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There are two competing narratives regarding Russian-Iranian cooperation in Syria — one, that Russia and Iran are time-tested allies who smashed the West’s geopolitical conspiracies over Syria; and two, the contrarian view that their alliance is but a marriage of convenience.
The latter seems to be closer to the truth, so where is the evidence? On May 27, the Voice of America reported that Russian military police last week carried out a raid against Iranian-backed militiamen stationed at Aleppo International Airport and that in the aftermath, several Iranian militia leaders were arrested. The VOA highlighted that the victors in the Syrian conflict are now turning against each other in a scramble for the spoils of war.
Russia is concerned that Iran seeks to do the same thing it did in Lebanon — create a force similar to Hezbollah — despite Moscow’s effort to restore the Syrian state. Another report on May 27 in the Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, which has links with the Russian establishment, stated that Iran is equipping a military port, Baniyas, near the Russian bases in Latakia on Syria’s Eastern Mediterranean coast.
Iran’s activity near Baniyas may have a destabilizing effect not only for the region but also for the Russian forces, which are trying to stabilize this region. It’s important to have a closer look at what is going on around the port because in the future, it may become Iran’s military base near the Mediterranean Sea compromising U.S./Russian/Israeli naval intelligence in that neighborhood.
Iran’s access to the Mediterranean Sea deprives Russia of its monopoly on economic presence in Syria’s coastal areas and creates certain security risks. The territorial proximity of Iranian facilities, regardless of their purpose, may not only technically complicate life for Russian servicemen, but also put them under surveillance. However, it is difficult to stop Damascus from maintaining close contacts with Tehran, which granted Syria loans estimated at between $6 billion and $8 billion during all the years of the civil war.
By the way, Baniyas Oil Terminal connects the great Iraqi oil fields of Kirkuk via an 800 kilometer-long pipeline with a capacity of 300,000 barrels per day.
The bottom line is that Moscow is wary of getting sucked into Iran’s “resistance” politics in Syria. Whereas Iran considers its cooperation with Russia in Syria and the Middle East in general as a means to consolidate its new role as a regional power. Never a dull moment to be sure.