Russia finds it can't trust Iran in Syria

War is Boring:
Between Jan. 23 and 27, 2017, there were reports that Syrian president Bashar Al Assad had suffered a stroke and had to be hospitalized. The usually pro-Assad British newspaper The Independent claimed that the Syrian president was suffering serious psychological strain.

Allegations of a president’s poor health take on extra significance in a Russian proxy state. During the Cold War, the Soviets frequently cited allied leaders’ purported medical and psychological problems when launching military interventions — takeovers, essentially — in the countries of the supposedly-ailing heads of state.

Did the same thing just happen in Syria?

On Jan. 28, there were reports that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps militia had tried to depose Al Assad and replace him with his brother Maher — and that Russian forces had thwarted the attempted coup by blocking Iranian agents in 11 Damascus districts and at the strategic Almaza air base. The maneuvering reportedly occurred amid a schism within Syria’s ruling Alawite community between pro-Russian and pro-Iranian elements.

The crisis seemed to pass two days later. “President Assad is in excellent health,” the regime announced on Jan. 30.

To be clear, the evidence of an attempted Iranian coup in Syria— and a Russian countercoup — is thin. But then, evidence of internal politics in Damascus is always thin.

That said, it’s no secret that on their arrival in Syria in August and September 2015, Russian officials found the regime and its military in a state of a complete disorder — and unable to continue the war on their own.

In rescuing Al Assad’s regime from collapse, the Russians preferred to deal with state institutions. But the regime was so weak that the Russians had no choice but to work closely with Al Assad’s non-state allies such as Hezbollah and militias including the Liwa Al Qods, staffed by pro-Al Assad Palestinians.
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The Russians and the IRGC in Syria have been at odds virtually since the moment the first of roughly 10,000 Russians arrived in the country. Moscow’s goal is to preserve Al Assad’s government in some form, even if that means giving up parts of the old Syria. By contrast, Tehran wants to “liberate” all of Syria from rebel and jihadist forces and restore a strong — and strongly pro-Iranian — regime.
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There is more.

The Russians are finding that there are split loyalties among the Syrian fighters with at least one unit that has strong ties to the Iran regime.  Russia's interest is to keep someone friendly in power that will support their warm water port in Syria.  Iran wants Syria to become a dependency of the Islamic religious bigots who rule Iran.  Those goals appear to be incompatible.  Why anyone would trust Iran's leaders is a mystery.

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