Alternative Visions of Syria’s Future:
Russian and Iranian Proposals for National Resolution
First of all, I would like to thank you for inviting me to speak here today. There are many conflicting views regarding Russian involvement in the Syrian conflict and the degree to which Russia and Iran are coordinating their actions there, and many misunderstandings on all sides. It is indeed a topic that needs to be discussed. I will divide this brief overview into three parts:
- Russian goals in Syria
- Iranian goals in Syria
- The nature of Russian-Iranian coordination in Syria.
Russia’s immediate goal, in simplest terms, is to end the fighting and return stability to Syria. The Kremlin has made it clear that it considers president Assad’s government legitimate considers Russian intervention legal because made at the request of the Assad government, and — importantly — that it does not consider extremist elements limited to IS but that they are fluid groups of fighters operating under different banners often receiving financing and training under the guise of moderate opposition and then bringing those resources to IS, Al Qaeda, the Al-Nusra Front, and any number of other radical military forces. That does not mean that Russia is not willing to engage genuine moderate Syrian opposition. As a matter of fact, Russia has been engaging the Syrian opposition, whose representatives — along with those of the Syrian government — have come to Moscow time and again throughout the civil war for talks. I myself have met with them. Russia has also engaged the moderate Syrian opposition in the Geneva conferences and other international talks.
Once peace has been reestablished work can begin on strengthening and rebuilding Syria’s state institutions. Russia supports the communiqué issued by the Geneva I conference on Syria, calling for “a transitional government body with full executive powers”. This transitional government should be secular and inclusive of all different segments of the Syrian population.
Once this has been done, democratic elections can be held. The oft-repeated claim that Russia insists on an Assad-led Syria for all time contradicts official statements by Russian diplomats and the Russian president. But Syrian government and governmental institutions should be changed through democratic elections, not through violent overthrow; and by the Syrian people (including members of violent opposition, whose voices should also be heard, on the condition that they abandon violence). Foreign intervention is needed NOT to handpick a new (or old) government for Syria, but to provide the stability and peaceful conditions necessary for democratic processes to begin.
In addition to the defeat of radical religious fighting forces the territorial integrity of Syria must be preserved Moscow is against a “balkanization,” which would only result in a collection of weak countries divided along ethnic, confessional or political lines and thus likely to fight among one another in the future.
Another important point is that any attempt at resolution must address the region as a whole regional players, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia must be involved; the government of Iraq must also be strengthened, as well as the government of Libya, whence many fighters are reportedly arriving into Syria. Ideally, an even broader international coalition would engage these challenges something Moscow would only welcome.
In any case, the current situation in Syria cannot continue. The four-plus years of civil war and over two-hundred and thirty-thousand dead and eleven and a half million refugees has been accompanied by unfortunate actions on all sides and at least partially inflamed by ill-advised US-funding of opposition groups as well as underground money and arms from other sources…
The goal of stability and resolution in Syria is all the more urgent for Russia in particular because increasing numbers of Russian citizens and citizens of neighboring states are traveling to the Syrian battlefield, often from the Caucasus and Central Asia. In mid-2015, the Federal Security Service of Russia set the figure of Russian citizens fighting alongside opposition groups in Syria at one thousand eight hundred. Naturally, it is difficult to obtain hard numbers, but observers in the Institute for Oriental Studies in Moscow recently cited a larger figure of around four thousand fighters from the Russian Federation, and seven thousand from the former Soviet Union. Iranian sources are claiming that there are seven thousand fighters from Central Asia alone in Syria and that that around twenty percent of Islamic State commanders hail from Central Asia. Whether the numbers are increasing or whether the discrepancy is due to the difficulty in obtaining accurate figures, is hard to say.
A Tajikistan government source was quoted as saying that around three hundred Tajik fighters have been killed in Syria and Iraq, and two hundred remain there. What’s more, the parents of twenty fighters have approached the Tajikistan government for help in returning their sons stranded near the Syria-Turkish border.
It is well known that there are websites for recruiting fighters in Russian and other languages of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Russian social networking sites such as “V-kontakte” and “Odnoklassniki” also carried content and calls to arms until those accounts were recently shut down. Other sites, such as “Telegram” have proven more difficult to control Recruitment techniques vary from pure ideology to money. A common theme in these messages is the reestablishment of the caliphate.
But very recently many Russian-language insurgent sites and blogs have simply gone silent. It is difficult to say whether this is due to the accuracy of the Russian airstrikes or greater caution by the fighters – who in at least one instance accidentally revealed their location: in April, the Chechen-led “Al-Aqsa” brigade in Syria posted a photograph of a training camp in Al-Raqqa, Syria, but forgot to deactivate the “location finder” on a the Russian social networking site “V-kontakte.” Government sources in Tajikistan consider the internet-silence to be the result both of increased fatalities among Tajik fighters and increased disillusionment and desertion. A huge number of Central Asians find employment in Russia, especially in the Russian capital, crossing the Russian border without requiring a visa. Thus it is not only the Russian citizens fighting in Syria and the possibility of their return. Europe is already faced with similar problem.
Now let us talk about Iran’s interests in Syria. Media and experts have commented much on the importance of Bashar Asad’s government as an ally to Iran and Syria as a bridge to Hezbollah in Lebanon and as a buffer zone between Iran and Israel. This is true, and it is no less true that the current chaotic violence in neighboring Syria could be devastating to Iran were it to spread further. It should also be remembered that Iran and Syria have signed a mutual defense treaty, each promising to intervene on the other’s behalf in case of outside aggression from a third party.
As far Iranian proposals for resolving the conflict, Fars news agency has published a four-point plan for Syria from a high-ranking Iranian government source. Parts of this plan have been echoed by other Iranian officials, and it coincides roughly with the Russian proposals, although the Iranians emphasize the need to revise the Syrian constitution and end foreign intervention as soon as hostilities have ended. The plan is:
Number one: Immediate cessation of hostilities.
Number two: the formation of a federal government in which the interests of all segments of the Syrian population are represented, i.e., religious and ethnic groups.
Number three: revising the Syrian constitution to protect and provide representation for the different ethnicities and confessions that comprise the Syrian population. I have heard this referred to as “Lebanization” since Lebanon’s constitution offers similar guarantees to the different groups that make up its varied population; but it should be noted that the Iranian constitution itself also offers protection and parliamentary seats to ethno-religious minorities.
Number four: Any new leadership and changes to government institutions must be effected through elections with the participation of international observers.
According to the source, this plan is currently being reviewed by Turkey, Qatar, Egypt and UN Security Council members.
Speaking in Sochi in October of this year at the “Valdai Discussion Club,” Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani, outlined his country’s perspective on the conflict in Syria, a perspective that shares much with the views expressed by President Putin and Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov: specifically, that the problems in Syria are part of a regional collapse in security that will require the efforts of all regional players to correct. A strong and stable Syria will be unlikely with chaos next door in Iraq, or even in Afghanistan. Two points that Iranian and Russian officials have both emphasized are that the Syrian people must choose their own government and that the territorial integrity of Syria must be preserved.
Coordination between Russia and Iran
During the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, many Russian cammentators questioned the wisdom of Russia’s support for a deal between Iran and the P5+1. Would a stronger Iran turn its back on Russia? Would Iranian oil flAd the market and hurt the Russian economy? In other words: what was “in it” for Russia? Perhaps now in the joint Iranian-Russian efforts in Syria, we are seeing that the two countries had more developed plans for working together than was presumed.
Iranian deputy minister of foreign affairs, советник по арабским странам и странам Африки, Abdollahian stated this month that Iran is currently only consulting Russia providing informational support while actual military operations are carried out by the Syrian government and Russian armies but there have been rumors that Iran is preparing to send seven thousand troops to Syria. In additional cooperation, Russia, Iran, Syria and Iraq have created a shared intelligence base to battle terrorism in the region, and Russian missiles launched from the Caspian Sea cross Iranian airspace on their path to targets in Syria. In a move not directly related to Syria but indicative of closer ties, Russia is again preparing to sell S-300 anti-aircraft installations to Iran.
Russia has also provided diplomatic support for Iran, as Moscow considers achieving peace in the region an impossible dream without the participation of Iran. Thus the Kremlin consistently lobbied for Iran’s inclusion in the Geneva and other talks on resolving the Syrian conflict.
Iran, for its part, has enthusiastically supported the Russian aerial offensive. House speaker Ali Larijani has praised the Russian campaign in Syria as being highly effective, citing terrorism there as one of the main obstacles to peace. When US sources claimed that Russian missiles malfunctioned and crashed in Iran on their way to Syria, Iran denied the claim, branding it as part of an information war waged by the US against Russia.
Nonetheless, the Russo-Iranian alliance is not seamless — not without some internal differences — and should perhaps better be called a partnership for now…. At times, these differences even escalate into competition.
Let me mention a few points worth remembering about these two partners in Syria….. Iran is a religious state, and thus takes confessional issues into account in its foreign policy – although that is not to say that Iran only supports Shia groups: witness its strong relations with Armenia, much to the chagrin of Shia Azerbaijan. Russia is a secular state. While the fates of Christian communities in Syria are certainly an important factor for Russia, the driving calculus of the Kremlin is secular.
Although both countries are often characterized as vertical power structures in which dissent is absent, in Iran, for instance, there are internal disagreements as to how close the Russo-Iranian alliance should or can be There are basically two political trends in Iranian politics. President Rouhani and his team represent the reformist camp; while the conservative line is held by certain parliamentarians, a paramilitary group called the Revolutionary Guard, and the highest religious authority in the country and the government, the so-called “Supreme Guide” Ayallotah Khamenei. It is often difficult to discern when disagreements between these groups are real or staged. Theoretically, all statements by the Iranian president and other high-ranking officials have the approval of Ayatollah Khamenei, who is thought often to send contradictory messages through different channels, either to appeal to different audiences (domestic and foreign) or perhaps to muddy the waters as to the country’s real intentions.
And yet The Syrian question is a focal point of disagreement between the reformist and radical camps in Iranian politics, with hot
as well as debate over the degree to which Iran’s military should be involved in Syria and the wisdom of footing the bill for such intervention and providing financial support for Assad’s government.
One reported fissure in the Russian-Iranian coordination in Syria concerns the question of president Assad’s role in the future of the country. Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov’s recent indication that a Assad’s future presence would not be essential for Russia, drew criticism from the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, who apparently said Russia was acting in its own interests, implying it had abandoned an earlier agreement with Iran. This was quickly played down in subsequent official statements by the Iranian government.
But the incident would seem to contradict the basic principles both Russian and Iran have set forth for Syria: that the people of Syria must come to a consensus about their government via elections, the results of which might or might not include Bashar Assad. One wonders, then, what the Iranian commander’s words really were and whether they represented a real split.
At the end of his October speech at the “Valdi Discussion Club” Larijani emphasized the difficulty of the task ahead in Syria, of defeating terrorism in the region and the need to prepare for a long-term struggle. His words were certainly addressed to his Russian counterparts, in addition to others: “The biggest question is whether this new lineup of forces, which must be lasting, can be created without a theory of strategic coalition?”
I read this as Larijani asking: Is the partnership forming between Russian and Iran one of temporary convenience or something more? The two countries cannot be said to be united by ideology so, is there a larger strategy behind their partnership? Many in Iran see Russia as a fair-weather friend. Russian delays in the construction of Iran’s nuclear power plant in Bushehr and the backing out of a deal to sell Iran S-300 anti-aircraft installations are widely believed in Iran to have been due to pressure from the United States and/or Israel, perhaps in a exchange for Russian WTO membership. What’s more, culturally and historically, the last centuries of the Russian Empire and the wars and territory Iran lost to it loom large in the Iranian consciousness.
“The fight against terrorism cannot be considered a tactical and short-term project. We will need to work hard and long to create a new security system in the region. … we need to develop long-term strategic ties, … including … cultural, political, economic and security relations to help responsible countries develop trust for each other and to start strengthening this trust.”
Russia’s consistent diplomatic support of Iran in recent years and statements like Larijani’s above seem to indicate (iндiкэйт) that, for better or for worse, both countries are taking a potential alliance more seriously now, despite efforts to drive a wedge between them. Such an alliance, especially if part of a larger coalition and if truly used to promote stability and empower the peoples of the region, could be a powerful force for positive change in a region that has benefitted little in past decades from Western intervention.
* Lana (Svetlana) Ravandi-Fadai (PhD), Senior Researcher of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, is the author of over 50 scholarly works.