Syria Insight: Russia moves into Iran-controlled eastern Syria

Syria Insight: Russia moves into Iran-controlled eastern Syria
Eastern Syria has been viewed as under Iran's sphere of interest, but the resource-rich region remains a lucrative area for Russia too.
7 min read
04 August, 2020
Russian troops are being moved to resource-rich eastern Syria. [Getty]
As Israel and Iran-backed Hezbollah square up on the Lebanon border, Russia is left waiting to see if another destabilising event could hit its plans for a quiet wind-down of its direct participation in the Syrian war. 

After working with Turkey to achieve relative calm in Idlib and resurrecting talks of a new constitution, some analysts have suggested that Russia is hoping to broker a compromise that will be agreeable to the EU and US for a post-war transition programme for Syria.

The outbreak of war between Hezbollah and Israel, which would almost certainly spill over into Syria, would scupper the prospects of a winding down of the war and increase the likelihood of more Russian troops returning home in body bags.

Domestic problems

It could not come at a worse time for President Vladimir Putin, who faces new economic problems from the coronavirus crisis and the continued hammering of US and EU sanctions.

At home, there have been a new wave of small anti-government protests, while next door in Belarus Putin is having to deal with the fall-out of a major Russian mercenary operation being uncovered by one of Moscow's closest allies.

There are rivalries between the Russian security agencies and not everyone is on the same side

The latter scandal highlighted cracks within the Putin regime, with Russia's domestic and foreign intelligence agencies allegedly backing rival factions and mercenary groups overseas.

"There are rivalries between the Russian security agencies and not everyone is on the same side," Ruslan Trad, co-founder of De Re Militari and co-author of Russian Invisible Armies, told The New Arab. "Putin's role is to play mediator between these two sides."

Putin, whose main goal is his own political survival, will be aware of the growing domestic hostility to Russia's foreign interventions and elements who might seek to exploit this.

He will also be aware that the financial constraints Russia is under mean that a speedy end of the Syria war is also in its interest. Although Syria has not become another Afghanistan for Russia - as some had predicted - it has certainly become a headache for the Kremlin.

"The budget of the Russian federation is under pressure because of these military adventures, not only in Syria but also Libya and other parts of Africa," said Trad.

"These military interventions are even more costly for Russia than they might be for Western countries such as the US. This is the reality, and Moscow knows it very well."

Proxy army

Although costly, Russia's proxy and mercenary networks have managed to carve out business interests in areas they operate in, including phosphates in Syria and gold mines in Africa. Its mercenary fighters have also been richly rewarded and treated "like hip-hop stars" in Russia, Trad said.

At a relatively low-cost in Syria, Russia has managed to prop up a friendly regional regime, establish overseas military bases, and use the country as a recruiting ground for mercenaries, who are trained and flown out from Russian bases for eastern Libya.

Yet the early successes it achieved after its 2015 intervention have now stalled and Moscow is left having to balance the competing demands of its friends - such as Israel and Iran - along with blocking the ambitions of enemies within Syria.

"Putin and Netanyahu are what I'd say are friends with benefits, but they are willing to betray each other at any time. For Israel, what they want in Syria is clear - a secure border and their main concern is Iran's presence in Syria," said Trad.

"But I think Iran has also become a problem for Russia too. Although they are officially allies, I think ultimately Putin is more willing to help Israel than Iran," said Trad.

Despite the occasional ideological signalling by Russia - such as agreeing to fund the construction of a replica of the Hagia Sophia in Hama - Putin's decisions in Syria are shaped by realpolitik rather than romantic or ethical notions.

With Russia the message is simple: We need gas, we need mines, and we need ports to export this. That is the whole plan of Russia in Syria

"With Russia the message is simple: We need gas, we need mines, and we need ports to export this. That is the whole plan of Russia in Syria," said Trad.

Although Russia continues to support Bashar al-Assad in public it is also clear that he will be part of Syria's long-term future and there is increased talk that Moscow is ready to drop the dictator in favour of a more conciliatory government, which would include elements of the opposition.

"I feel that Russia has changed its attitude towards the regime due to pressure from Israel and sanctions from the US, but internal pressure inside Russia is always the most important thing for Putin, not Israel or the US," said Trad.

While Russia and Iran need each other for now in Syria, analysts believe it is unlikely that a long-term alliance is on the cards.

Tehran is said to be unhappy with Russia's push for regime-opposition negotiations, while Moscow is also angered by the Syrian regime's recent air defences pact with Tehran - long-viewed by the Kremlin as its domain.

There is also a growing rivalry between Iranian-backed militias and Maher al-Assad's 4th Brigade with the Russian-led 5th Corps in Daraa and Damascus.

Moving east

The recent deployment of Russian troops to eastern Syria, which is considered within Iran's sphere of influence, could also lead to further contentions between the two partners in Syria, says Omar Abu Layla, a Syrian expert of security and governance dynamics and northeast Syria and the CEO of DeirEzzor24

"Iran is always concerned by any party… trying to strengthen its presence in areas where it already has a presence, such as Deir az-Zour. The recent Russian moves in there have alarmed Iran, especially near Al-Mayadeen and Al-Bukamal," Abu Layla said.

Competition for control of this resource-rich part of Syria has been tough throughout the war, as Moscow knows when US airstrikes killed as many as 300 Russian mercenaries in Deir az-Zour two-years-ago.

Although the number of Russian troops sent to the area in Moscow's recent deployment is relatively small, they will be left vulnerable and isolated if new confrontations between the myriad of powers in Syria break out.

"The areas west of the Euphrates does not have large logistical support. The Russians and Iranians know very well that the areas east of the Euphrates, where the SDF and the international coalition forces are present, contains most of these internal and other riches," said Abu Layla.

Tehran will not concede control of eastern Syria easily and the region will remain the venue for a proxy war between Israel and Iran

"There is no doubt that the west and east of the Euphrates are so important for all parties to carry out their projects."

Non-lethal confrontations between Russian and American patrols in Hassakah over the past weeks have also been another signal to these powers of Moscow's presence in eastern Syria.

"Russia is seeking to increase its presence in Deir az-Zour… and do its best to consolidate its presence in the areas west of the Euphrates and even in the areas east of it. Until now it has not had a major military presence other than at Deir az-Zour military airport and some other points in Deir az-Zour city," Abu Layla added.

Tehran will not concede control of eastern Syria easily and the region will remain the venue for a proxy war between Israel and Iran.

"Iran completely depends on Deir az-Zour to carry out its [regional projects] and it is great importance and one of its first priorities link between Iraq-Syria-Lebanon, and that is why Iran is so desperate to stay there," said Abu Layla.

Syria Insight is a regular feature from The New Arab. To get Syria Insight in your inbox each edition, sign up here.

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin