(Presented at the European Parliament on November 12, 2015)
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, the Al-Nusra Front, Al Qaeda and any number of other radical military forces. This 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 for talks time and again throughout the civil war. 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.
The next step would be democratic elections. The oft-repeated claim that Russia is insisting on an Assad-led Syria for all time contradicts official statements by Russian diplomats and the Russian president. The Russian position is that changes and amendments in the Syrian government and governmental institutions should be effected through democratic processes, not violence, and by the Syrian people (even including some 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 artificially enforce an old) government for Syria, but to provide the stability and peaceful conditions necessary for real democratic processes.
In addition to the defeat of radical religious fighting forces, the territorial integrity of Syria must be preserved. Moscow is against the “balkanization” of Syria, which would only result in a collection of weak countries divided along ethnic, confessional or political lines and all the more likely to fight among one another in the future.
Another important strategic 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 around 250,000 dead and 11.5 million overall refugees, has been accompanied by unfortunate actions on all sides but at least partially inflamed by ill-advised and poorly controlled US-funding and support 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 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 Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) set the figure of Russian citizens fighting alongside opposition groups in Syria at approximately 1,800. Naturally, it is difficult to obtain hard numbers, but observers in the Institute for Oriental Studies in Moscow more recently cited a larger figure of around 4,000 fighters from the Russian Federation, and 7,000 from the former Soviet Union. These figures have increased alarmingly since the first years of the civil war in Syria. And the problem is not merely radicalized Russian citizens: a huge number of Central Asians find employment in Russia, especially in the Russian capital, crossing the Russian border without requiring a visa. In that sense, post-Soviet territory resembles the European Union and faces many of the same dangers from returning fighters moving with relative freedom among countries within the territory. Iranian sources are claiming that there are 7,000 fighters from Central Asia alone in Syria and that that around 20% of Islamic State commanders hail from Central Asia.
A Tajikistan government source has been quoted as saying that around 300 Tajik fighters have been killed in Syria and Iraq, and 200 remain there. According to the same source, the parents of 20 fighters recently approached the Tajikistan government for help in returning their sons stranded near the Syria-Turkish border.
It is common knowledge that websites exist 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.
Very recently, however, many Russian-language insurgent sites and blogs have simply gone silent of their own accord. 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.
Now let us talk about Iran’s interests in Syria. Media and experts have commented much on the importance of Bashar Assad’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 yet 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 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
1. Immediate cessation of hostilities.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. Any new leadership and changes to government institutions must be realized 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, Russia, in October of this year at the “Valdai Discussion Club,” Iranian Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani, outlined his country’s perspective on the conflict in Syria, a perspective that, again, shares much with the views expressed by President Putin and Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov: 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 negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, many Russian commentators 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 flood 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.
Amir Abdollahian, Iranian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and Counselor on Arab and African States, stated this month that Iran is only providing consultative and informational support to Russia, while actual military operations are being carried out by the Syrian government and Russian armies (there have been rumors of deeper Iranian involvement, however, that Iran is preparing to send 7,000 troops to Syria). Additionally, 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. The Kremlin has 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 praised the Russian campaign in Syria as being highly effective. When US sources claimed that Russian missiles malfunctioned and crashed in Iran on their way to Syria, the official Iranian press rallied to Russia’s defense, denying the claim and branding it as part of an information war against Russia.
Nonetheless, the Russo-Iranian alliance is not seamless 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 partners in Syria. Iran is a religious state, and thus takes confessional issues into account in its foreign policy – namely, the fate of Syrian Shia minority. 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 Iran is often characterized as a vertical power structure devoid of dissent, the Syrian question is nonetheless a focal point of disagreement between the reformist and conservative camps, with 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. The coordination with Russia is viewed differently within Iran: how close should or can the Russo-Iranian alliance be? Many 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 in Iran widely believed to have been due to pressure from the United States and/or Israel, perhaps in a exchange for Russian WTO membership. What’s more, on a cultural and historical level, the wars and territory Iran lost to Russia in the last centuries of the Russian Empire still loom large in the Iranian consciousness.
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 Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov’s recent indication that Assad’s future presence would not be essential for Russia drew criticism from the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who apparently said Russia was acting in its own interests, implying it had abandoned an earlier agreement with Iran. This was quickly downplayed, however, in subsequent official statements by the Iranian government.
The incident looks probable enough at first glance, but would seem to contradict the basic principles both Russia and Iran have set forth for Syria: that the people of Syria must come to a consensus regarding 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. It is often difficult to discern when disagreements between factions in Iran 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.
At the end of his October speech at the “Valdi Discussion Club” in Russia, 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 Russia and Iran one of temporary convenience or something more? As the two countries cannot be said to be united by state ideology, is it possible to construct a larger strategy or framework for their partnership?
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 that 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, alas, 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.