DURING a visit to Iran on Tuesday, Syria’s deputy foreign minister spoke strongly against proposals for a transitional government that would lead to the removal of President Bashar al Assad. This is not a peculiar statement to come from a Syrian official. What makes it interesting is that the statement was made in Iran and broadcasts a point of view that Tehran staunchly supports. Also on Tuesday, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Commander Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari reaffirmed Iran’s commitment to al Assad, explaining that Iran does not see any alternative to al Assad as a leader for Syria. Jafari said Russia might not entirely share this view. And in fact, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman has said that saving al Assad is not crucial.
Iran and Russia’s divergence on the issue of al Assad’s future would, at first glance, seem to be a heavy burden on both countries’ ability to support al Assad and his government in the Syrian civil war. However, it is only a political and diplomatic difference of opinion and does not really risk affecting the military aspect of the conflict. Both countries have a clear interest in supporting the Syrian government, whichever personality ends up leading it. And on the battlefield, Iranian forces and Russian air assets, along with materiel from both countries, support the government.
For Iran, the future of Syria is considered a core national interest. Before the conflict, Syria was a close Iranian ally with considerable military power and asymmetric capabilities to leverage against Israel and potentially against Turkey. Furthermore, with the Israeli air force ruling the skies over Lebanon and the Israeli navy closely monitoring the maritime approaches to Lebanon, Syria is the only viable route for Iran to use to reinforce and resupply Hezbollah, its key ally. Hezbollah is deeply involved in the Syrian conflict, and defeat in Syria would open the way for the conflict to spread to Lebanon, threatening Hezbollah in its own territory. Iran’s ability to project its influence across the region would be severely damaged if a hostile entity replaced the allied government in Syria. Moreover, several important Shiite religious sites, including the Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque, are located in Syria, further galvanizing the Iranians into ensuring that a hostile Sunni government does not replace the current one.
Iran will be careful in negotiating any deal that could risk weakening the government’s position. This is not so much because of a direct connection to al Assad as much as it is related to a fear that a leadership change at this time might unsettle and ultimately weaken the cohesiveness of Syrian loyalist forces.
The Russians, meanwhile, though clearly determined to maintain the Syrian government’s position as a means to drive a negotiated settlement of the conflict, are not as concerned as the Iranians about the leaders who emerge from a settlement as long as the outcome broadly safeguards their interests. Moscow is not as directly invested in Syria and is more willing to engage in comprehensive talks in which the Syrian question is perceived as one component of larger negotiations in its standoff with the West rather than the end goal. Russia can thus afford to maintain some flexibility in negotiations, allowing room for a change in Syrian leadership if it can wrangle some key concessions in return.
Ultimately, Russia and Iran’s positions on the future of al Assad differ primarily in terms of risk and reward rather than on principle. Russia is more willing to encourage leadership changes in Syria than Iran, which may consider it to be too much of a risk for the loyalists in Syria. In the end, however, both Russia and Iran could live with a Syria that is not run by al Assad, as long as whatever replaces him serves their best interests at the time.