A little over a month ago, the Iranian chief of staff, Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, paid an unusual visit to Damascus. It was intended as a display of Syrian-Iranian amity, an expression of the excellent cooperation between the two partners in the drawn-out fight against opposition fighters and the Islamic State group.
Bagheri took the trouble to announce that the objective of his visit was to strengthen coordination in the war against “the enemies… be they Zionists or terrorists.” He added that he and his Syrian counterpart, Gen. Ali Abdullah Ayoub, had sketched out the “basic principles of this cooperation.”
Yet, from Iran’s perspective, Bagheri’s visit to the Syrian capital was not a success. Damascus was less than eager to accede to the list of demands reiterated yet again by Iran: a 50-year lease on a Mediterranean naval base, the establishment of air bases on Syrian soil, phosphate mining concessions including for uranium, and so on.
Syria did not reject the Iranian requests outright, but, in a surprise move for Israeli observers, it did make clear that it prefers to advance slowly and cautiously when it comes to submitting to Iran’s embrace.
There are a number of reasons for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s wariness in the face of Tehran’s demands. Love of Israel is not among them.
That isn’t to say the Syrian president has suddenly developed a backbone vis-a-vis his Iranian benefactors. But Assad does seem to understand that a tight embrace from Tehran could come at a great cost — both in terms of his enemy, Israel, and his most powerful ally, Russia.
Tehran had good reason to hope Assad would green-light the long list of demands it has presented in recent weeks to Damascus. In many ways, Assad owes his survival to the Iranians and their proxy, the Hezbollah terror group. Dozens if not hundreds of Iranian soldiers have been killed over the past six years of fighting in the Syrian civil war, as well as some 2,000 members of Hezbollah, which is mostly funded by Tehran. This was in addition to the efforts of thousands more Shiite fighters sent to Syria by Iran and mercenaries hailing from Iraq, such as the members of the al-Nujba militia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Although the Iranian demands may sound preposterous to Israeli ears, they can seem eminently reasonable when one considers what the Russians got out of Assad, including a naval base on the Mediterranean, an air base and more.
Given all these factors, officials in Tehran might reasonably view their demands for cellular phone tenders, phosphate concessions or a Mediterranean naval base as entirely sensible.
But the Iranians apparently did not take into account the fact that Assad owes just as much, and perhaps more, to Moscow. And while Russia and Iran share an interest in Assad’s survival, their interests diverge when it comes to the degree of clout Tehran can be allowed to wield over Syria. Iranian influence is seen in many capitals around the world as a destabilizing factor in the region – and thus is an indirect threat to Assad’s survival.