The failed mutiny launched by Yevgeny Prigozhin's Wagner Group last week has returned Russia to the global headlines. As of now, however, despite the former caterer's efforts, it appears that the regime of President Vladimir Putin remains securely in power.
As such, it is an opportune moment to take a close look at some of Russia's less-remarked-upon activities, far from the road to Moscow, Rostov-on-Don and the Ukrainian front. The first leader who Putin chose to call, once it was clear that he had survived the Wagner mutiny, was President Ebrahim Raisi of Iran. Not by chance.
Earlier this month, the US deployed F-22 Raptor fighter jets from Langley Air Base to the skies over Syria. Their mission: to ensure the security of US positions in the country, in the face of a recent uptick in incidents of interference by Russian aircraft deployed in Syria.
This change in Russian behavior in Syrian airspace has been abrupt and unmistakable. For the last eight years, the two air forces, American and Russian, adhered to a strict system of deconfliction. That is, they largely left one another alone to pursue their different missions. The Americans are in Syria to pursue the ongoing campaign against ISIS. The Russians are there to ensure the continued rule of the Assad family.
Peaceful coexistence broke down a few months ago. Since March, Russian aircraft began near daily overflights of the US positions in northeastern and southern Syria. Russian jets flew over the Tanf base on the Syrian-Jordan border alone 25 times that month. The aircraft involved included Su-24 planes carrying air-to-ground munitions and bombs.
General Alexus Grynkewich, air forces commander for US Central Command, said in a briefing on Wednesday that Russian aircraft have carried out such overflights on occasion three or four times in a single day, and that "the Russians will fly directly overhead or very near to these (US) garrisons, with bombs on board."
Russian Intimidations in Syria
What is going on? Why the sudden commencement of what looks like a campaign of attempted intimidation, which raises the possibility of direct clashes between US and Russian forces in Syria? Aren't the Russians busy enough with their floundering invasion of Ukraine?
Some context: The Russians aren't the only ones in Syria with malevolent intentions toward the US presence there. Rather, Moscow's presence in that ruined country is fully coordinated with Iran, Syrian President Bashar Assad's other indispensable ally.
The Iranians, meanwhile, have been engaged via their militia proxies in recent months in a more direct campaign of harassment of the US presence in Syria. On January 20, two US-aligned militiamen were wounded when three attack drones were launched at the Tanf base. US troops work in cooperation with a Syrian militia at the base.
Then, on March 23, a US contractor was killed and five US service personnel wounded in a drone attack on a base at Rumeilan, in northeast Syria. In response, the US carried out airstrikes on positions held by Iran-linked militias on Syrian soil.
A slow-burning campaign of harassment by the Iranians, intended to result in the removal of the US presence in Syria, has been underway for some time. Do the latest actions by the Russians reflect a decision by Moscow to join this effort? It appears so.
Moscow and Tehran are growing closer. John Kirby, the US National Security Council spokesman, defined the relationship between the two in a briefing last week, saying that Iran and Russia are currently engaged in an "unprecedented level of military and technical support that is transforming their relationship into a full-fledged defense partnership."
Russia's ill-conceived invasion of Ukraine has rejigged the balance between the two. Before, Russia was the senior partner; today, the Iranians are playing a vital role in supplying Russia's faltering war effort. This effort goes far beyond the provision of the Shahed 136 drones that for a while wreaked havoc on Ukraine's cities.
Daily, ships carrying artillery shells, tank rounds, and ammunition for the Russian army are leaving the Iranian Amirabad seaport on the Caspian Sea, making their way to the Russian coast, far from prying US and NATO eyes.
Russia cannot do without this assistance. The Russians are set to provide Su35 fighter jets, attack helicopters, and possibly air defense systems in return.
Moreover, classified documents leaked on the Discord messaging platform revealed a meeting of Russian, Iranian, and Syrian regime officials in November 2022, in which they established a "coordination center" to direct attacks against the American presence in Syria.
The documents also revealed evidence of an Iranian plan to begin targeting US patrols in Syria with Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFPs) – powerful, hi-tech IEDs that can penetrate armored vehicles. These devices are an Iranian trademark, used widely against coalition forces during the Shia insurgency in Iraq.
An attempt in Syria to employ these devices took place in January, which was foiled by the US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces. There's no reason to suppose that this attempt will be the last.
So the temperature looks set to rise on the slow-burning Iranian insurgency to bring about a US withdrawal from Syria. Evidence has emerged of the establishment of a framework to coordinate Russian and Iranian efforts in this regard.
Iran and Russia are increasing their level of cooperation to that of a "full-fledged defense partnership," according to a senior US official. And Russia has over the last three months abandoned its previous restraint, and begun the daily harassment of US aircraft in Syrian airspace. The sequencing seems fairly straightforward.
The remaining question is: Why? In this regard, one may discern the outlines of the new global order gradually emerging. In the competition between great powers, pressure at one point will produce counterpressure on another.
The Russians view Ukraine as a proxy war between themselves and the US and its allies. They now appear keen to assist their Iranian partner in opening an additional point of pressure on the US in this contest. Keep a close eye on Syria. For as long as Putin remains able to stave off challenges from within, the country looks set to be a central arena for the emergent strategic alliance between Moscow and Tehran.
Jonathan Spyer is director of research at the Middle East Forum and director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. He is author of Days of the Fall: A Reporter's Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars (2018).