In likely provocation to Russia, Iran lays hand on Syrian air defences
DAMASCUS--The regimes of Syria and Iran signed a new military agreement on Wednesday to strengthen the capabilities of the Syrian forces’ air defences in what seemed like a response from Tehran to the political and military pressures aimed at forcing it to withdraw its forces and those of its proxy militias from Syria.
The bilateral deal was signed by Iran’s armed forces chief Major General Mohammad Bagheri and Syrian Defence Minister Ali Abdullah Ayoub. Both held a news conference in Damascus, afterwards.
Iranian state TV quoted Bagheri as saying: “We will strengthen Syria’s air defence systems and will be improving military cooperation between the two countries.”
The deal will “further enhance our will… to confront pressures by America,” he added.
Syria and Iran are facing stringent economic sanctions, which have become more dire for Damascus with the implementation of the Caesar Act last month.
The new set of sanctions aim to force the Syrian regime to change its policies so as to come to the negotiating table and comply with previous UN resolutions (especially Resolution No. 2254, which specifically calls for a ceasefire and a political settlement in Syria). It also aims to compel Damascus to give up Tehran’s military support.
The presence of Iran’s forces and proxy militias in Syria worries the United States and Israel. The latter intensified its airstrikes in recent months against Iranian sites, especially in southern and eastern Syria near the Iraqi border.
There seems to be some process of distribution of roles between the United States and Israel in order to force Iran to leave Syria. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu warned in a joint conference he held with visiting US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook, last week, that Syrian President Bashar Assad would be “risking the future” of his country and his regime if he “allowed” Iran to establish a presence in certain parts of Syria and on the border with Israel in particular.
The role distribution process also ,involves Russia. Moscow has turned a blind eye to Israeli operations inside Syria and rarely commented on Israel’s actions. In addition, Russia refuses to activate the modern air defence systems it had brought into Syria, especially the S-300 system, as there seems to be a tacit agreement with Washington and Tel Aviv on the issue.
The official Syrian News Agency (SANA) reported that “Syria and Iran signed a comprehensive military agreement to strengthen military and security cooperation at various fields of activity of the armed forces in the two friendly countries.”
The agreement was signed after several sessions held by the two parties, according to the news agency, which quoted Ayoub as saying that “the mutual military and security cooperation is remarkable and continuous as it covers all aspects despite increasing pressures and threats.”
Syrian activist Ayman Abdel-Nour told The Arab Weekly that the recent agreement between Iran and Syria carries three messages. The first is a challenge to the Caesar Act, while the second is a message to Russia, which has recently shown ambivalence towards the regime’s intransigence. This was confirmed in articles published by several Russian media outlets that are considered close to the Kremlin and that criticised Assad and his close circle.
Abdel-Nour pointed out that Moscow has opened channels of communication with opposition factions and Alawite figures abroad, one of the reasons for Assad’s concerns about Russia’s intentions.
The Syrian reformist advocate believes that the third message is addressed to Israel, which has intensified its targeting of Iranian bases in Syria. Tehran is saying it will develop the Syrian air systems so Damascus is able to respond to Israeli attacks.
The joint closing remarks for the comprehensive military agreement’s session emphasised the need for continued collaborative action to face what was described as “the Takfiri terrorism supported by regional and international powers in all their names and forms” and stressed the need for all foreign forces operating “illegally” in Syria to withdraw — mainly a reference to the United States, which deployed military personnel in Kurdish areas in the northeast, and Turkey, which invaded a section of northeast and northwest.
Iran is considered Damascus’s main regional ally and has provided it with political, economic and military support since the conflict started in 2011. In that year, Tehran took the initiative of securing Syria’s oil needs before sending military advisers and fighters to support the Syrian army in its battles.
In the summer of 2018, the two countries signed a military cooperation agreement stating that Tehran needs to support the reconstruction of the Syrian army and defence industries. They also signed a “long-term” economic cooperation agreement that covered several sectors, most notably oil, electric power and banks.
The existence of far-reaching agendas behind Iran’s interference on the Syrian scene is no secret. In addition to saving its ally Assad, Iran is seeking to build a secure road linking it to Beirut, where Hezbollah, one of its most prominent proxies, is based, in addition to opening a path to the Mediterranean.
Abdel-Nour says that Iran seeks through this agreement to enhance its capabilities to face the pressures imposed on it to leave Syria, noting that this agreement constitutes a huge embarrassment for the Russians because it will cost them the important card they wield in controlling the Syrian air defence forces.
Moscow will have two options — either submitting to the regime’s blackmail or lining up with international powers to force the latter to make compromises, including those related to Iran’s own presence in Syria.