Syria's Bashar al Assad’s unannounced trip to Tehran has fanned reports that Iran might try to fill the vacuum left by Russia.
Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad’s surprise visit to Tehran on May 8 indicates that he’s trying to woo Iran for more support as his other key partner Russia sinks deeper into the Ukraine conflict, analysts say.
For weeks there have been reports that Moscow has been withdrawing its military assets from places like Syria to fend off the stiff challenge posed by Ukrainian forces.
Assad’s visit was only the second time he has been to Iran since the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011 and descended the country into chaos, forcing millions of people to seek refuge elsewhere.
During his day-long engagements in Tehran, Assad met Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi.
While the two sides haven’t publicly disclosed what was discussed, Russia must have figured as a key point in the talks, says Ramazan Bursa, an Iran expert.
“Russia withdrew both its troops and Wagner forces from the east of Homs in a very short time - something like 48 hours in mid-April.”
Since the Ukraine conflict began in late February, US intelligence officials have insisted that Russia was moving its mercenaries from other countries to Ukraine.
On the other hand, Russia vigorously denies that it has reduced its footprint in Syria.
Leonid Savin, a Moscow-based expert, says that news of Russia's withdrawal is part of the psychological warfare waged by European countries against Moscow.
“A lot of fake news has been produced in response to Russia's military operation in Ukraine. This is one of them."
But Russia also has reasons to keep such news under the wraps.
Firstly it doesn’t want this to be seen as a weakness and secondly, it doesn’t want to put Israel on the edge as Tel Aviv has long feared the rise of Iran-backed militias in Syria in absence of Russian troops, says Bursa.
Russia and Iran have both played a vital role in ensuring Assad’s survival in the face of persistent resistance from Syrian opposition fighters. While Iran sent Shia militias to support Assad, Russia backed him with its fighter jets.
But over the years, both Russia and Iran have competed for influence in Syria, especially over lucrative mining and construction contracts.
With Russia feeling the heat of US-backed economic sanctions and its military engaged in what seems like a prolonged conflict, Iran can try to strengthen its position in Syria, analysts say.
Iran already funds and manages Shia militias in Syria where they give ground support to Assad’s forces which have fought long and bloody battles with the opposition fighters.
Russia isn’t happy to cede more ground to Iran in Syria, says Bursa.
“We know that Russia is not in favour of anything that strengthens Iran’s position in Syria. But Moscow had no option because the Ukraine war is essential for it.”
Bursa says it's no secret that Russia has tried to contain Iran’s influence in Syria.
Although Iran and Russia worked strategically to prop up Assad’s regime, they have also tried to maintain their own military influence even on Syrian regime forces.
“Russia and Iran have both trained Syrian army units. And it has been observed that they try to win the loyalty of the troops they have trained and spent upon. That’s one reason that from time to time we have seen various Syrian brigades vying for influence within the Syrian army.”
It remains unclear how many military personnel Russia has in Syria and how many it plans to redeploy. But different reports suggest that Moscow has maintained more than 60,000 troops in the country.
“In April, Russia reduced the salaries of soldiers in the Syrian army's 5th corps, which it supports, from $200 to $100 a month. As per local sources the Syrian volunteers, who then saw their salaries as insufficient, have left the army. So it seems that this special Russian-backed force founded in 2016 and which consists of 20,000 men, will lose its power significantly,” says Bursa.