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June 8, 2018 7:10 pm

Report: Tension Building Between Russia, Iran Over Demand for Iranian Army to Withdraw From Syrian Areas

avatar by Benjamin Kerstein

A woman gestures as she stands on rubble of damaged buildings in Raqqa, Syria, May 14, 2018. Photo: REUTERS/Aboud Hamam.

A major rift has developed between Russia and Iran in Syria over the former’s demand for the withdrawal of Iranian and allied forces from strategic areas of the war-torn country, a new report says.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, “reliable sources” have revealed that Russia and Turkey have reached an agreement to push for the removal of all Iranian forces from northern Syria.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has already called for a “mutual” withdrawal of “all non-Syrian forces” from southern Syria near the border with Israel, saying, “The result of this work which should continue and is continuing should be a situation when representatives of the Syrian Arab Republic’s army stand at Syria’s border with Israel.”

According to the Observatory, Russia is also demanding the withdrawal of Iran’s proxy terrorist militia Hezbollah from areas near the strategic city of Homs. Hezbollah has thus far refused to comply.

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The Observatory states that these tensions have “created a crack in the ranks of regime forces’ leadership and officers, splitting them between pro-Russian and others pro-Iran.”

Vera Michlin-Shapir, an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies and a Russia expert, said such a split was not entirely unexpected due to differing Russian and Iranian views on the eventual outcome of the conflict.

“We kind of expected this change in tone,” she told The Algemeiner, saying a “certain discord” was inevitable.

“If we look at it from a broader perspective, from the very beginning, one of the dysfunctions of this alliance was — this alliance is all good and well, but we can observe different objectives between the Russian player and the Iranian player within this alliance that works very well during the war. When the war will start winding down, they will start thinking about what happens next, and because the objectives are not necessarily the same, a certain divergence will appear,” she said.

“The Russians’ view of Syria and how this conflict should end or at least wind down,” she continued, “their approach is fairly flexible about how it will happen, what will be the design in Syria itself. They are talking about the unity and sovereignty of the territory, and the borders and so on. But at the same time you do hear the Russian foreign minister talking about possible federalization, soft partition.”

“The Iranians on the other hand are fairly clear about the fact that they want Syria to remain one. They want Syria to go back to the pre-war situation,” she added.

As the fighting winds down, she said, these differences “become more apparent.” Nonetheless, the Russians “don’t have interest in having Iran completely out.”

Both Russia and Iran are staunch allies of the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who has been fighting a brutal civil war since 2011 with various rebel factions. The conflict has killed over 500,000 people, including a large number of civilians. It has also seen the use of chemical weapons against civilian areas. Russia and Iran are widely credited with helping Assad turn the war in his favor.

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