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Russian-Iranian Conflict Erupts in Deir ez-Zor

  • Kalam Admin

    Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House

There has been increasingly intense conflict between the Syrian regime’s two key allies in the areas west of the Euphrates River in the Deir ez-Zor Governorate.

There has been increasingly intense conflict between the Syrian regime’s two key allies, Russia and Iran, in the areas west of the Euphrates River in the Deir ez-Zor Governorate. Both have tried to establish their presence in and exert control over the economically and geographically strategic areas of the governorate.

The tensions between Russia and Iran became clear during the battle to break the siege on Deir ez-Zor Governorate at the end of 2017, after Russian forces prevented Iranian and Hezbollah-aligned media from entering the city of Mayadin, which the regime had recaptured. Russia limited news coverage to official Syrian media and some Russian channels as part of a plan to take control of Deir ez-Zor and to then take credit for the final battle against ISIS, in order to challenge the general impression that Iran was in charge in Syria.

The conflict between Russia and Iran in the governorate has become increasingly violent since the beginning of 2018. This has included assassinations and arrests targeting military groups on both sides, followed by direct military clashes aiming to take control of strategic points, such as the river crossings as well as densely populated areas such as the Deir ez-Zor city centre.

The most important strikes on pro-Russian targets were the assassination of General Issam Zahreddine on 18 October 2017 – the Syrian regime claimed it was due to a landmine explosion – and the killing of a Russian officer in June 2018. In both cases, Russia accused Iran of being behind the attacks. Russia detained dozens of Shia militia fighters in response, and refused to provide aerial protection for Iran-aligned forces, particularly during the repeated ISIS attacks on the city of Al-Bu Kamal.

On the Syrian-Iraqi border, Al-Bu Kamal is an important theatre in the conflict between Russia and Iran over Deir ez-Zor. The city has been under Iran’s full control, and is considered the most important part of the land bridge that Iran secured connecting Tehran and the Mediterranean through Iraq and Syria. They consider holding it a top priority.

Russia, which is aware of Iranian ambitions for Al-Bu Kamal, has during the past several days sent military reinforcements, including soldiers and military machinery, to the countryside near the city in order to strengthen the Russian presence and the National Defence Forces, as a first step in their efforts to undermine Iranian control over the city. The National Defence Forces – whose membership in Deir ex-Zor is largely Sunni, unlike in other parts of Syria – has aligned itself with Russia as the strongest external actor in the governorate.

Russia and its allies have also recently had the upper hand in the battle for the river crossings – which connect the areas controlled by the Syrian regime and the areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces in Deir ez-Zor – after Iranian-aligned militias that had previously controlled the river crossings were expelled from the area. The most important of these crossings are the Shumeteya and Al-Junaynah crossings in the countryside near western Deir ez-Zor, as well as the Al-Salihiyah, Marrat, Meri’iyaeh and Boqruss crossings in the eastern parts of the countryside. The river crossings can generate huge profits on a daily basis due to the smuggling of petrol and foodstuffs between the banks of the Euphrates, and the fact that the smugglers and locals must pay a commission to the group controlling the crossings.

The outcome of the Russian-Iranian conflict in the Deir ez-Zor Governorate ultimately depends on local military forces, including those loyal to Russia (such as the Fifth Corps), the Syrian security forces and other parts of the Syrian army. Iran, for its part, depends on both local and foreign Shia militias, including the Al-Baqir Brigade and military factions composed of residents of the Shia villages of Hatla and Marrat, as well as Hezbollah and Afghani and Iraqi militias operating in the governorate.

A larger struggle: Russia and Iran

The ongoing power struggle between Russia and Iran in Deir ez-Zor is not the first of its kind; it comes after similar struggles in the western countryside near the coast of Syria, as well as in the Aleppo governorate, the south of Damascus and in Daraa.

According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who spoke to president Bashar al-Assad during their recent meeting in Sochi, Moscow’s efforts are not limited to reducing Iranian influence in Syria, but rather seeking to remove Iran from Syria entirely. He emphasized the need for foreign forces to withdraw from Syria in order to reach a political solution, which the Russian envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, clarified as specifically referring to Iranian forces and Hezbollah, as well as American and Turkish forces.

This statement comes after Russia’s success in helping expand the Assad regime’s control throughout large areas of the country, with the aim of finding a political solution that furthers Russia’s interests in Syria. Russia no longer benefits from the Iranian presence in Syria, since Iran’s presence has disturbed both regional and international forces – especially Israel, which has been targeting Iranian and Iranian-aligned forces in Syria in plain view of Moscow.

There are various signs that Russia has the upper hand in the conflict with Iran. The Russian intervention took place after Russia, not Iran, took part in the Geneva process with the international community. Furthermore, Russia openly signed agreements with the Syrian regime, by virtue of which it assumed control of the Hmeimim Air Base in the Latakia governorate. By contrast, Iranian interventions did not carry this kind of international legitimacy, to the extent that Iran even denies having military bases inside Syrian territory.

The differences in Russia’s approach to intervention also suggest Russian dominance over Iran in Syria. Russia has recently focused its efforts on rehabilitating official military institutions, especially the army, so they can become a more active force. Russia has also tried to attract Syrian youth to enlist, in order to overcome the previous crisis of confidence in the institution.

Iran, by contrast, has directed its energies into spreading its influence through religious doctrine, and through the presence of militias operating outside the official military institution, such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and other militias. These militias ultimately did not become organized according to a shared ideology, and instead became groups of mercenaries that live off looting, smuggling and trafficking in banned goods. Iran also tried to pursue policies promoting demographic change, which made local communities resent Iran’s involvement in the war. These moves have contributed to instability in Syria in the short-term, which is not in Russia’s long-term interest.