.

[15], April 20, 2019.

[17], April 5, 2019;, April 17, 2019;, April 8, 2019.

[18], April 23, 2019.

[19], May 21, 2019.

[20], June 19, 2019.

[21], April 5, 2019.

[22], July 8, 2019.

[23], July 11, 2019.

[24] Some reports give its name as "Branch 801"; the correct name is unknown.

[25] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), June 18, 2019; Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 11, 2019.

[26], June 24, 2019.

[27], July 11, 2019.

[28], August 18, 2019.

[29], January 23, 2019.

[30], April 11, 2019.

[31], February 2, 2019.

[32], July 3, 2019.

[33], August 1, 2019.

[34], April 11, 2019.

[35], March 6, 2019.

[36], April 11, 2019.

[37], March 9, 2019;, February 5, 2019.

[38], July 29, 2019.

[39], May 17, 2019.

[40], May 12, 2019.

[41], May 17, 2019.

[44], July 18, 2019.

[45], May 27, 2019.

[46], May 15, 2019.

[47], May 19, 2019.

[48], June 18, 2019.

[49], May 19, 2019;, May 27, 2019.

[50], April 20, 2019.

[51], April 20, 2019;, May 22, 2019;, May 26, 2019.

[52], April 20.

[53], May 23, 2019.

[54], May 26, 2019.

[55], June 16, 2019.

[56], July 8, 2019.

[57] Al-Arab (London), March 16, 2019.

[58], April 21, 2019.

[59] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 3, 2019.

[60], April 25, 2019.

[61], November 27, 2016.

[62], April 29, 2017.

[63], April 4, 2017.

[64], June 12, 2019.

[65] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), July 6, 2019.

[66] Al-Arab (London), March 16, 2019.

[67], March 21, 2019.

[68], January 21, 2017;  Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 23, 2019.

[69], April 20, 2019.

[70] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 23, 2019.

[71], April 21, 2019.

[72] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London),, April 21, 2019.

[73], April 29, 2019.

[74], June 12, 2019. STG Engineering is a private company but has ties to the Russian regime.

[75] According to the website, Khatam Al-Anbiya is the economic engine of the IRGC, and operates in Iran and other countries of the region in a wide range of areas including oil and natural gas production, road construction, communications, tourism and banking. The website claims further that this company funds all the militias that have been supporting the Syrian regime since 2011., April 25, 2019.

[76], August 16, 2019.

[77] Al-Ba'th (Syria), August 29, 2019.

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