Following their meeting in Helsinki, Donald Trump hailed Vladimir Putin as a potential partner in Syria, who can provide humanitarian relief and preserve Israeli security. But if the United States hopes to deny Iran “open season to the Mediterranean,” as the President previously said, Russia is anything but an ally. Putin has no interest in pushing out the Iranian forces that defend the Assad regime by taking heavy casualties on the ground while Russia fights mainly from the air. Rather, the most recent offensive by pro-regime forces—a sprint towards the Israeli and Jordanian borders—demonstrates that Russia enables Iranian operations in Syria.
In late June, Russia began to unleash hundreds of airstrikes on Deraa, a flagrant violation of the U.S.-Russian ceasefire agreement that Trump and Putin personally endorsed last November. While Russia struck from the air, forces nominally under the control of Damascus conducted a major ground offensive.
Closer examination shows that the dividing line between Assad’s military and Iranian-aligned forces has become ever blurrier. Before the offensive began, Lebanese Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed militias staged apparent withdrawals from the region, only to return after donning regime uniforms and hiding their banners and insignia. Tehran is also directly involved. On July 2, a senior commander of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) died in Deir al-Adas, a village in northern Deraa province along the strategic M5 highway. Persian sources describe him as the commander for Deraa province.
Two Iranian-aligned militant groups comprised of Iraqi Shias, Liwa Abu al Fadl al Abbas (LAFA) and Liwa Zulfiqar, have also participated in the offensive. LAFA was one of the original foreign Shia militias to deploy to Syria in 2012, ostensibly to defend the Sayyida Zainab mosque in Damascus, a major Shiite religious site. Since then, however, the group has integrated into the Syrian Republican Guard, even to the point where it openly identifies as a Republican Guard unit. LAFA’s trajectory illustrates how forces nominally under the control of Damascus are permeated with troops that are at least as close to Tehran.
Since the current offensive began, LAFA has posted numerous photos and videos on its Facebook page showing its men alongside regime troops in Deraa. Its leader, Abu Ajeeb, has also been pictured with Syrian military officers in several of the photos. Opposition sources report that a LAFA commander met with Russian military officers in Deraa.
Liwa Zulfiqar has also confirmed its involvement in the offensive, as well as its integration into the regime’s military. The militia, which has been fighting alongside Syrian regime troops since 2013, posted several photos from the town of Busra al Harir in which it asserted it was participating in the offensive. The militia’s leader, Haidar al Jabouri, appeared in a video shot inside the Syrian 4th Division’s military operations command room, demonstrating Zulfiqar’s integration into the Syrian command structure.
Reports have also suggested that other militias, including Lebanese Hezbollah, have been taking part in the offensive, sometimes disguised as Syrian troops. In late June, the Washington Post briefly noted Hezbollah’s participation. Quoting an official in Damascus, Reuters reported that “Hezbollah is a fundamental participant in planning and directing this battle.” Another pro-regime source reportedly confirmed the use of Syrian military uniforms by Hezbollah and other militias to the wire service.
It’s also becoming clear that Russian aircraft are supporting the efforts of Iranian-backed units nominally under the control of Damascus. On June 24th, Russian warplanes conducted at least twenty strikes on Busra al Harir, spurring on a stalled regime offensive. Within two days, Liwa Zulfiqar announced its participation in operations there. On July 4th, Russia hit Saida and Tafas, supporting offensives involving Zulfiqar and LAFA, respectively. Russia has also now deployed military police to hold terrain captured by Iranian-aligned forces, demonstrating a level of coordination as well as Russia’s unwillingness to use its forces for more dangerous offensive operations. These terrain-holding forces free up Iran-aligned actors to continue undertaking offensives toward the Golan.
Reported meetings between militia commanders and Russian officers suggest these operations are coordinated. But even without formal coordination, Russian air cover and Iranian ground offensives are mutually dependent and reinforcing. Iran can’t be in the sky, and Russia refuses to put significant forces on the ground, lest too many return home in body bags. Thus, Putin requires Iran’s forces on the ground to secure his ambitions in Syria.
Trump should remain highly skeptical of Putin’s interest and ability to serve as a partner in Syria. The humanitarian relief Putin proposes is designed to fortify the regime, not rehabilitate children brutalized by Assad. Putin also has limited interest in curtailing Iran’s deployment. Russia itself admits that Iran’s withdrawal is “absolutely unrealistic.” Trump should not concede American positions, notably the strategic base at Tanf which blocks Iran’s path to the Mediterranean, for empty promises from Russia. Putin can afford to lie to America, but he can’t afford to control Syria without Iranian support.
Alexandra N. Gutowski is a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where she focuses on military affairs and manages FDD’s Military Edge website. Follow her on Twitter @angutowski.
Caleb Weiss is a research analyst and contributor at FDD’s Long War Journal.
Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.