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Don't Oversimplify Russia and Iran's 'United Front' in Syria

The recent Hezbollah statement that was passed off as including Russia illustrates the enormous complexities involved in creating a united front in Syria. We should recognize this reality, instead of pretending everything is peachy

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

There was considerable freak-out when multiple sources across the political spectrum reported on Sunday that a "joint statement" released by Iran and Russia claimed that "red lines" had been crossed in Syria and would be met with military retaliation if they were crossed again. 

The statement itself was highly suspect for a variety of reasons, but what became absolutely clear, almost immediately, was that Russia had nothing to do with it. 

<figcaption>Russia and Iran have accomplished the seemingly impossible in Syria. But the complexities involved shouldn't be oversimplified</figcaption>
Russia and Iran have accomplished the seemingly impossible in Syria. But the complexities involved shouldn't be oversimplified

Pointing out that Russia was not a signatory to this statement was definitely an important and valuable clarification to make. A fake statement claiming that Russia was prepared to blow US jets out of the sky is not really what one would describe as "helpful" in the current geopolitical climate. 

So it's understandable that many interpreted this "joint statement" as a shadowy plot to undermine the fragile political negotiations in Syria.

But commentary about the incident misread what really happened, and how it reflects the complicated reality on the ground in Syria.

Case in point:

As you can see, this "joint statement" was presented as genuine by Iranian state media

Which really only leaves us with two possibilities:

  1. Hezbollah released an overly-ambitious statement that was picked up by Iranian state media — showing that creating a "united front" in Syria is easier said than done.
  2. Iran is "slandering" itself and Russia and "clearly wants to paint Russia and Iran as violent, unhinged and destabilising as the United States". 

I think we all know which possibility is actually possible. 

But there's a larger point here that everyone seemed to miss while trying to unpack this story: This "joint statement" is a perfect example of the mind-melting complexities and opposing interests at play while trying to create a "united front" in Syria.

Of course, Syria, Iran and Russia are all committed to finding a peaceful, political resolution to this miserable conflict. But you don't have to dig very deep to notice differences and opposing interests involved in making this political will an on-the-ground reality. 

(One example: On more than one occasion, the Syrian government claimed that it shot down an Israeli jet. Has there ever been any concrete evidence for such claims, and has Moscow ever backed them?)

I moonlight as a Moscow correspondent for Press TV, so allow me to offer a few firsthand observations on the promising but complicated relationship between Russia and Iran. 

Russia sees Iran as a long-term strategic partner. The political will for close cooperation is already there, but that doesn't necessarily translate into seamless cooperation. 

Setting aside for a moment the enormous complexities of coordinating military operations in a country full of militias, proxies and terrorists, let's look at economic cooperation between Russia and Iran. 

Again, the political will is there, and there is a huge list of initiatives, deals, memorandums of understanding, etc. 

But it's not as easy as two diplomats shaking hands and signing a piece of paper. 

As part of an effort to boost Iran's growing tourist industry, a travel agency recently offered a luxury 18-day train journey that began in Moscow and ended in Tehran. But there was one rather large problem: Russian trains don't fit on Iranian rail tracks. On the border between Iran and Turkmenistan, they had to change all the cars and truck wheels, so they could fit Iranian tracks

On the banking front: Iran has sharia-compliant finance. There has been efforts to "liberalize" Iran's banking sector, but try to imagine the headaches involved with integrating Russia's banking sector with a system that follows Islamic law. 

Again, the will is there. In practice, it's not so simple. 

A final example, which I think ties directly into the situation in Syria. 

I recently reported on a conference held in Moscow aimed at helping Russian businesses find opportunities in Iran. The organizers of this event — who are all staunchly in support of closer economic cooperation between Russia and Iran — told me something that left a lasting impression: On the governmental level, things are easy. Rosneft can cut massive deals in Iran because the Russian government can iron out the details with their Iranian counterparts. But what about small businesses? Entrepreneurs? Where can they go to find accurate information about how to conduct business in Iran? How are they supposed to navigate the bureaucratic and logistical minefields? The truth is — and this is not my opinion, but the opinion of business leaders who are well versed in these issues — there isn't much guidance for ordinary Russians who want to do business in Iran. 

Now look at Syria. Imagine how insane it must be, with the encyclopedia of militias and other forces operating there. Talking about a united front at the governmental level is all well and good. But let's not oversimplify an extremely complex situation. 

There are huge obstacles even with economic cooperation between Iran and Russia. Imagine the complexities involved with coordinating military operations in Syria.

In the case of the recent Hezbollah statement, this obviously plays into the hands of powers that are trying to destabilize and destroy Syria. 

For example, during a recent State Department briefing, a journalist asked the following question:

QUESTION: Hi, Mark. I have two brief questions for you, and I wish you to get well like the others do. First question: Hizballah media carried a statement Sunday in the name of the previously unheard-of shared operations room, and it said, “We will support Syria with all the means that we have. America knows well our ability to respond. We will respond without taking into consideration any reaction and consequences.” Is that a threat of terrorism in your view, and what is your response to it?

What Russia and Iran have accomplished together in Syria is nothing less than miraculous. But we should be mindful that "united fronts" are not always "united" on the ground. 

Iran and Russia don't always see eye to eye on everything, and united fronts are sometimes not so united. That's the reality. "Slander" against Iran and Russia has nothing to do with it. 

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