Russian Intervention Reveals Assad’s Wariness of Iran

Russia’s involvement means Syria no longer needs to rely exclusively on its more controlling ally.

Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem is received by Iranian president Hassan Rouhani in Tehran, August 5
Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem is received by Iranian president Hassan Rouhani in Tehran, August 5 (Presidency of Iran)

Syria’s Bashar Assad hasn’t only welcomed support from his patron Russia because it helps him fend off a stubborn insurrection; it also gives him more bargaining power vis-à-vis his other ally, Iran, which has grown increasingly controlling, according to Germany’s Der Spiegel.

The news magazine reports that Syria’s Alawite elite has become frustrated with the Iranians whom they see treating the country as a colony.

Beyond providing military support that has proved decisive in keeping anti-Assad rebels at bay, Iran has opened religious centers in the country that seek to convert both Alawites and Sunnis to “correct” Shia Islam. The government decreed one year ago that state-run religion institutions were to teach Shiite material.

Iranian emissaries have also been buying up buildings and land in Damascus, the capital, to resettle Shiites.

The Times of Israel, basing itself on stories in Arab media, recently reported that Iranian forces were helping to raze homes in Damascus to force Sunni residents out.

Reports surfaced early in the war of Alawite hit squads cleansing Sunni towns in the Nusayriyah Mountains that shield Assad’s homeland in the northwest from the rest of Syria.

Alawites are perturbed by Iran’s encroachment. “They are throwing us back a thousand years,” Der Spiegel reports some complaining. “We don’t even wear headscarves and we aren’t Shiites.”

The Russians, by contrast, are welcomed in the Alawite provinces of Syria, The Guardian newspaper reports.

People greet the few foreigners who visit with a cheerful Russian “Dobry den!” and shout out their enthusiasm for President [Vladimir] Putin who they believe will deliver them from terrorism.

Syrian propaganda has told them that Europe and the United States support the self-declared Islamic State, a fanatical Islamist group that is in fact daily bombed by Western jets.

Russia has also carried out airstrikes in recent days but most were aimed at militants unaffiliated with the Islamic State operating on the frontier of Assad’s territory. Rebels near Hama were reportedly targeted as were militants in Idlib Province.

Idlib fell into the hands of a rebel coalition last month that includes the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s Syrian branch, and is supported by Qatar and Turkey.

After Assad pulled out his forces, Iran — apparently without consulting his government — negotiated a truce that would allow Shia Muslims to flee Idlib. In return, Sunni rebels and their families would be allowed to leave Zabadani, a hill station on the Lebanese border.

The Atlantic Sentinel warned last week that the ceasefire could be harbinger of further population transfers and ethnic cleansing.

Der Spiegel believes that the proposed truce reveals that Iran no longer believes Assad can win a war that is now in its fifth year.

It also shows that Syria’s partitioning has begun — “including confessional cleansing.”

With Russian support, Assad is hunkering down in a strip of territory that runs from Latakia in the north via Homs and Damascus to the Jordanian border. This area includes the country’s Alawites, Christians and Druze and leaves the Sunni-majority east to what is now the Islamic State.

But such a remnant Syrian state would still have hundreds of thousands if not millions of Sunni residents.

Other rebel groups hold territory in the north, around Idlib, and in the far south while Kurdish separatists control the border with Turkey.