Multiple reports suggest sporadic conflict has broken out between Russian forces and Shia militias aligned with Iran across Syria within the last few days, as the two regional powers backing the Syrian government jostle for influence.
In the suburbs of the eastern city of Hama, the Russian-backed Fifth Corps, Tiger Forces and Eight Division of the Syrian Army clashed with the Iranian loyalists from the Republican Guard and the army’s Fourth Division, Egypt’s Al-Ahram reported, resulting in the pro-Russian troops seizing checkpoints from their pro-Iranian counterparts. Forces aligned with the Iranian-backed terror outfit Hezbollah were also forced out of the Qalamun Mountains region, near the country’s border with Lebanon, amid heavy Russian pressure.
Further west, Russian troops have blown up bridges over the Euphrates river that were held by Shia militias, according to a report by Kurdish media outlet Bas News. This was described by Jerusalem Post as “the first time the Russians attacked Iranian targets in Syria”.
The Fourth Division of the Syrian Army is led by President Bashar al-Assad’s brother, Maher al-Assad, who is seen as much closer to Iran than his more pro-Russian brother. The Fourth Division consists of an Iraqi Shia militia called the Imam Hussein brigade, and helps run depots for Hezbollah.
Senior Iranian officials had harsh words for the Russians, whom they believe have colluded with Israel.
“There is clear coordination between Moscow and Tel Aviv whenever there are strikes inside Syria,” said Heshmat Bishah, chair of the National Security and Foreign Policy committee of the Iranian legislature. “If Russia had enabled the S300 missile system, Israel would not have carried out these attacks so easily.”
Israel has long sought a Russian crackdown on the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Iran-backed Shia militias stationed in Syria, its northern neighbor. One of the key accomplishments of President Donald Trump during his Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin was obtaining a guarantee from the Russians that they would ensure the security of Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to meet with Putin on February 21, where the situation in Syria is expected to be a prime topic of discussion.