Russia must realign its Middle East interests and divorce itself from Iran’s regional ambitions or risk possible escalation in Syria, experts said.
Speaking at the Beirut Institute in Abu Dhabi, experts said President Vladimir Putin and the United States share similar interests in the region, but increasingly differ in their approach to Iran’s growing regional influence.
Dr Elliot Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said US President Donald Trump’s view of Russia as a competitor in Middle East is almost exclusively based on his Russian counterpart’s partnership with Iran.
“US-Iran relations clash, because Iran is trying to overturn the Middle East," said Dr Abrams. "That is going to lead to a confrontation, so will Putin decide against Iran’s project in the Middle East and pull back? If he does, the American administration can align interests with Russia in the region.”
Dr Abrams believes that breaking relations with Iran would improve Russia's relations with the West while also being perceived as more genuinely invested in promoting Arab interests.
Russia’s end goal in Syria is not to support President Bashar Al Assad, added Dr Abrams, but to use Moscow's growing influence in the Arab world to ensure its access to the Mediterranean Sea.
“Russia doesn’t need Assad, Russia’s goal is a unified Syria. Its goal is to ensure a successful government that makes peace with everyone, especially with the Sunni majority, and one that allows Russia to keep its bases,” he said.
But, for Iran, that goal does not suffice.
Iran is looking to “control Syria,” according to Konstantin Truevstev, a senior researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. It’s an ambition that is not shared by his home country, Russia.
“We have the problem of Iranian influence, which is growing. The election in Lebanon was the last example,” he said referring to Iran-backed Hezbollah and its allies winning more seats than ever before in Lebanon’s elections earlier this month.
He said Russia’s foreign policy in the Middle East is to avoid a long-term military engagement in the region. Instead, Moscow wants to ensure stability in Syria without interfering with the Trump administration’s renewed regional involvement.
But the US, with its partners in Saudi Arabia and Israel, is unlikely to co-operate with Russia as long as it continues to support Tehran.
Washington must therefore support its regional alliances by maintaining its presence in Syria and pushing back on Iranian influence. This presence has in past lead to clashes with Russia, and could do so again.
US-Iran sour relations - and Washington’s disdain for Russian support of Tehran - was reiterated in President Trump’s recent decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.
Global reactions to Washington backtracking on the deal served as a metric to understanding regional players' stances on Iran. It also provides Russia with an opportunity to scale down its partnership with Tehran and make co-operation with Washington more likely.
“Clearly, the decision by the US administration on JCPOA [the Iran Nuclear deal], is an important one. We have not seen the full extent of Iranian reaction, regionally or otherwise,” said Ambassador Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy, the UN’s deputy special envoy to Syria.
“But there is a full array of reactions they can take, and Syria is an arena for possible escalation.”