Middle East | Hello, want to push back at Uncle Sam? Then go to Syria

Hello, want to push back at Uncle Sam? Then go to Syria

M.K. Bhadrakumar August 18, 2016 9:41 AM (UTC+8)
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Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s recent visit to St Petersburg to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian jet fighters taking off from an Iranian base for the first time to hit Syrian targets and Erdogan’s proposed visit to Iran probably next week point to a trilateral Turkey-Iran-Russia format emerging on Syria. China seems to be entering the equation laterally as indicated by top military officer Rear Admiral Guan Youfei’s meeting with Syrian Defense Minister Fahad Jassim al-Freij in Damascus. Turkey, Iran, Russia and China have a shared interest or even need to push back at the US, each for its own reasons.    

Small is beautiful. Tehran presents a really small explanation to the breaking news that Russian strategic bombers took off from an Iranian air base to carry out missions in Syria.

Still image shows shows airstrikes carried out by Russian air force in Syria
A still image, taken from video footage and released by Russia’s Defense Ministry on August 18, 2016, shows a Russian Sukhoi Su-34 fighter-bomber based at Iran’s Hamadan air base dropping off bombs in the Syrian province of Deir ez-Zor. Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation/Handout via REUTERS TV.

The chairman of the powerful national security and security policy commission of the Majlis, Alae’ddin Broujerdi said the four-nation agreement between Iran, Russia, Iraq and Syria aimed at bolstering the campaign against terrorism is under implementation and this accounted for it. Period.

Broujerdi’s small explanation was necessitated by weighty considerations. Firstly, Tehran felt the need to downplay the hype that Russia established a military base in Noji in the western Iranian province of Hamadan under a secret military pact.

Domestically, too, an explanation is needed because Iran’s constitution expressly forbids the establishment of military bases by foreign powers on its soil.

Moscow commentators have an even smaller explanation than Broujerdi’s – namely, operating out of Iran cuts time and saves air fuel.

True, Tupolev Tu-22M3 bombers based in Russia, which carry up to 22 tonnes of ordnance, can cut the distance to Syria by two-thirds if they operate out of Iran.

True, shorter flying distance increases the accuracy of airstrikes, and the route (from Iran) allows Russian pilots to avoid advanced ground-to-air missiles in the Syrian rebels’ arsenals.

However, the Iranian and Russian explanations have failed to calm the agitated Western mind, which is inclined to see the dramatic development as signifying:

  • A deepening of the Russian-Iranian alliance in joint support of the Syrian regime;
  • A message to the US that Russia intends to expand its influence beyond Eurasia, asserting its re-emergence as a global power and offsetting Washington’s attempts to box Russia within a New Cold War paradigm;
  • An unprecedented move by Tehran – by allowing a foreign power to use a military base – which proclaims at the very least that strategic relationship with Russia is a top priority and that Tehran will do what it takes to safeguard its core interests in the region.

Of course, taken together with related developments surrounding the Russian-Iranian joint operation in Syria, it is obvious that a seismic shift in the geopolitics of the Middle East is underway and the impact will be far-reaching.

Thus, it is entirely within the realms of possibility that Moscow kept China in the loop.

On Tuesday, Rear Admiral Guan Youfei, head of the Office for International Military cooperation in China’s Central Military Commission, met with Fahad Jassim al-Freij, Syrian Defence Minister in Damascus to convey that “Chinese military is willing to strengthen cooperation with its Syrian counterparts” (according to the Ministry of National Defence in Beijing.)

Prior to meeting the Syrian minister, Guan met the Russian general heading the Syrian reconciliation center in Damascus to discuss “issues of common interest.”

Again, a prominent Kremlin politician speculated on Wednesday that Turkey might offer Incirlik base for the use of Russia in its operations in Syria.

This may seem like a taunt at the US and NATO, but then, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavisoglu also spoke on these lines recently.

Indeed, it cannot be ruled out that Russian President Vladimir Putin took President Recep Erdogan into confidence when they met in St. Petersburg on August 9 regarding the emerging Russian-Iranian coordination in Syria.

The Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif traveled to Ankara on August 11 – after a conversation with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on Erdogan’s talks with Putin.

Of course, the leitmotif of Zarif’s talks in Ankara turned out to be the proposal he mooted for a trilateral Iran-Turkey-Russian format to coordinate their strategies on the Syrian question. The Turkish leaders have since warmed up to the idea.

And it is no surprise, either, that the visiting Russian Deputy Foreign Minister and Kremlin’s special envoy for the Middle East Mikhail Bogdanov said in Tehran on Wednesday that Russia, Iran and Turkey can launch trilateral talks regarding Syria.

Lo and behold, Al-Hayat newspaper reports on Thursday that Erdogan is scheduling a visit to Tehran, possibly as early as next week, to discuss the trilateral Turkey-Iran-Russia format on Syria.

In fact, the newspaper affirms that a trilateral level meeting of officials of the three countries is on cards.

Putting all this rapid flow of events together, the picture that emerges is most certainly one of a Russian-Iranian-Turkish convergence aimed at creating new facts on the ground in Syria.

China seems to be entering the equation laterally, too.

Curiously, all these four protagonists – Turkey, Iran, Russia and China – have one thing in common in geopolitical terms – a shared interest or even need to push back at the US, each for its own reasons, though.

If for Russia, it is the US-led western sanctions and NATO’s “mission creep” on its borders, for Turkey it is the dark suspicion that the July 15 coup attempt had some degree of US backing or acquiescence and that Washington’s dalliance with forces that Ankara regards as unfriendly – Fetullah Gulen and Syrian Kurds, principally – aim at hurting Turkey’s stability and integrity.

Of course, China’s motivation to push back at the US (which is meddling in the South China Sea) doesn’t need an explanation. A commentary featured today in the People’s Daily and Global Times on the use of Hamadan air base by the Russian bombers says:

  • Turkey and Iran are traditional powerhouses in the region, and their embrace with Russia will dramatically change the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East. The potential Russia-Turkey-Iran coalition, plus Syria, will be a nightmare for Washington.
  • All these new ups and downs in the Middle East come amid Washington’s decreasing investment in the region. This is the first round of repercussions as it has re-balanced to the Asia-Pacific… If what is happening in the Middle East continues, the US has no choice but to pivot to the region again. Washington cannot risk losing the Middle East for the sake of its national security, because it is the source of the Islamic anti-Americanism.

Clearly, Beijing realizes that if the US interests are to be hit where it hurts most, it is in the Middle East that China must act, which will in turn ease the pressure on it in the South China Sea.

Equally, there is genuine disappointment in Tehran also that the Obama administration could have played a far more helpful role to enable Iran to garner the benefits of the nuclear deal.

In the period ahead, a critical need arises for Tehran to have strong regional alliances even as a Saudi-Israeli military axis (with American backing) has appeared on the horizon.

Under a new president in the White House, Washington may well revert to the well-known neo-conservative agenda of overthrowing the Islamic regime in Iran.

If anything, the conference of the MKO in Paris in June where the former Saudi spy chief Turki al-Faisal was the master of ceremonies and which was attended by prominent American neoconservative politicians would have been the proverbial last straw for Tehran.

Interestingly, Israeli website Debka quoted military and intelligence sources that Iran has allowed Russia to deploy the advanced S-400 air defence system in the Hamadan air base.

In retrospect, the summit meeting between Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Baku on August 8 was a milestone in the evolution of the strategic alliance between Tehran and Moscow.

The Iran-Russia alliance is tapping into the contradictions within the US-led coalition in Syria following the coup attempt in Turkey, Ankara’s rapprochement with Moscow and the growing disenchantment in Tehran over the uncertain prospects of Iran’s integration with the West in a conceivable future.

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.

M.K. Bhadrakumar
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 the Asia Times since 2001.
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