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The White House Changes it’s Tune on the Russia-Iran Alliance in Syria

by Tony Badran

Last month, Russia deployed fighter jets and long-range bombers at the Hamedan airbase in Iran. The Russians used the airbase to fly bombing sorties against targets in Syria. While the deployment in Iran carries certain operational advantages for Russia, its significance lies in what it says about the Russian-Iranian partnership more broadly. The move should also now clarify our thinking, and put to rest some misleading arguments that have gained currency over the past year.

Since Russia’s direct intervention in Syria last September, there have been certain claims, advanced by the Obama administration and its surrogates, about the repercussions of Moscow’s decision, as well as about the relationship between Russia and Iran in Syria.

When Russia first announced its entry into Syria, the White House put forward the line that this was a foolish move on the part of the Russians, one which will result in them sinking in a quagmire, all while achieving nothing. President Obama himself led the way, asserting that the “attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad… is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work.” This, the president also said, was “not an indication of strength,” and, he asserted, it was “not a smart, strategic move on Russia’s part.”

Senior administration officials quickly parroted the president’s line. Immediately, White House surrogates in the media picked up the talking point and regurgitated it as analysis, sometimes citing former Obama administration officials, now back as experts in the think tank world, validating the White House’s position.

One such case bears mentioning, because it reflects the fundamental dishonesty of this White House line. In an October 2015 interview, one White House surrogate, who previously had worked for the administration, called the Russian intervention “stupid,” and “self-destructive.” Mimicking Obama, he asserted that this type of “machismo” — as he described the Russian move — did not have “any meaning in international relations,” and “rarely has benefits.”

Of course, the Russian intervention had very tangible benefits, which were rather evident both in the Syrian theatre and beyond. In fact, barely three months later, the same author would change his tune and articulate the advantages the intervention gave Moscow in Syria. “We must now recognize that Russia holds the cards,” the former administration official was now saying. As a result, he proposed setting aside “the meaningless question of Bashar Assad’s future,” even if that means “succumbing to the strategy of Assad and the Russians.” Much of this “analysis,” in fact, merely stated White House preferences.

In a matter of a few months, then, the talking points of the White House surrogates on the Russian intervention went from it being a stupid quagmire to Moscow holding all the cards and dictating the terms of the endgame in Syria. This was not serious analysis. It was a White House-led strategic communications campaign.

This campaign peddled another misleading line. The administration and its allies contended that, as the Russians supposedly sank in the Syrian quagmire, they were also at odds with the Iranians. Unnamed senior US officials spoke of “increased tensions between Russia and Iran over the question of the future of Syria.” Regrettably, this line became fashionable among Arab commentators as well.

The administration has used this line to sell its Syria policy. Russia and Iran didn’t agree about Assad’s fate, the argument went. Therefore, the White House peddled to the media that its policy was seeking to exploit this difference in order to convince the Russians to work toward a political settlement that would preserve the so-called Syrian “state.” The Russians, it was contended, were not wedded to Assad. It was important then for allies to go and talk to the Russians too.

The fact is, however, that the Russians and Iranians are on the same page in Syria, where they are mutually dependent. Moreover, fully backing Assad is the lynchpin of their policy. The opening of the Hamedan airbase served to cement this alliance. And it was but the latest manifestation of a growing military cooperation between Moscow and Tehran. It also bears recalling that Russia intervened at the nuclear negotiations in Vienna last year to back Iran’s position on lifting the ban on missile development and the arms embargo.

Iran, with its satellites in Iraq and Syria, is a critical pillar for Russia’s resurgence in the region, filling the vacuum left by the US. Syria is the gateway. And the success of Russia’s enterprise in Syria is also Iran’s success.

When Obama was asked last year about the Russian intervention, he derisively dismissed it: “This is not some superpower chessboard contest,” he scoffed. “And anybody who frames it in that way isn’t paying very close attention to what’s been happening on the chessboard.” A year later, it’s clear that Obama was comfortable handing over the entire Syrian chessboard to Russia and Iran.

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Tony Badran
Tony Badran is a senior research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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