The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, made it very clear where his country stood in February 2013 when he answered speculation that Russia might intervene to stop the implosion of Syrian state structures in a war that by then had been raging for more than three years: “We will not be fighting for our positions … and creating ‘another Afghanistan’ for ourselves. Never, under no circumstances!”
When, in September 2015, Russia began airstrikes in support of the Syrian army’s troops, it was the first Russian military deployment in the Middle East since the infamous Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s. But Russia had always insisted that this was a limited air campaign and, five months after the start of the bombing campaign the following March, Moscow announced it was reducing its military presence in Syria.
The Russian use of the Nojeh air base near Hamedan in western Iran in August then surprised many observers who saw it as a departure from Iran’s usual policy of covert operations in regional conflicts. It was also surprising given Tehran’s sensitivity when it comes to perceived encroachments on Iranian sovereignty. After just a week, Iran announced that situation has come to an end for the time being – although Tehran does not rule out Russian use of the airbase again, depending on “the situation in the region, and according to our permission”.
At the Munich security conference in February 2016, Russian prime minister Dmitri Medvedev spelled out Russia’s motivations in supporting the Assad regime: “We must preserve Syria as a union state and prevent its dissolution … the world will not survive another Libya, Yemen or Afghanistan”. On a regional level, Russia believes, the void would be filled by militant Islamists, the latter of which would pose a security concern on Russia’s southern border.
Regime change in Syria forced by external powers is a scenario Russia wants to avoid at all costs. Russia saw the result of the NATO intervention in Libya as a lesson to be learned about external powers trying to force regime change – as Lavrov sourly observed: “By distorting the mandate obtained from the UN Security Council to secure a no-fly zone, NATO simply interfered in the war under the flag of protecting the civilian population,” he said.
US-led intervention in Libya was widely seen in Russia as not Washington “leading from behind” as the US president, Barack Obama, insists, but an example of the White House following Saudi foreign policy, as Dmitri Trenin writes.
Shared means, different ends
On the international stage, Russia and Iran are the two most defiant public backers of the Assad regime, even though their respective motivations differ. Where Russia sees the necessity to bolster a secular government to indirectly preserve Russian leverage in the region and contain US power, Iran sees the need to support an Alawite regime whose fall would complicate Iranian regional reach into the Levant via Hezbollah.
The ends differ, but the means allow for a geo-strategic convergence of interests between Russia and Iran. The firing of Russian cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea in November 2015, for example, would not have been possible without Tehran allowing the use of Iranian airspace. After an official meeting between Putin and Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, in November 2015, Iranian officials confirmed Iran’s policy to harmonise its stance with Russia’s. This came at a time when the Russian air bombings were already well into their second month.
Russia’s increased intervention in Syria achieved other objectives: it forced the US president into a dialogue with Putin despite Obama’s intention to isolate Russia over its foreign policy in Ukraine. Putin’s address at the UN General Assembly in September 2015 – which made references to an international anti-IS coalition – had to be understood as preparing the ground for Russia’s reintegration into international consultation mechanisms.
On a practical level, US-led anti-Assad forces now needed to avoid collisions with Russian jets operating in the Syrian air space. For the White House, consultations with Moscow became a necessity – much as they had been in US-Russian talks over the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons in 2013.
Russia’s de-escalation of its Syrian operations, announced at a carefully orchestrated meeting between Putin, Lavrov and defence minister Sergey Shoigu five months after the start of the bombing campaign, gave the impression of a surgical operation that had been terminated in an orderly manner. But it was a partial withdrawal – the Tartus and Khmeimim military bases remained operational. This allowed a degree of politically convenient ambiguity.
Russia’s use of an Iranian airbase is a logical extension of its tactical alliance with Iran. It’s a much shorter flying time to Syria from Iran than from southern Russia, so it is the most convenient option short of reusing the Khmeimim base in Syria itself. The added military value may be relatively small, but the regional policy implications are enormous.
Yet, it is important to remember that Iran and Russia are far from traditional allies – their mutual mistrust is only temporarily put aside for an issue-specific cooperation on Syria. The fact that Russia stopped using the Nojeh airbase after just one week underlines the temporary and selective nature of Russian-Iranian cooperation – as Iran’s defence minister Hossein Dehqan said: “The Russians did not come to stay for good”. Iran was not particularly happy about Russia’s public boast about its use of the airbase – the presence of foreign powers in Iran has always been a sticky issue, both historically and constitutionally.
For Russia, cooperation with Iran is a marriage of convenience rather than a genuine strategic alliance. For Iran, allowing Russians to operate from its territory is remarkable given Tehran’s longstanding resentment about Russian historical occupation of parts of Iran. The decision to allow Russian jets to fly from Iran came after the news of rebels breaking the siege of Aleppo – a closer logistical Russo-Iranian cooperation signals a joint stepped-up effort to fight anti-Assad forces.
Iran’s pragmatism here meets Russia’s instrumentalism. Russian and Iranian motivations on Syria differ, but the means have become more compatible. The temporary end of Russia’s use of Iranian air bases may have to do more with different approaches to public diplomacy than with operational disagreements. But the fact that it happened at all was sure to have raised eyebrows in Riyadh, Ankara and Washington.