Ever since Russia’s involvement in Syria in 2015, Moscow and Tehran are collaborating on various security-military fronts across the Middle East. The militias supported by these countries form an important dimension of their security relations. Yet the question remains how Moscow and Tehran view each other’s support of militant groups? What role do these groups play in the convergence or divergence of their relations?

We argue that, while Iran’s links to militant groups are an integral part of its defense strategy, these groups are less prominent in Moscow’s intervention model in the region. However, Moscow has shaped a pragmatic understanding of the need to forge relations with these groups to be in better coordination with Tehran. Iran’s success in using these groups seems to motivate Moscow to follow suite, though in a more limited manner.

Moscow and Tehran’s different outlook of militant groups

Support for militant groups is known to be a long and carefully crafted instrument of Iran’s model of security assistance across the Middle East. As recent research shows, Iran’s support for these groups evolved over several phases from sporadic and ideologically-driven acts into a comprehensive strategic tool. Tehran increased its reliance on building a network of militias known as the “axis of resistance” for three goals: to counter the US-led collective security architecture in the Middle East; to build a Tehran-led regional alliance; and to boost its deterrence capability by expanding its ‘strategic depth’.

However, this is less of a feature in Russian interventions. Even though the emergence of some militant groups in Syria can be traced to around the same time or slightly earlier than Russia stepping in to support Bashar Al-Assad, Moscow does not rely on ideologically and institutionally backed networks to the same extent as Iran does. For Russia, support for non-state militias in the Middle East would lack Iran’s religious appeal, neither can it boast the same strategic weight.

Russia’s support for certain militant groups in the region is no secret, yet it is more of an ad-hoc alliance. At times, Russia used its connections with some Middle Eastern militias to increase its political weight as a part of its ‘return’ to the region after being marginally active since Soviet times.

Notwithstanding the different perceptions and roles of militant groups in the intervention model of the two countries, they both might agree on the value of rendering them support as a way to keep the US distracted with perpetual low-intensity conflicts. As a result, there seems to be a mutual recognition of their unique approach to the use of militant groups. Hence, neither party tried to persuade the other to change the course. Instead, Moscow and Tehran have attempted to coordinate and establish norms of interaction between their different ways of operation.

Coordination as a challenge between Moscow and Tehran

Coordination remains a significant challenge between Moscow and Tehran when it comes to militant groups. Occasionally, there are clashes between Russian and Iran-backed groups in Syria, which is telling. For example, reports surfaced of the Russia-backed military Fifth Corps clashing with Iran-backed militias in the Syrian city of Palmyra in 2022. Later in 2022, news appeared that Russia asked Iran to withdraw militias from the area around Hama and Tartus Western Syria, to prevent further airstrikes by Israel – a possible development that Moscow considers detrimental to both its relationship with Israel, the groups it backs in Syria, and the civilian population in the country. These clashes highlight the complexity that Moscow and Tehran face in tactical coordination rather than conflicting goals or strategic divergence in Syria.

Difficulties in coordination arise from the fact that both parties operate in close proximity, backing groups that may be at odds with each other. For example, both have used the National Defence Forces (NDF) as an entry point to local communities, and later Russia facilitated its integration into the Syrian army. Another example is the Liwa’ al-Quds which was instrumental to both Moscow and Tehran’s efforts against IS, with both supplying weapons and other resources to it. These interactions have made coordination critical and, indeed, Russia-supported groups like Liwa’ al-Quds would be alerted about pro-Iranian groups conducting operations (e.g. when Liwa’ al-Baqir conducted an offensive against Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on west bank of the Euphrates in 2019).

Similarly, Moscow finds that improving its ties with Iran-backed militias is a valuable part of its coordination attempt. These connections were useful in resolving possible disputes with Tehran and preventing escalations with Israel. For example, Hezbollah maintains regular political contacts with the Russian government, through high-level meetings between representatives of the party and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, as well his deputy on the Middle East Mikhail Bogdanov. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin called Hezbollah ‘a serious political force’. Hezbollah and Russia’s interactions helped them coordinate issues in Syria. In its openness to maintaining extended contacts with Hezbollah, Russia’s interest also converges with Iran’s aspirations in the region, who is the party’s major financial and military sponsor.

However, it is has been well-noted by now how skillful Moscow is in compartmentalizing this policy in order to not antagonize Israel. The reason for this success might be in the fact that Russia has limited its cooperation with Hezbollah to its own goals in Syria, while some in the party might have hoped that it would extend beyond and help the group to improve its international image. Even in Syria, this cooperation is limited, as Moscow has not been using its air defense to protect the Hezbollah’s positions against Israeli air strikes.

Is Moscow learning from the Iranian model?

Global actors learn from each other’s strategies and techniques of rendering military assistance to clients—the so called horizontal learning. For example, despite its distinct model of security assistance, Iran has learned substantially from the American experience of assisting militant groups across the Middle East. Russia is no exception here. Like its Iranian partner, Russia is also using its influence over militant groups as a strategic tool against adversaries. With tensions rising with Europe over the Russian invasion of Ukraine and in a bid to maintain Europe’s dependence on the Russia gas, Moscow might have even encouraged Hezbollah to escalate its dispute with Israel over the Karish gas field – one of the potential alternative supply providers. Sources from Hezbollah echoed this possibility; tensions occurred in September 2022, when the facility was set to become operational.

It was reported that private military companies like the Wagner Group were involved in training militias as Russia was seen recruiting the fighters for its other campaigns, such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Venezuela, or Libya. There is information about Wagner’s attempts to recruit soldiers in Lebanon, where Shia Muslims would be the most likely candidates – exercising this kind of influence would not be possible without Hezbollah. As for Syria, consultants from the Russian military, and to a lesser extent the Wagner Group, were training militias such as the Tiger Forces, Suqour al-Sahara (the Desert Hawks), Liwa’ al-Quds (the Jerusalem Brigade), the 5th Corps, the ISIS Hunters.

Support for the Syrian militias, some of which were integrated into the structure of the Syrian army under the direction of Russian advisors, prepared a base for potential recruitment for Moscow’s own strategic plans – the war in Ukraine. There was information about the recruitment of fighters in the provinces of Deir-ez-Zor, Rural Damascus, and Daraa for the conflict in Ukraine, shortly after the start of the campaign. It is said, however, that for the Ukrainian military intervention, Russia has been carefully selecting the most battle-hardened fighters who would require minimal training. In mid-March 2022 Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu announced about 16,000 volunteers from the Middle East were ready to join the fight. They have been spotted on the battlefield in Ukraine, but the actual numbers remain unconfirmed.

Using the Iranian model, Russia started framing its recruitment of Syrian fighters for Ukraine around an anti-imperialist narrative – rallying around the (Russian) flag, infused by the principle of ‘brotherhood’, as Russia helped Syria to preserve its territorial integrity. Then again, this is how Russia rather present the narrative of ‘foreign volunteers’ at home, but for the Syrian fighters, remuneration is likely a greater factor than any ideological basis.

Moscow’s key motivation in using foreign fighters for its military campaign was likely to mitigate the political risks of full-scale mobilization in Russia. Even though the ‘partial’ mobilization announced on 24 September 2022 still caused less political damage than was expected. Another advantage is to engage battle-hardened fighters for its cause. On the other hand, these are piecemeal recruits and not whole formations or units. These individual recruits do not represent a unified force and hence are more difficult to manage, especially considering the language barrier.


For Russia, delivering security assistance to militant groups is not a primary strategic instrument. Engagement with Middle Eastern militias is more tactical and pursues either ad hoc goals, like those in Syria, or a show of support for allies like Iran. In the conditions of the Russian invasion to Ukraine and subsequent attempts to isolate it economically and politically, reliance on Iran’s support to defy isolation grew. At the same time, there is still not much leeway for Russia to support especially Lebanese or Palestinian militias, as it could undermine its relations with Israel. Therefore, Russia is careful in conducting its dialogue with Hezbollah and relies on the likes of Liwa’ al-Quds for limited purposes.

In its support of non-state militant groups, Moscow would only go as far as such support serves its own interests. It does not boast about engaging ‘mercenaries’ from the Middle East. Even private military companies are illegal according to Russian legislation, even though Wagner de facto defies the law. If compared to Iran, Russia lacks a religion-based messianic agenda, though it acquired some of its own messianic message recently as the torch-bearer of the new, non-West-centric international order. Lastly, one should not underestimate Moscow and Tehran’s success in effectively coordinating their militia policies across the Middle East, forming a gradual process of building norms and principles of partnership.

Source » ispionline