A secret Russian plan sees Syrian regime President Bashar al-Assad as a "burden," reports this week asserted. In this narrative by Asharq Al-Awsat there are hints that Russia, Turkey and Iran will remove Assad and establish a ceasefire that includes the Syrian Democratic Forces. Turkey's TRT believes that Iran has more influence over Assad and agrees that Russia is non-plussed.
We will never fully know what Iran and Russia actually think of Assad or each other's historic role in Syria. What we do know is that a concerted media campaign is being waged to undermine Russia's alliance with Assad and stir the pot between Moscow and Tehran.
When Turkey's state media says that "Bashar al-Assad does not seem to be ready to heed Russia's advice to compromise with his enemies and lay out the country's future as corruption levels move from bad to worse," the message is intended for Moscow. Turkey is saying "work with us in Syria, not Assad, we will help secure the regime." Turkey claims Iran is gaining power in Damascus to embarrass the Assad regime.
The Turkish narrative is that while Iran secures its power over Assad this could hurt Russia's interests in Syria because Syria won't be rebuilt if Assad doesn't budge. But wait. This week the business tycoon and regime insider Rami Makhlouf appeared to split with the Assad regime. That may have been engineered by Russia, reports assert. But why would Russia weaken the hand of its fragile ally which is has invested so much in.
In Russia Sputnik news highlights what it says are recent Israeli airstrikes on Iran's interests in Syria. It argues that Israel will continue operations in Syria to pressure Iran until Iran leaves. Russian sources quoted by Middle East Monitor also push the bombshell claim that Russia and Turkey and Iran would remove Assad. It quotes a former Russian ambassador as asserting that Assad was not ready to reform.
Meanwhile in Tehran the local Tasnim news highlighted a letter from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to Iran's Javad Zarif, in which Lavrov expressed solidarity with Iran against US sanctions. Iran's narrative is that all is well with Russia. Evidence that Iran and Russia are embracing appears to come from recent evidence that Iranian flights flew from Tehran to Russia's Khmeimim air base. This allegedly is due to the fact that when Iranian flights arrive in Tiyas, Shayrat or Mezzeh and other airports that what they unload gets hit with airstrikes. Russia's base is the only place that is protected by serious air defense and which no other country would attack in Syria. Almasdar media claims that Russia has given Iran access to the airbase in a "rare" move.
How does that information fit in with yet other reports that Iran is reducing its presence in Syria? How can Iran be reducing its presence, also shifting flights to a Russian air base and working with Assad and plotting with Russia to remove Assad at the same time? Clearly none of that may be the full story.
Russia wants a strong Syrian regime; Iran wants a weak regime hollowed out by militias.
For several years messaging sought to present Russia and Iran at odds over Syria. Russia wants a strong Syrian regime to survive. Iran wants a weak, decentralized Syrian regime that can be hollowed out by Iranian-backed militias. Iran carves out spheres of influence in Syria, for instance from Albukamal on the border with Iraq to Deir Ezzor and in southern Syria near the Golan and on roads to Lebanon to funnel weapons to Hezbollah, and around Tiyas and Homs, as well as at the Sayyida Zaynab tomb in Damascus. On the other hand there were stories over the years that Russia would somehow help remove Iran's forces, either by purposely not aiding Syrian air defense to stop attacks on them, or even getting groups like Hezbollah to leave.
On the other hand, Syria's regime may be strengthened by willingness to clash with Makhlouf and reduce his role. He was a symbol of corruption. So if that is the case then isn't it in line with Russia's desire to reduce corruption?
Assad seeks to balance Iran's octopus-like grip with Russia's hammer.
"Iran's steadfast support for Assad limits Russia's influence over domestic politics," writes Alexander Bick at the Wilson Center. But Russia can't move Assad much because it has invested so much of its own Russian defense narrative in keeping him as a reliable partner. If Assad is weak, it weakens Russia's hand. But if he is co-opted entirely by Iran and Israel's airstrikes increase then the regime looks weak also. Assad has his own role in this, which is he prefers to balance Iran's octopus-like grip with Russia's hammer. Putin visited Assad in January, a clear sign of support. Iran's foreign minister came to Syria in April. Assad went to Syria in February 2019.
Much remains uncertain in Syria. In late February and early March Syrian regime troops clashed with Turkish troops in Idlib. After initial Syrian successes Turkey claimed to deal the regime a devastating blow. Did Syria's overreach give Russia's its 'headache." Or did Russia engineer the attacks on Turkish troops to show how easily they could be killed and send a message to Ankara that it needed to sign off on a new ceasefire? On March 15 Russia and Turkey began joint patrols on the strategic M4 highway near Aleppo. They completed their 9th patrol this week.
The evidence points to a more complex triangular love affair between Moscow, Tehran and Damascus. The relationships are undermined, and complexity increased by leaks and misinformation that appears in regional media, percolating up from Russian, Turkish, Arabic or Iranian sources. The idea is to leak embarrassing details about who might be "removing Assad" or who got a headache from Assad, whose air defense doesn't work, or who is secretly hoping Israel will harm Iran's interests, who leaked claims to Russian media that Assad bought his wife an expensive painting, and so on.
The problem with Syria, like the Gulf conflict between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, is that the stakes are very high. There at many countries that want to benefit from what happens next. Syria is the gordian knot that ties together America, Russia, Iran, Israel, Turkey; it is the crossroads for Iran's road to the sea, the so-called "Shia crescent" and Russia's ambitions to return to great power status and Turkey's desire to defeat the PKK and return to Ottoman empire imperial greatness, and maybe even the Muslim Brotherhood's desire to carve out a win that links Qatar, Turkey and Libya. It is even a lynchpin for whether Israel can avoid a larger conflict with Iran and whether the US role in the Middle East will decline. With so much at stake, the Russia-Iran relationship over Assad, or competition, is managed in media rumors.
One thing is for certain, any story that claims there will be an agreement for a post-war Syria that involved Turkey and the US-backed SDF, is nonsensical. Russia wants the US out of Syria. Turkey wants the US out of Syria, Iran wants the US out of Syria and so does Assad. On that they all agree. They just can't agree how to get there.
Seth Frantzman, a Middle East Forum writing fellow, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting & Analysis.