Iran cool on Russian pullout from Syria

M.K. Bhadrakumar March 16, 2016 4:18 PM (UTC+8)
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Damascus scrambled to insist that Russian President Vladimir Putin did discuss the military pullout from Syria on Monday evening with President Bashar al-Assad, and that Moscow’s decision was a consensus decision.

Putin
Putin

This was only to be expected, since the western media have resuscitated the thesis that Putin is putting distance between the Kremlin and the Assad regime in a sign of flexibility at the Geneva peace talks, which are overseen by Russia and the US.

The hurried trip by the US Secretary of State John Kerry to Moscow next week should help clarify that the decision on a pullout from Syria doesn’t necessarily signify a shift in Russia’s stance on Assad’s future.

Having said that, Assad may be the least of the headaches in the period ahead. The real problem will begin if the US-Russia tandem on Syria triggers a “Muslim revolt” from some Mideast regional states. Of particular concern is the fact that the Obama administration’s capacity to extract good conduct from Turkey and Saudi Arabia is fast diminishing.

Also, things have become rather personal with President Barack Obama having branded Turkish President Recep Erdogan as a “failure and authoritarian.” Obama has also derided the proud Arab sheikhs of the Persian Gulf as “free riders.”

Russia, Iran cohesive

The good part is that on the “Russian side” things look far more cohesive. The secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, said on Wednesday in an interview with state television that Tehran and Moscow have not halted their military advisory roles in Syria.

“Russia’s decision to withdraw some of its forces from Syria was coordinated and preplanned. It didn’t come as a surprise at all,” Shamkhani said.

He stressed that the war on terrorism and extremism will continue as before, adding that the Syrian Army, in collaboration with Iranian and Russian military advisers, will continue to advance in regions that are still under terrorist threat.

Shamkhani further noted in a veiled reference to Assad’s future that it is up to the Syrian people to determine their own fate, arguing that any plan that ignores this key issue is doomed to fail.

Equally, the chief of general staff of the Iranian armed forces Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi said in a highly publicized remark in Tehran on Tuesday that the demand that Assad should be removed from power is actually an Israeli demand. He made the remark while referring to the peace talks in Geneva.

Iranians kept in loop

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks at a press conference in Australia.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks at a press conference in Australia.

The Kremlin would seem to have kept the Iranians in the loop regarding the decision on a drawdown of troops. Commenting, inter alia, on the Russian decision, Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif who is on an official visit to Australia didn’t sound surprised:

  • The fact that Russia announced that it is withdrawing part of its forces indicates that they don’t see an imminent need for resort to force in maintaining the ceasefire. That in and of itself should be a positive sign. Now we have to wait and see. The fact that a semi-ceasefire has been holding in Syria is welcome news, it’s something that we’ve been asking for at least two-and-a-half, three years.

Clearly, Zarif gave a qualified welcome to the Russian decision but took it in stride. He was disinclined to read political meaning into it. Meanwhile, Tehran used the ongoing visit of Syria’s deputy foreign minister Faisal al-Mekdad to voice its continued strong support for Assad. This was articulated by the speaker of the Majlis Ali Larijani and the supreme leader’s advisor on foreign affairs Ali Akbar Velayati while receiving Mekdad on Tuesday.

Velayati hailed the united front involving Iran, Syria, Iraq and the Hezbollah and added that Russian operations “transformed the conditions to the benefit of the resistance front.” Velayati added, the “Syrian government survived unscathed from a small world war which sought to destroy the backbone of resistance in the region.”

Iran sending commandos

Equally, a senior army commander said in Tehran on Wednesday that Iran plans to deploy commandos and snipers in Iraq and Syria as military advisors. “At some point we might decide to use our commandos and snipers as military advisors in Iraq and Syria,” Deputy Chief Liaison of the Army’s Ground Force General Ali Arasteh told reporters.

Iranian commandos
Iranian commandos

He said the first group of commandos and snipers are being trained for the purpose and they might be deputed to Iraq and Syria in the near future.

Suffice it to say, Tehran understands perfectly well that Putin is in some hurry to reach a settlement in Syria that projects Russia as a responsible player on the world stage and burnishes its credentials for partnership with Europe and the US. The bottom line for Putin will be the removal of western sanctions against Russia as quickly as possible. Moscow probably anticipates a much less accommodative attitude from the next US president.

Now, it remains to be seen how far Iran will accept any emergent Russian-American tandem to impose any solution on Syria. The UN mediator Staffan de Mistura has just inducted into his team a noted Kremlin expert, Vitaly Naumkin, and has sought a corresponding American nominee, too. Presumably, Mistura will now hold the steering wheel in Geneva while Naumkin and his American partner will decide where the vehicle goes and at what speed.

Hossein Malaek, an influential analyst in Tehran (who held senior ambassadorial assignments), wrote recently that Washington and Moscow may attempt to impose a solution on Syria that divests the Assad government of control of the levers of power so that the governance comes under the supervision of the UN Security Council.

Malaek saw the deployment of UN peacekeeping forces in Syria as a distinct possibility with a view to curbing and containing the direct role of Iran, Turkey or Saudi Arabia. A peacekeeper presence would force these regional states to comply with the framework laid down by the Security Council. Quite obviously, Iran’s national pride and sense of independence and its grit to safeguard its interests in Syria should not be underestimated.

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.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

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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