Iran in Syria – the Growing Rivalry with Russia

and the Continuation of the Establishment Strategy in the Shadow of the Economic Crisis and the Corona Virus

Despite the economic crisis and the Corona, Iran continues to fight for its status and for the advance of its strategic goals in Syria. Alongside its partnership with Russia against the Western countries in Syria, there is an apparent growing rivalry between Russia and Iran over the influence in Syria. Therefore, Iran is taking diverse steps to increase its grip on the country.

As a decade since the outbreak of war in Syria approaches, Iran is far from fulfilling most of its strategic goals in Syria, although it continues to assert its determination in achieving its strategic goals, despite the difficulties that stand in its way. The obstacles that stand in its path are not only the increasing American sanctions and Israeli attacks, but also mainly Russia and to some extent the economic elite in Syria. Admittedly, Iran has managed to preserve Assad’s rule, its strategic ally, thus fulfilling the main objective Tehran had set for itself in Syria. As a result, Iran also managed to fulfill another strategic objective of preserving the direct land passage to Lebanon, in general, and to Hezbollah in particular. However, Iran achieved these targets only after inviting Russia to join the military campaign in the summer of 2015. According to a senior IRGC commander, Mohammad Jafar Asadi, Commander of Iranian forces in Syria for a period, Qassem Soleimani persuaded Putin in their meeting in Moscow, to intervene militarily in Syria, after warning of the dangerous consequences Russia itself would have if Syria (as he described, “the last outpost of the Eastern front”) should it fall into Western hands.(1) Tehran was willing to pay the price involved – the loss of its premiere to Russia in Syria – following the actual danger to the survival of the Assad regime.

Russia’s immersion in Syria directly hit two other Iranian strategic goals in Syria: Turning Syria into a forward base facing Israel, and the exploitation of the war aiming at increasing Iranian influence in Syria. The strategic understandings between Russia and Israel, which make it easier for Israel to carry out serial counter-terrorism activities against Iran in Syria, surprised Tehran, which so far has difficulty in finding a tangible solution to the Israeli activities. According to reports, the coordination mechanism between Jerusalem and Moscow continues, and thus Russia receives early warning of Israeli attacks, allowing it to prepare accordingly on the ground.(2) Russia’s ambassador to Tehran, Levan Dzhagaryan, told the Iranian daily Etemad in mid-June 2020 that “good cooperation between Russia and Israel is not directed against any third country,”(3) reflects Russia’s consistent refusal of Iran’s request to reduce its coordination with Israel against the Iranian alignment in Syria. It seems that in addition to Russia’s opposition to the Iranian expansion plan in Syria, Moscow also has reservations about Iran’s military establishment strategy in Syria. This is because it entails significant military tension with Israel, which precludes any possibility of starting to rehabilitate the infrastructures in Syria. In previous years, Russia has cooperated (from the air and from the ground) with the Iranian establishment efforts in Syria, in light of the common aspiration in reaching a decisive outcome against Assad’s opponents. However, since reaching a decisive victory in the war, it is clear that the growing rivalry between Tehran and Moscow in Syria is growing, even as their partnership against US-led Western policy in the international arena in general, and in Syria in particular continues to coexist. Tehran strives not to overtly express its disagreements with Russia in Syria. However, in March 2019, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Jaberi Ansari explicitly stated the above, saying, Russia had never sided with Iran against Israel and that the Iran-Russian partnership would be disbanded as soon as the Assad regime is secured, and that Iran shall continue its course of operating against Israel from Syria.(4)   Accordingly, Iran and Russia are each trying to strengthen their influence on the country’s security establishment at the expense of the other, inter alia by appointing their loyal people to senior positions.(5)  As the Iranian media itself acknowledged, the highlight of these efforts on Russia’s part was the purge of the security establishment from elements loyal to Iran, starting with the president’s brother, Maher Assad.(6)  In addition, in light of this conflict, the struggles for influence continue, as also the exchange of fire and bloody incidences. These violent incidents, which reflect Russia’s aspiration to increase its influence in the country at the expense of Iran, are taking place both in the strategic Deir ez-Zor province in eastern Syria(7), and in the area of the Syrian Golan Heights, two areas where Quds Forces headquarters are located in Syria.(8)  In a clear subversive move against the IRGC, Russia courted Abdullah Salahi, a senior field commander in the Fatemiyoun militia, made up of Afghan operatives and backed by Quds Forces, stationed in Deir ez-Zor. As part of the courtship, Russian Military Chief Col. Gen. Aleksandr Dvornikov offered Salahi (whom he personally knew from his cooperation in the 2016 Tadmor battles in which the city returned to Assad’s control) advanced Russian weapons from Moscow and various training instructions, in exchange for cooperating at the expense of Iran.(9)

Abdullah Salahi, Senior Commander of the pro-Iranian Fatemiyoun militia courted by Russia(10)

In the face of this development, Iran is trying to preserve and even increase its hold on the region, among other things by offering economic incentives to locals in Deir ez-Zor.(11)  The Iranian media also claimed that the Assad regime’s agreement with Iranian oil companies in Block 12 in the Deir ez-Zor province is not only a response to US sanctions and Caesar’s act against Syria, but also an explicit statement towards Russia, stating that Damascus will not leave Iran “its most credible and important ally”, despite pressures from Russia.(12) The visits of IRGC Air Force Commander Amir-Ali Hajizadeh (April 29, 2020) and Quds Forces Commander Esmail Ghaani (June 7, 2020) to Abu Kamal can attest to the great strategic importance Tehran attributes to this region and its determination to maintain its hold there.  

In fact, as early as July 2018, Iranian researchers, Mustafa Najafi and Hamid-Reza Azizi warned that alongside Russian-Iranian cooperation in Syria, there are important strategic issues that cloud the continuation of this cooperation. Such issues as; Russia’s lack of commitment to Assad and the anti-Israel character of the post-war Syrian regime, Russia’s refusal of Iran’s initiative to annex 20,000 pro – Iranian trans-national Shiite militias to the Syrian army as part of the struggle for influence over the Syrian army,(13) controversy issues over the remaining of forces of the Iran-led resistance axis in Syria and Iranian fears of a Russian-Western deal at the expense of Iran.(14)

In the face of the ongoing Russian attempt to suppress the Iranian influence and presence in Syria as much as possible, Iran has taken several steps: Firstly, the military agreement signed with Syria during the visit of Iranian Chief of Staff Mohammad Bagheri to Damascus in July 2020, was also aimed at Moscow (and not just towards the US and Israel). Although most of the terms of the agreement remain confidential, Bagheri stated that under the agreement, Iran would strengthen Syria’s air defense capabilities.(15)

The Iranian television channel Al-Alam presented the agreement in response to “Caesar’s act” and “Israeli aggression”,(16)  but the agreement seems to reflect an Iranian initiative to compensate for its disappointment that Russia is not operating its advanced air defense systems against Israel in Syria, particularly the anti-aircraft S-300 missiles. In addition, Tehran seems to be signaling Moscow that it will not be able to ignore Iran’s interests in Syria. Iranian Armed Forces spokesperson Abolfazl Shekarchi claimed after the agreement, that the Iranian-led resistance axis would inflict a defeat on Israel if it attacked Syria again.(17) However, given the fact that the two countries have signed a series of agreements in the past, including military ones that have not been fulfilled, it is yet to be seen if the current agreement will actually be implemented.

Iranian Chief of Staff Bagheri meets with Assad in Damascus, 9 July, 2020 (18)

At the same time, despite the severe economic crisis in its revolutionary history, Tehran continues its efforts to expand its socio-cultural penetration in Deir ez-Zor district. Thus, it is trying to penetrate the younger population in the area through the initiation of the Scout Youth Movement (“Kashafat al-Imam”), the al-Rasul al-A’zam, al-Thaqalayn and Jihad al-Bina charitable foundations.(19)  The Jihad al-Bina foundation also serves Iran for founding one of its main military bases in Syria, the Imam Ali, which is located near Abu Kamal, which has been attacked by Israel several times.(20) In addition, the “Institute of Bright Light” (Mu’asat al-Nur al-Sate) expected to open this month is a cultural center in Deir ez-Zor designed to teach Syrian children, aged 6-15 the Persian language. Each student will receive a scholarship totaling 20 Syrian pounds a month, along with additional economic incentives for outstanding students.(21) According to the report, Iran intends to establish similar institutions in Abu Kamal (alongside an Iranian cultural center already operating in the city), al-Mayadeen and Al-Muhasan (all in Deir ez-Zor province). Syrian journalist Ahmad al-Ramadan, covering the events in eastern Syria, explained that through this institution, Iran seeks to spread the Shia among the youth in the region. This, along with the distribution of food baskets and gifts that Iran distributes to residents in the area as well as the construction of its clinics, in order to attract the local population or at least gain their support.(22)

Another Iranian ambition in Syria that is facing difficulties is gaining access to the Mediterranean Sea. Iran has been promoting this ambition for years attempting to build an additional supply route to Syria (and Hezbollah) via the sea. As opposed to Russia, which managed to take advantage of the war in Syria to establish its naval presence in the country,(23) Tehran faces ongoing difficulties in this area. Syria has not yet handed over the management of Latakia port to Iran, even though, Hassan Danaeifar, who heads the headquarters for expanding economic ties between Iran and Iraq and Syria, himself a senior Quds Force official, stated in July 2019, that by March 2020 Syria would transfer port management over to Iran, following agreements reached in feverish negotiations between the two sides.(24) Apparently, it was consistent opposition from Russia and the economic elites in Syria that prevented Iran from maintaining a naval presence in the Syrian ports. Despite this, Iran is trying to fulfil its ambition to maintain a foothold on the Syrian coast, and to that end, it is promoting the establishment of a free trade zone with Syria in the port of Hamidiyah, 20 km south of the port of Tartus.(25) In addition, Iran is pushing to implement the project agreed upon with Iraq, which is expected to connect the city of Shalamcheh (southwestern Iran) with Latakia, through Basra in southern Iraq. Accordingly, during his meeting in Tehran with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kazemi in July 2020, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani urged the implementation of the project, which has been delayed even though it was agreed upon about ten years ago.(26) Tehran is also far from realizing its ambition to take advantage of the war and rake in economic gains in Syria.(27)  Senior Iranian officials on numerous occasions, including in front of Assad personally, expressed Tehran’s expectation to play a significant role in rebuilding Syria’s infrastructure. However, despite various agreements between Iran and Syria, Iranian expectations have been disappointed. The latest tangible expression of Iranian disappointment recognized is in the statement of the outgoing chairperson of the Iranian Parliamentary Committee on National Security, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, “We probably gave $20 billion to $30 billion to Syria and we have to get it back from Syria.”(28)  This amount probably reflects only part of Iran’s investment in Syria. As early as 2019, estimates in the West regarding the extent of Iran’s economic aid to Syria since the outbreak of the 2011 civil war range from tens of billions of dollars to more than one hundred billion dollars. In February 2020, a senior Quds Force official, Hassan Palarak, chairman of the the Reconstruction Organization of the Holy Shrines (one of the associations serving Quds Forces in Syria), stated that Assad had already decided to leave Syria and seek political asylum but withdrew from his decision after Soleimani convinced him that the Iran-led resistance axis could secure the survival of his rule.(29) This statement seems to reflect Tehran’s desire to notify Assad that he owes Tehran his reign, and is therefore committed to allowing it a significant security-economic foothold in the country. The continuation of Tehran-Damascus flights in recent months, the increase in the number of attacks attributed to Israel against Iran’s establishment in Syria, along with Iran’s efforts to maintain its grip in the Deir ez- Zor province, reflects Iran’s determination to establish itself in Syria, despite the Corona crisis and the difficult economic situation of Tehran. The growing rivalry with Russia over the political and security influence in Syria adds an important tier to the range of challenges facing Iran in Syria. The coming months will provide a clearer picture of Russia’s success in marginalizing Iran in Syria, as well as of the countermeasures Tehran is promoting to face the Russian efforts.

  1. Asadi: “The Battle for the Liberation of the Golan is Certain; The 140-Minute Meeting between Putin and Soleimani”, Tasnim (Iran), July 15, 2019,
    https://www.tasnimnews.com/fa/news/1398/04/24/2053975
  2. “Russian intervention in Syria 57 months on | Return of Russian airstrikes on ‘de-escalation zone’… growing security tension between 5th Corps and 4th Division… renewed skirmishes with US forces”, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 30 June 2020, https://www.syriahr.com/en/173210/
  3. “Russian Ambassador to Tehran, Levan Dzhagaryan, in an interview with Etemad: The United States has no right to play on the issue of the nuclear deal, Etemad (Iran), 16 June 2020, http://www.etemadnewspaper.ir/fa/main/detail/149253
  4. “Hossein Jabari Ansari in an Interview with Etemad: Power and Influence in the Region has a Price”, Etemad (Iran), 6 March 2019,
    http://www.etemadnewspaper.ir/fa/main/detail/121392
  5. “Columnist in Syrian Daily Close to Assad Regime: As Russia-Iran Disagreements in Syria Increase, Each One Pressures Regime to Accept its Initiative for the Region”, The Middle East Media Research Institute Special dispatch No. 8022, 25 April 2019, https://www.memri.org/reports/columnist-syrian-daily-close-assad-regime-russia-iran-disagreements-syria-increase-each-one
  6. “Fighting between Iranian and Russian-Backed Forces in Syria: “Why Russia is Trying to Oust Maher Assad?”, Tabnak (Iran), 8 March 2019, https://www.tabnak.ir/fa/print/883947
  7. “By Order of the Russians, a Campaign of Arrests Targets Figures Affiliated with Iran in Deir Ez-Zor”, en.deirezzor24.net, 15 July 2020, https://en.deirezzor24.net/by-order-of-the-russians-a-campaign-of-arrests-targets-figures-affiliated-with-iran-in-deir-ezzor/amp/?fbclid=IwAR0UjFiPrUqUEwt4aNoO6iDxDoMjJ_w0gxaAUJ9isxAE2cB4a7B9T4QUZ9Q&__twitter_impression=true; “Russia Squares Up to Iran in Syria as Part of ‘Pact’ With Israel”, Iran Wire, 21 July 2020, https://iranwire.com/en/features/7336
  8. “Russia and Aligned Former Opposition Fighters Leverage Growing Anti-Assad Sentiment to Expand Control in Southern Syria”, Institute for the Study of War, 17 July 2020, https://www.iswresearch.org/2020/07/russia-and-aligned-former-opposition.html?spref=tw;
  9. “Russia Spreads in Areas under Iranian Influence in Eastern Syria”, Diyaruna.com, 5 May 2020, https://diyaruna.com/fa/articles/cnmi_di/features/2020/05/05/feature-02
  10. Ibid.
  11. “Iran’s Militias Meet with Elders Again… What Happened between Them?”, en.deirezzor24.net, 2 May 2020, https://en.deirezzor24.net/irans-militias-meet-with-elders-again-what-happened-between-them/
  12. “Syria’s New Oil Deal with Iran and its Messages, iswnews.com, May 8, 2020, https://iswnews.com/31382/%D9%82%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%AF-%D8%AC%D8%AF%DB%8C%D8%AF-%D9%86%D9%81%D8%AA%DB%8C-%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%B1%DB%8C%D9%87-%D8%A8%D8%A7-%D8%A7%DB%8C%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86-%D9%88-%D9%BE%DB%8C%D8%A7%D9%85/
  13. According to Mustafa Najafi, in light of Putin’s statement that all Iranian forces must withdraw from Syria, Iran has obtained Assad’s consent to annex 53,000 operatives supported by Quds forces into the Syrian army. “Ebtekar Reviews the Claims of Withdrawal of Iranian Forces from Syria”, Ebtekar (Iran), 27 May 2020, http://ebtekarnews.com/?newsid=156881
  14. “The Future of the Iran-Russian Partnership in the Syrian Crisis”, Political and International Approach, Winter 2018., Volume 2, 81-86. http://ensani.ir/file/download/article/1560142727-9665-97-106.pdf
  15. “Military Cooperation Agreement between Iran and Syria”, Tasnim (Iran), 8 July 2020 https://www.tasnimnews.com/fa/news/1399/04/18/2302727
  16. “Iran and Syria and the Strategy of force “, Al-Alam (Iran), 11 July 2020, https://www.alalamtv.net/news/5040951
  17. “The Senior Spokesman for the Armed Forces Warns: Zionists Will See Iran’s Superior Hand if Evil Continues, Tasnim (Iran), 16 July 2020, https://www.tasnimnews.com/fa/news/1399/04/26/2308125
  18. 20 July 2020, https://vaghayerooz.ir/fa/news/3380
  19. “Shi’ization, Teaching Persian Language and Paying Money: Ways of Iran’s Influence in Syria,”
    Iran Wire, 7 June 2020, https://iranwire.com/fa/features/39284
  20. Oula A. Alrifai, “What Is Iran Up To in Deir ez-Zor?”, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, PolicyWatch 3198, 10 October 2019, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/what-is-iran-up-to-in-deir-al-zour
  21. “Shi’ization, Teaching Persian Language and Paying Money”, Iran Wire, 7 June 2020
  22. Ibid.
  23. See for example the lease of the port of Tartus to Russia for 49 years, “Syria Parliament Okays Russian Lease of Tartus Port: State Media”, The National (UAE), 13 June 20129, https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/syria-parliament-okays-russian-lease-of-tartus-port-state-media-1.873977
  24. “Hassan Danaeifar, Secretary-General for the Development of Economic Relations between Iran and Iraq and Syria in an interview with Vatan-e-Amrooz: Port Management of Latakia in Western Syria will be Transferred to Iran This Year”, Vatan-e-Amrooz (Iran), July 3, 2019, http://www.vatanemrooz.ir/Newspaper/BlockPrint/211089
  25. “Iran Considering Establishment of Free Trade Zone in Syria”, Tehran Times (Iran), 21 July 2020, https://www.tehrantimes.com/print/450293/Iran-considering-establishment-of-free-trade-zone-in-Syria
  26. “Rouhani at Press Conference with Mustafa al-Kazemi: Iran and Iraq Determined to Increase Trade Ties to $ 20 Billion”, Quds (Iran), 21 July 2020,
    http://www.qudsonline.ir/print/712863
  27. “Former Iranian Official Dr. Hossein Samsami: Our Intervention In Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan Is For Ideological Reasons, But We Also Stand To Gain Economically”, MEMRITV, Clip 8064, 5 June 2020, https://www.memri.org/tv/former-iranian-official-samsami-intervention-countries-region-ideological-reasons-but-also-economic-gain
  28. “Clear things from Falahatpisheh: “We Probably Gave $20 Billion to $30 Billion to Syria and We Have to Get It Back from Syria” Hamshahri (Iran), 20 May 2020, https://www.hamshahrionline.ir/news/513714/%D8%AD%D8%B1%D9%81-%D9%87%D8%A7%DB%8C-%D8%B4%D9%81%D8%A7%D9%81-%D9%81%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%AD%D8%AA-%D9%BE%DB%8C%D8%B4%D9%87-%DB%B3%DB%B0-%D9%85%DB%8C%D9%84%DB%8C%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%AF-%D8%AF%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D8%A8%D9%87-%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%B1%DB%8C%D9%87-%D9%BE%D9%88%D9%84-%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%AF%DB%8C%D9%85
  29. Memories of 40 Years of Friendship with Soleimani”, Fars (Iran), 10 February 2020, https://www.farsnews.ir/news/13981119000183

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Picture of Dr. Yossi Mansharof

Dr. Yossi Mansharof

2 Responses

  1. Dr. Mansharof,
    Thank you for your analysis. Just a note; I am assuming that most readers have difficulty following a chess match without the aid of a chess board, i.e. the addition of an annotated map would lend a great deal of clarity for the reader as he/she tries to visualize the parties’ tactical initiatives in light of their geo-political objectives.

    Thanks again,
    Steve Gilbert

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