Silent tensions rise between Russia and Iran. Syrians are a victim of the rivalry between Moscow and Tehran. Iran attracts some 7,850 Syrians with Money and Religion. Russia tries to reduce Iran’s role by excluding it from recent agreements

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights,

December 2019

The past few months have seen a shift in events on the scene of the Syrian crisis, starting with the announcement of the defeat of the Islamic State to the new de-escalation agreements between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and last but not least alliance changes in northeastern Syria and Russia’s entry into the region’s scene after the U.S. withdrawal in early October. With all these shifts, there was another hidden conflict between Russia and Iran to gain as much influence as possible inside Syria, until what was happening became more like a “cold war” between both sides, even though the two countries were supposedly allies supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Although Assad’s regime has virtually regained control of nearly 70% of Syria’s total area, the situation on the ground points to massive tensions and a war between Russia and Iran in order to gain as much influence as possible by mutually seeking to attract Syrians and to single out the Syrian decision in many different ways and means.

Over the past month, November, the Syrian scene has seen an increase in both Russian and Iranian activity in order to gain as much influence as possible, for example, Russia has stepped up its air strikes on the “de-escalation” zone for the first time since the “Putin-Erdogan” agreement announced in August, 89 civilians, including 30 children and 17 women, were killed between November 1 and December 11, as a third of the total number are children, while Russian forces carried out six massacres in Idlib and western Aleppo. Not only has Russia intensified its operations in north-western Syria, but it has been very concerned with its recent agreements with northeastern Syria in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal, where it entered the areas of influence for the first time in northeastern Syria, from which the regime withdrew some 7 years ago, and became the first and last sponsor of agreements between the SDF, the regime and Turkey, in order to identify the areas of influence of each party.

As Russia intensifies its military operations in northwestern Syria, Iran has been continuing its moves to attract more Syrians through soft power, by strengthening Shiite operations and the amounts of money Iran pays to those who enlist to its forces or embrace Shiite. According to the Syrian Observatory, a large number of Syrians who lived in areas controlled by the SDF and were wanted by the “regime” in security issues, resorted to joining the Iranian militias after President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from northeastern Syria and after regime forces entered the area after the Turkish military operation “Spring of Peace”. The Syrian Observatory monitored hundreds of Syrians from Deir Ezzor joining the Iranian militias, in order to force the regime not to pursue them because they became part of the Iranian militias.

In a sign of the hidden conflict between Russians and Iranians, the Syrian Observatory on December 8 observed a joint military patrol of Russian and Regime forces holding a patrol inside Mayadeen, which is under the control of the Iranian forces and allied militias in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor, where Russian forces have patrolled the city for the first time. At the same time, the number of volunteers among Iranian militias in southern Syria has increased, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights statistics, to more than 4,620, while the number of young Syrians and men of different ages recruited into Iranian forces and their militias recently after the Shiite operations has increased to about 3215, in the western Euphrates river area in Deir Ezzor countryside, as Iranian militias are intensifying recruitment, coinciding with the Russian side’s preoccupation with military operations and recent agreements with Syria.

According to Syrian Observatory sources, the volatility of loyalty has become prevalent among regime-controlled areas, as the distinction between a pro-Moscow and pro-Tehran is only evident in some prominent names that have moved from pro-Iranian to pro-Russian, such as Suhail al-Hassan. “There are Iranian-funded schools in the western (Alawite) countryside of Homs,” sources told the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, “for example, in the village of Arakaya, there are Iranian-funded public schools where the teacher enters and greets the Alawite youth, and teachers are given double salaries”.

Over the past few months, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has monitored a conflict between Russia and Iran over attracting young Syrians through aid and recruitment into their respective forces and factions in regime-controlled areas. According to reliable sources, “the Russian-Iranian conflict takes many forms, including the conflict through food aid, exploitation of vulnerability, hunger, poverty, poor purchasing power, displacement and displacement suffered by Syrian citizens as a result of eight years of war”. Last April, reliable sources documented the distribution of Russian forces to areas in the western and north-western sectors of Hama countryside, as well as the distribution of children’s gifts and humanitarian and food assistance in areas close to the contact lines with the Turkish-backed factions and organizations, at a time when Iranian forces are exploiting the needs of the population in western Euphrates, southern Syria and the region between them, to provide them with humanitarian and food assistance through charitable kitchens and other centers providing assistance to citizens, as well as providing salaries to volunteers, as it pay amounts of money starting from US$150.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has also monitored a struggle between Russians and Iranians not only for influence but also for money, as the SOHR obtained documented information indicating that the conflict between the both sides has turned into a conflict over barriers, power and checkpoints in the Syrian desert and in the area extending from Homs to the western banks of the Euphrates River. The Syrian Observatory monitored the presence of about 40 checkpoints of pro-Iranian and pro-Russian militias, from the outskirts of Homs to the city of Al-buKamal in the eastern sector of Deir Ezzor countryside on the western banks of the Euphrates River, where they compete on the control of the checkpoints that generate huge daily profits and imaginary amounts. The sources confirmed that the revenue of the royalties imposed amounted to about 100 million Syrian pounds on a batch of tanks loaded with oil and its derivatives, where these tanks in particular are not allowed to pass without paying royalties.

On the other hand, Russia is trying by all means to pull the rug out from under the Iranians’ legs, through alliances and agreements with Turkey and other militias and factions operating in Syria, most recently the agreements on northeastern Syria after the launch of Operation “Peace Spring”, in which Russia totally excluded the Iranian side from any negotiations or presence of Iranian forces and allied militias on the ground in all areas under Russian and regime control within areas previously under the influence of the SDF. Informed sources have also monitored Russia’s disagreement with Iran over the “Tal Rifaat” area, which Russia has promised the Turkish side to hand over in exchange for the opening of the Damascus-Aleppo international route and Aleppo-Latakia international way, which Iran rejects due to the existence of the cities of Nobl and Zahra, which are of religious and symbolic importance to Tehran.

According to reliable sources, Russia has asked SDF commanders to find a solution to stop the Iranian expanding in Hasaka and SDF areas. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also revealed on June 24 that the Russians had failed to manage military operations in northern Syria, and that Russia could not even curb Iranians in the south and east of Syria. According to information obtained by the Syrian Observatory, all the Russian sought so far to stop the Iranian expansion has failed, adding to the failure of the Russian policy in Syria, the continued failure of it and the Syrian regime to reopen the Sukalibeya-Harada road and to keep the factions and jihadists away from areas inhabited by citizens of the Christian religion that the Russian Church claims to protect on Syrian territory.

On June 6, the Syrian Observatory learned that Russia, as part of its continued attempts to reduce Iran’s presence in northern Syria, had reinforced its positions in Tal Rifaat to limit Iran’s expansion in the region, but the Iranians continued to expand in southern Syria, Deir Ezzor and elsewhere in Damascus and its countryside, by continuing to attract men and young people through its networks there. On April 17, sources revealed that the Russian-Iranian conflict continues to gain as much influence as possible in the face of the stagnation of military operations, where both sides used the situation to consolidate its power on the ground and expand its influence in order to control the Syrian decision alone.

According to information obtained from multiple sources, the conflict tends to the Iranian side despite the main Russian presence within the Syrian headquarters and its control over the Syrian decision, where Iran has been able to expand its influence and attract thousands of Syrians to its ranks not only in exchange of money, but also played on the chord of sects and religions, as well as recruiting young people of compulsory service age in their ranks in exchange for not being withdrawn to serve in the “National Army”. Also, according to the Syrian Observatory, the Iranian expansion is not acceptable by the Russians and their followers and loyalists on Syrian territory, where Russia sought to rein in Iran by replacing the barriers of pro-Iranian and regime militias in the vicinity of the Putin-Erdogan zone, with elements of the pro-Russian Fifth Corps. Iran’s wide spread on the military, intellectual and sectarian levels prevents the Russians from being able to curb the Iranians at the moment, despite the global and Arab trend, especially to fight the Iranian presence on Syrian soil, while Turkey is deliberately balancing its relations with the Iranian side.

Among Russia’s attempts to stop Iran’s involvement in Syria, Moscow has stopped Iran from interfering with domestic issues and refraining from advancing to unblock the northeastern towns of Al-Foua and Kefraya in the northeastern idlib countryside, two predominantly Shiite towns. Similarly, Russia only initiated southern operations after a Russian-regional agreement that Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah would retreat 40 km from the border with the occupied Golan. After its military withdrawal, the process of taking control of southern Syria began. Earlier, the Syrian Observatory monitored Russian proposal sought to withdraw Hezbollah and the Iranians and their way west of the Euphrates to fight the Islamic State, after refusing to the Iranian and Hezbollah forces participation in southern Syria.

In light of the Iran-Russia conflict, the Syrian regime remains powerless in the face of these two forces, and it is no longer secret to anyone that the regime’s presence has become only formal, as it cannot impose its influence and decisions on any geographical area of Syria, even if this spot is the Syrian coast, which was its source of strength in the past, to become an arena for the Iranian-Russian conflict, such as the case with Damascus, Aleppo, southern Syria, central Syria, and all Syrian territory under the control of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights renews its appeals to the international community and all parties of the conflict, to spare citizens who have suffered for nearly nine years from the scourge of war and destruction, in light of the growing poverty, suffering and injustice suffered by all Syrians in various areas of control, especially in the Regime areas of control, in which each side seeks to gain as much influence as possible without the slightest regard for the situation of helpless civilians in a conflict in which they no longer have anything to do with.

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