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Neil Hauer is an independent analyst focused on Syria, Russia, and the Caucasus. Based in Tbilisi, Georgia, he served as senior intelligence analyst at The SecDev Group, an Ottawa-based geopolitical risk consultancy, for three years. He is presently engaged primarily on Russia’s role in the Syrian conflict.
The relationship between Russia and Iran remains underexplored in mainstream texts despite the close cooperation between the two countries for years in the Syrian conflict. Stephen Blank takes a shot here at exploring what the next stage of the relationship might look like as the regime vs rebel opposition stage of the Syrian war winds down.
Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin appear to have discussed the issue of Iranian presence in Syria during their two-hour closed-door meeting in Helsinki recently. What's more, Putin appears to have alluded to a deal that would see Moscow restrict Tehran's activity in the country. Despite this appearing largely impossible, as I detailed in a recent piece, it is revealing that Moscow continues to openly entertain such ideas.
Despite these public statements from Russia, the Kremlin has continued to emphasize that Iranian forces are present in Syria "at the invitation of the legitimate Syrian government." Moscow has walked back its previous calls for all foreign forces to leave Syria, and has shown no desire to cease its support for Iranian ground forces as they work alongside Syrian regime troops to capture territory, as they recently did in southern Syria.
For Iran, control of Syrian territory is a centrepiece of its regional strategy. Maintaining supply routes from Iran overland to Lebanon and its proxy there, Hezbollah, is considered crucial for Tehran. It's unclear how Russia would restrain its erstwhile ally's activity given this.
Blank's article could and should have gone further in its exploration of how the Moscow-Tehran alliance operates in Syria. Specifically, the author fails to touch on the question of Idlib, the obvious next question on the Syrian agenda. How Russia and Iran approach this territory will be crucial, and I suspect there will be significant tension over this. Unfortunately, with Blank leaving this subject undiscussed, it's hard to see how his piece adds much to our understanding of the Russia-Iran relationship.