Collective actions of Moscow and Tehran contributed to the salvation of the dictatorial regime of President Assad. It was very beneficial for Russia to use Hezbollah fighters as cannon fodder for the destruction of ISIS units. Now, in the new realities, Iran and its satellites on the Syrian land have become quite undesirable players for the Russians. The latter switched to flirting with Israel, which could eventually lead to direct armed confrontation between the Persians and Russians. Instead of a new stage in the negotiation process, the country is likely to expect another round of bloodshed and chaos.
Significant minor incident
In June 4 this year, an event took place in Syria that carries a significant symbolic character. The pro-Iranian Lebanese armed group Hezbollah expressed its strong claims against the Russian military stationed on Syrian soil. Field commanders of Hezbollah are extremely outraged by the behavior of the Russian contingent, who decided to conduct “maneuvers on the border with Lebanon”. The Russian police suddenly appeared at four points: at the crossroads of Hassia (M5 highway, south of Homs), in the town of Al-Akrabia (south of Tartus), at the water station in Al-Qusayr and in the village of Al-Masriya (near the border with Lebanon).
Without any coordination with the pro-Iranian forces, the Russians transferred to the soldiers of the Syrian army the city El Qusayr in the province of Homs. Now, the 11th division of the Assad army is located in the border with Israel, which fully satisfies the interests of the Netanyahu government, which insists that the presence of Iranians should not be in the border zone.
Nevertheless, Hezbollah field commanders do not want to leave the region, and they also retain their presence there. Regarding the incident at Al-Qusayr, the Russian General Staff keeps silent, realizing that everyone understands well in Tehran. The essence of the Russian message is that the services of the Iranians are not particularly needed, and their interests can be neglected. Also in Moscow they hint that they are very interested in the process of prompt withdrawal of parts of pro-Iranian militants from the southern and south-western regions of Syria, which began on June 2.
In fact, the Russian Federation is lobbying the implementation of the principled agreements with the Israeli side that were previously reached during the negotiations of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu with his Israeli counterpart Avigdor Lieberman. At the end of May, they agreed to work together in the de-escalation zone in southern Syria and in the border zone, where many questions arose. “I am glad to welcome you to Moscow and the opportunity to discuss topical issues on the Syrian settlement. Today we need to discuss everything related to work at the border in the southern zone of de-escalation, where we have an agreement with Jordan and the United States “, – Shoigu said.
The Russian ambassador in the UN, Vasily Nebenzia, confirmed that some “agreement on the disengagement” of forces in southern Syria was reached, but did not begin to talk about details. The Israeli ambassador in Russia also confirmed that the negotiations in Moscow were successful. From such behind-the-scenes deals of Russia and Israel, Iran is not enthusiastic at all, because they believe that the fate of Syria is being determined without their participation, and they act with the Persians like an unnecessary Moor who has done his work.
But in Tehran and the top leadership of Hezbollah do not like this formulation. On June 6, in an interview for the Lebanese parliament’s media, Hezbollah member Shiite Nabih Berri said that Iran’s forces and Hezbollah movement will not leave Syria until the country will be liberated from terrorism and its territorial integrity will be restored. Berry recalled that the Iranian forces in Syria are at the request of the Syrian leadership the same, as the Russian military contingent. Thus, from the perspective of the Iranians, they are equal partners of Damascus, as well as Russians. So, their interests must be taken into account in full. According to him, “today there are about 1.5 million Syrians in Lebanon, and we do not consider them outsiders”. Lebanon and Syria are like twins, so everything that happens in Syria affects Lebanon, and any division of Syria is a redrawing of the map of the region in the same way as it happened under the Sykes-Pico treaty.
In general, it’s impossible to leave the Iranians outside the boat, and there will be no partition of Syria without Iranian participation. According to Israeli estimates, there are about two thousand Iranian soldiers in Syria today – advisers and forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, as well as about nine thousand militias belonging to Shiite militias, mobilized in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. In addition, there are about seven thousand Lebanese Hezbollah fighters in Syria.
If we return to the June 4 incident, traditionally, Russia’s irresponsible attitude towards the Iranian ally could be covered up by a fight with a group of terrorists, for example, with the “Front of An-Nusra” or the notorious ISIS. But Hezbollah already defeated these groups in the province of Homs in 2017. So, there is really nothing to cover, and Russians just have to remain silent. In Tehran, efforts are being made to protect the “axis of resistance” (Hezbollah, al-Qudes forces and Iranian military advisers) from possible future uncoordinated actions by Russia.
The difference between the goals of Moscow and Tehran is becoming more and more prominent, especially in the light of the formation of an alliance of Russians and Israelis. As you know, Jerusalem and Moscow want the same thing: the pro-Iranian forces have to lose their positions in Syria.
The end of Russian sitting on many chairs
For a long time Russian propaganda underscored the unique achievement of Russian diplomacy, which consisted in the fact that Moscow is able to maintain good contacts with all regional participants in conflicts in the Middle East. The Russians were on a short foot both with the Shiites (Syrians and Iranians) and Sunnis (primarily the monarchies of the Persian Gulf and Egypt), and also, as it turned out, have close enough contacts with the Israelis.
Of course, such diversity allowed them to manipulate the trust of various parties and offer them their services for a time, both peaceful and military. But it worked as long as all the participants in the Syrian war had a common enemy in the person of ISIS, where Moscow had its own people, which in many ways supported the relevance of this organization. After all, the Russian military bombed the positions of the moderate anti-Assad opposition more intensely than the terrorists under the black jihadist flags.
When the main ISIS forces fell, first of all, thanks to the American coalition, the relations between Moscow and Tehran began to deteriorate sharply. Inside Syria, the two big players became tight, and the Russians quickly entered into an alliance with Israel to squeeze together the Iranians from their Syrian sphere of influence.
The Kremlin does not have a long-term strategy in the Middle East, but only a set of approaches based on concluding situational alliances with quick returns and, preferably, a significant PR effect. The imitation of stormy activity in the affairs of the countries of the region is Russia’s work, which does not give it the opportunity to get the allies. The Syrian regime of Assad remains only long-standing friend of Moscow, who retained a warm attitude towards Russia after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR. All other combinations, that Russian strategists form, are just hard pragmatism.
Now it is advantageous for Moscow to become a couple with Israel, and to push Iran away from itself. The secret and overt time of sitting on many chairs has passed. Now, a big deal is being prepared for Syria with the participation of Jerusalem, and the US behind it. Realizing the power of Israel, Putin received Netanyahu with great lust in the Kremlin on May 9, and stressed that he also considers Israel to be the winner in the Middle East, and sympathizes with him in every way.
At the same time, Russia very much likes the Israelis’ approach to solving their problems and achieving their goals. The Israeli goal is to establish its domination in the Middle East. To do this, the Iraq, Libya and Syria, and then Iran, should be weakened, or even more dismembered. In practice, this has happened in relation to the first three countries. Although officially, Israel does not seem to have a visible relation to the degradation of many countries in the Arab world, but to talk about the lack of its role in this process will be naive.
Chaos in the region is beneficial to Israel, because amid of weak Arab powers, the power of the Jewish democratic state is growing, which remains consolidated and integral inside. Chaos in the Middle East is beneficial to Russia, which needs high oil prices for its survival. The growing confrontation between Israel and Iran in the future should have a positive effect for Russia, because it will be able to sell its weapons to various countries of the region.
If we return to Syria, Moscow demonstrably refrains from condemning the periodic strikes of the Israeli Air Force on the pro-Iranian forces in this country. And this silence has been going on since December 2017! This indirectly indicates that Moscow is beneficial to the weakening of Iran’s positions and the complete withdrawal of this force from Syria. So, the Russians want to kill a lot of hares: get indulgence from the West for Assad’s temporary stay in power, raise investments from Arab monarchies to rebuild the ruined Syria in exchange for the prospect of replacing the same Assad with a more acceptable candidate, and also get guarantees of preserving the immunity of its military bases in Latakia.
Observing all these multi-moves of the Putin regime, the Iranians began to openly express their dissatisfaction with the Russians. So, Tehran extremely negative perceived the words of Sergei Lavrov about the need for all non-Syrian forces to leave the de-escalation zone in south-west Syria. “Moscow should not interfere in the internal affairs of the Syrians”, – Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hussein Sheikh al-Islam said. An indirect sign of the cooling of relations between the two countries became the rollback of activity of the Russian oil company Lukoil in Iran. The company’s management decided not to continue projects in Iran due to the threat of US sanctions. “At the moment, basically, everything is stopped”, – Lukoil said.
Before that, Iranian anger was called by Russia’s vote in support of anti-Iran sanctions, as well as the refusal to provide the already paid S-300 complexes.
Now, the Iranians are shocked by the fact that due to the Russians’ fault, their multi-billion dollar investments in the Syrian regime of Assad and the years of military support can go wrong. The regime of Ayatollah Khamenei and his allies are not ready to leave Syria on calls from Moscow, and they say that only the Assad regime can take decisions on their removal from Syria. And he is on the hook of the Persians, because Damascus’s hands are connected by considerable debts to the Islamic Republic.
Tehran’s determination in international affairs is also indicated by the country’s return to the development of nuclear weapons after Washington’s decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Also, the Persians will not ignore the Russian challenge to them. Of course, Iran is not ready to withdraw from Syrian land for the joy of Israel and Russia, won by sweat and blood, and so new struggles on the long-suffering Syrian land are just around the corner.
Russia does not go away: Syria is bleeding again
In addition to considerable trouble with the Iranians in southern Syria, Russians are also facing problems in other parts of the country. On June 6, the Khayat Tahrish al-Sham militia fired 6 times from the mortars on the positions of the Russian military police in the west of the province of Aleppo. Russian propaganda says that the shelling of illegal armed groups does not stop, which requires radical answers from Russians. In particular, the Russians bombed the suburbs of Aleppo Leramun. The positions of the armed opposition were fired by the jets Su-34, using the FAB-500 bombs. The bases for the storage of equipment and the field staffs of the militia fell into the zone of defeat.
The Russians did not stop on this, and, on the night of June 7-8, they conducted air strikes on the Idlib province, held by Syrian rebels, which led to the death of at least 44 people, including 11 women and 6 children. Over six dozen people are injured; many of them are in critical condition. This was reported by the Syrian Human Rights Monitoring Center.
“Military aircraft, which are probably Russian, attacked the village of Zardan in the northern part of Idlib, which immediately caused the largest number of casualties in one attack on the region since the end of March”, – said Rami Abdulrahman, director of the British military monitor. The northwestern region of Idlib remains Syria’s largest area in the hands of rebels fighting with the government of Damascus. In recent years, tens of thousands of rebels and civilians fled there from areas of the country that the army of the Assad regime repulsed with the help of Russia and Iran.
In response to accusations of mass murder, the Russian Defense Ministry refuted “All reports of the London “Syrian Human Rights Monitoring Center” and “White Helmets” about the alleged attack by Russian aircraft in the evening of June 7 in the vicinity of the settlement of Zardan in the province of Idlib that it is not correspond to reality. The Russians are writing off everything on the fighting between the Jebhat an Nusra squad and the opposition group Jays al-Ahrar.
The fact that Syria is very far from the peace declared by Putin in the end of 2017, say his own words. In the course of the “Straight Line” he stated that the Russian military contingent will be in Syria as long as it profitable for Russia. “Our military are there to ensure Russia’s interests in this extremely important region of the world, which very close to us. They will stay there until it is beneficial to Russia, or in fulfillment of our obligations. We do not plan to withdraw these units yet … We do not build long-term facilities there and if necessary we can withdraw all our servicemen quickly and without material losses. But while they are needed, they solve important tasks, including ensuring Russia’s security in this region, ensuring our interests”, – Putin said.
Such confessions completely untie the hands of other players – the US, Turkey, and Iran, and point out that the calls of Russians to withdraw foreign troops from Syria turned out to be yet another profanity. But while retaining its contingent in Syria, Putin also deceived his electorate, whom he promised to return the Russian troops to his homeland in December 2017. The elections have passed, and with them the promises have been forgotten …
A short memory of the Russian leadership will lead to another round of destruction and suffering of the Syrian people, but the violence that Russians create will take lives of Russian citizens. Especially, when the new and anti-Russian force in Syria will be deceived and used by Moscow Iran. “The Devil’s alliance” between them finally disintegrates, and the appearance of a bit of holiness in their future actions in Syria should not be expected.