Russia, Iran coordinate moves on Syria

February 17, 2016 2:53 AM (UTC+8)


The Iranian defense minister Gen. Hossein Dehghan left Tehran on Monday on a visit to Russia at the invitation of his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu. In an arrival statement in Moscow, he said,

  • We are seriously with the Syrian government and nation and we have had decisive cooperation with Russia, which has resulted in a change of power balance and creation of a new situation for Syria.

Dehghan added, “Reviewing the past agreements to bring faster into result, and the issue of Syria will be among the topic to be discussed during my visit to Russia.”

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, right, and Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan meet in Moscow Feb. 16
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, right, and Iranian Defense Minister Gen Hossein Dehghan meet in Moscow Feb. 16

Clearly, Russian-Iranian military cooperation and coordination in Syria is intensifying.

The Kremlin confirmed that Dehghan met President Vladimir Putin.

Dehghan’s ‘working visit’ to Moscow needs to be seen against the backdrop of the gathering storms in Syria. The point is, sifting through Iranian statements, Tehran is no longer completely dismissive of the stated Turkish-Saudi intent to undertake ground operations in Syria.

While earlier statements from Tehran poured scorn on Saudi capacity to intervene in Syria, the tone has changed. The Iranian Foreign Ministry on Monday explicitly warned Turkey and Saudi Arabia. It said,

  • Iran believes the crisis has become complicated and multi-layered due to regional and international meddling. Any new measure without coordination with the Syrian government and against the country’s sovereignty will only complicate the matter and increase terrorist attacks… We hope all countries will consider these facts before taking any military action.”

The Fars news agency, which is close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), also featured a commentary on Monday, which questioned the motives behind the US’ push for “cessation of hostilities” in Syria. It said, inter alia,

  • Russian and Iranian officials and military commanders have already warned that in alliance with Syria and Hezbollah, they would continue the fight and take direct action if Damascus and other Syrian cities come under attack from terrorists and their backers… Tehran and Moscow don’t trust the regime changers — the War Party and its regional vassals — unless they prove they can be trusted. Which means before anything else, they have to stop supplying arms and harboring extremist outfits. Until then, Tehran, Russia, Syria and Hezbollah will resort to any possible means to protect the elected government of Syria and its territorial integrity. This should not come as a surprise.

Tehran is deeply skeptical about the US intentions. Although Washington and Ankara appear to be preoccupied with a verbal brawl over christening Syrian Kurds as “terrorists” or not, there is a long history of the two NATO allies working in tandem while dissimulating difference of opinion to mislead outsiders.

Turkey has a consistent record of making defiant noises but ultimately falling in line with Washington’s guidelines. Such situations can be multiplied. Thus, it is entirely conceivable that the open support voiced by German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday for Turkey’s proposal to create a ‘no-fly zone’ in Syria would have enjoyed some measure of American approval.

Iran’s national security council chief Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani said in Tehran on Monday, “Some countries have been playing double game as regards the war on terror. They claim they have formed a counter-terror coalition which is far from the truth. Past experiences suggest they will fail. Sending ground troops to Syria without its consent will worsen the crisis and make it more than ever complex”.

Again, the well-known Iranian scholar-diplomat at Princeton Seyed Hossein Mousavian wrote in an exasperated tone last week that Washington has a chequered history of erring in its Middle East policies.

Mousavian is considered to be close to ruling circles in Tehran. As he put it, “By supporting a Saudi ground invasion of Syria, the United States would be… pushing Iran and Russia toward threatening the very viability of the House of Saud. This would be a devastating mistake.”

To be sure, the stakes are very high for Iran if a Saudi-Turkish alliance sets the ball rolling for ground operation in Syria with tacit US support.

Equally, a new criticality has arisen in the ground situation in northern Syria where Iranian military advisors and Hezbollah fighters are deeply involved in the operations led by the government forces with Russian air cover.

Despite Ankara rushing reinforcements of fresh fighters into northern Syria in the Aleppo province and providing them with artillery cover, the rebels backed by Turkey could not hold the strategic town of Tel Rifaat situated 12 kms from the border.

On Monday night, Syrian Kurd militia forces stormed Tel Rifaat, a stronghold of al-Nusra Front (an al-Qaeda affiliate), and occupied it. Their next target is likely to be Marea just to the east of Tel Rifaat, and, thereupon, the big trophy – Azaz town on Turkish border.

The Russian jets have been pounding Azaz. The Turkish President Recep Erdogan sees that his ‘red lines’ in Syria have crumbled.

Al-Monitor cited “well-placed military sources in Ankara” as signalling that “many key people in Ankara view the developments… as the last chance for Turkey to make a comeback as an effective actor in Syria. They fear that if Ankara fails to use events in Aleppo to advance national interests, Turkey will be permanently sidelined in the Syrian game”.

That is a plausible line of thinking. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu could be one of those “many key people in Ankara”. He vowed on Monday, “We will not let Azaz fall”.

On the other hand, Moscow has strongly condemned Turkey’s cross-border artillery fire. A foreign ministry statement on Monday expressed “serious concern over aggressive Turkish actions” and warned against Turkey’s “provocative policy”.

All in all, the meeting at the Kremlin between Putin and the visiting Iranian defence minister underscores that Moscow and Tehran are coordinating their moves on Syria in anticipation of a likely flashpoint arising in the coming days or weeks in the northern Aleppo province.

The Aviationist magazine reported that the Tu-214R, an advanced newly-developed Russian spy plane equipped with all-weather radar systems and sensor packages to perform both electronic intelligence and signal intelligence, has been moved to Syria. The aircraft followed the eastern corridor from Russia to the Caspian Sea and flew onward to Syria via the Iranian airspace.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.