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As DC Watches, Can Iran Afford to Challenge Russia?

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A woman walking past debris in the old quarter of Syria's second city of Aleppo on February 12, 2019. (Photo: LOUAI BESHARA / AFP / Getty Images)
A woman walking past debris in the old quarter of Syria's second city of Aleppo on February 12, 2019. (Photo: LOUAI BESHARA / AFP / Getty Images)

The general impression one gets is of some sort of harmony between Russian and Iranian forces in Syria. However, if developments in Aleppo are anything to go by, that’s far from the truth. In this post, Clarion’s Shillman fellow and Arab Affairs Analyst Ran Meir asks if Iran can afford to challenge Russia:

Clashes between Iranian and Russian militias intensified over the last week as part of the struggle for control of the Syrian city Aleppo. It’s unclear in which way this will develop.

Iran is represented by the Quds Force, a unit of the Revolutionary Guards operating outside of Iran, Hezbollah and other militias.

Meanwhile, the Russian military police presence in the city numbers several hundred. They are supported by the Palestinian Jerusalem Brigade militia. Since the turn of the year, Moscow has trained and armed this militia, but it remains sub par when compared to the Iranian presence.

Added to the confusing picture, Syrian soldiers under the command of Russia are fighting against the Iranian militias.

Formally, Russia is responsible for proper order in the city and has been since the defeat of opposition groups in 2016.

In the past week, there were confrontations at several locations between the sides. The crisis peaked with clashes around the city’s international airport. 

There were even reports that Quds Force Commander Qassem Suleimani came to town to try to calm matters.

The current tension was apparently sparked by Iranian attempts to take over the airport completely and expel the Russian military police stationed there. Iranian or leased cargo aircraft largely land at night.

As we’ve reportedly previously, Tehran is intent on using its satellite states for its own economic benefit. Control of airports means an easier route for importing Iranian-made goods. It also means fewer controls when it wants to bring in arms to strengthen its own fighters.

Concerned by the Iranian push, Russian fighter jets flew into the region and circled at very low altitude, threatening directly to bomb Iranian militia facilities if the attacks did not stop. This seems to have led to a pause in the fighting.

The Russians claim they want the Iranian militia to leave the airport on the pretext that they want to renovate it and operate civilian and commercial flights. In reality, Moscow is fed up with Iran’s cavalier  attitude. The stronger the Russian foothold there, the less power Iran wields.

You may have noticed we haven’t mentioned Washington’s views on this mêlée and with good reason thus far. The United States is no longer a player because it is in the process of withdrawing from Syria, and it appears there are short-term benefits to be had from not being involved in this confrontation. But rest assured, the Americans are watching this development very closely as with other regional players who don’t want to see a further expansion of Iranian hegemony in the area.

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Ran Meir

Ran Meir is Clarion Project's Arab affairs analyst and a Shillman Fellow. He can be reached at [email protected]

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