Case Analysis 19 November, 2015

Russia and Iran in Syria: Alliance or Competition?

Rod Thornton

Rod Thornton is a Professor at King's College London and currently based at the Joann bin Jassim Joint Command and Staff College, Al Wakrah, Qatar. With a BA degree in Russian, Thornton has written widely on the Russian military. He has lived and worked in both Kiev and Moscow and is the author of  Asymmetric Warfare: Threat and Response in the 21st Century (Polity Press, 2007).

Russia’s military intervention in Syria is significant for a number of reasons, both local and international.[1]  Given the delicate balance evident in the conflict, Russian air power is an enormous boon to the beleaguered forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It also helps another actor in the Syria war: the particular dynamics of the current conflict mean that a militarily involved Russia must – de facto –be in an alliance with Iran, another state whose forces are actively supporting Assad. Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps ‘Quds Force’ has been very active in stiffening resistance to the regime’s forces. Russian aircraft will undoubtedly provide air cover for Quds Force personnel, and will be striking targets designated by these Revolutionary Guards.

Russia and Iran appear to have created close ties around the current crisis. As Iranian Justice Minister Mostafa Purmohammadi put it recently, “Tehran-Moscow relations are rapidly developing and convergences between Iran and Russia on Syria can change the fate of the region.”[2] Such a ‘convergence,’ however, does not mean that Moscow and Tehran’s interests in the Syrian imbroglio are in perfect alignment. While they both want Assad to survive as Syria’s leader, beyond this shared goal any number of differences between the states may appear. This raises the questions: to what degree is the relationship between Russia and Iran actually one of alliance, and to what degree is it one of competition?

To read the complete Case Analysis, please click here, or on the reader icon below. This paper was submitted to an academic symposium on Russia's military intervention in Syria, hosted by the ACRPS on October 15, 2015 in Doha, Qatar.

[1] This intervention consists of some 50 aircraft and 4,000 (non-combat) personnel. Neil MacFarquhar, “Confirmation of attack on Russian jet may strengthen Putin’s resolve in Syria,” New York Times, November 8,2015,

[2] “Minister: Iran, Russia can change region’s future,” Islamic Republic News Agency website, November 5, 2015,