by Neville Teller
On June 2 the Dubai-based media outlet, Al-Arabiya News, highlighted the irony of how Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has impacted the Middle East. Citing reports that Russian troops were being withdrawn from Syria to augment the forces in Ukraine, the article maintained that further Russian retreats will likely follow, “paving the way for Iran to wield complete influence over Syria.”
“No one,” it writes, “could have guessed that Iran would gain the most from the Ukraine crisis.”
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Al-Arabiya News favors Russia’s presence in Syria, not so much for sustaining in power Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, as for restricting Iran’s military expansion. Russia’s ambitions in the region, it maintains, were not too grand — to improve its trade and investment balance, use the port of Tartus, and play a significant role in the Middle East.
“Today, this theoretical foreign balance in Syria is about to be tipped in favor of Tehran… The withdrawal of Russia coupled with the continued military presence of Iran could rekindle the flames of conflict inside and around Syria, as the objectives of Iran’s presence in Damascus go far beyond protecting the Syrian regime.”
The Moscow Times is Russia’s leading independent media outlet. In March 2022, following a new law in Russia restricting media coverage of the invasion of Ukraine, it moved its main editors to Amsterdam. A few weeks later the authorities blocked access within Russia to its Russian-language website. Nevertheless, it continues to publish.
On May 6 the Moscow Times reported that, in order to strengthen his Ukrainian operations, Russian President Vladimir Putin was downsizing Russian military involvement in Syria. The news outlet maintained that Russia had already begun the process of withdrawing a proportion of its 63,000 troops stationed in Syria, and was concentrating them at three airports before transferring them to the Ukrainian front. The troops being redeployed included the notorious mercenary Wagner Group. Abandoned Russian air bases were being handed over to Iran’s IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) and Lebanon’s terrorist Hezbollah.
Two days later Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, was in Iran. Some commentators believe Assad went specifically to ask for increased Iranian support to make good any Russian scale-back in Syria. Assad is well aware that it was only Putin’s intervention in the Syrian conflict in September 2015 that enabled him to defeat his opponents and retain power.
Yet Assad is in something of a dilemma. If Russia’s support weakens, he cannot cozy up too closely to Iran even though, as an adherent to the Shi’ite tradition of Islam, he has long been its client. Assad wants to be readmitted to the Arab League, and to succeed he needs Arab support. Any substantial strengthening of Iran’s position in Syria would undoubtedly affect Syria’s relations with other Arab countries, most of whom regard Iran and its regional ambitions with suspicion.
This political reality was made crystal clear by Jordan’s King Abdullah on May 18. Visiting Stanford University in the US, Abdullah maintained that the Russian presence in southern Syria was a “stabilizing factor”, and that if it withdrew the void would be filled by Iran and its proxies posing a real threat to Jordan’s stability. He added that ever since Moscow had been distracted by the Ukraine war, his country had been facing the possibility of conflict on its border with Syria
Abdullah was referring to reports that Iran was already taking advantage of Russia’s preoccupation with the war in Ukraine to expand into south and central Syria. Iran’s presence in southern Syria represents a real threat to Jordan. Abdullah has long warned about Iran’s ultimate ambitions in the Middle East. The Jordanian army is currently mobilizing along the border with Syria to combat drug and arms smuggling. In January Jordan announced that in future it will, if necessary, pursue smugglers across the border and apprehend them inside Syria.
Russia has invested heavily in Syria, partly to ensure its continued access to the Mediterranean by way of the port of Tartus, and Putin would not withdraw fully except under extreme pressure. The extent of his continued presence in Syria depends on how successful his military operation is in Ukraine. If he needs to augment his fighting force there, then he will draw even more heavily on his troops currently stationed in Syria, and the shift in the balance of power would soon become evident. The Assad regime would undoubtedly turn to Iran and its IRGC to maintain control and to continue fighting the opposition and extremist Sunni groups.
Russia and Iran, although nominally in alliance in Syria, were far from agreeing on such issues as Syria’s political future, its postwar reconstruction, and future economic, political, and military policies. Iran could find itself with considerably increased powers in Syria, both military and political. Any significant increase in Iranian troop levels or military activity in Syria would probably attract further Israeli strikes.
So the political equation turns out to be: Russian failure in Ukraine equals a strengthened Iran in Syria, and a more powerful Iran probably equals increased anti-Iran military activity by Israel. Democratic interests in the Middle East find themselves condemning Putin’s Ukrainian adventure, but fearing lack of success in the operation would boost the Iranian regime’s power base in the Middle East. This is the unexpected and uncomfortable by-product of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.