Soleimani’s hand seen in Russia-Iran move on Syria

Friday 18/09/2015
Reaching out to Moscow

BEIRUT - The key to what appears to be a joint Russian-Iranian intervention in Syria’s complex civil war, the most dangerous conflict to flay the Middle East in decades, probably lies in a July 24th meeting in Moscow between General Qas­sem Soleimani, leader of Iran’s se­cretive al-Quds Force, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In recent weeks, the Russians have deployed an advance force of advisers and engineers protected by a unit of 200 naval infantry in the north-western Syrian port of Latakia and the small naval base Russia has maintained at Tartus, 80 kilometres to the south, since 1971.
On one level, the mission seems to be to establish a Russian airbase in the region, one of the last strong­holds of beleaguered Syrian Presi­dent Bashar Assad, to ensure his survival. But it has wider geopoliti­cal implications as it will give Mos­cow a major military foothold in the Arab world and the eastern Medi­terranean, where Putin has long sought to expand Russian power.
The Russians are building a base outside Latakia with a control tower and prefabricated housing that will eventually accommodate about 1,500 military personnel. They are also extending the runway to handle the giant Antonov An-124 Condor transport jets and erecting hardened shelters for combat air­craft and attack helicopters.
Diplomatic sources in the region report that Moscow is also sending advanced SA-22 air-defence missile systems to the burgeoning Russian enclave at Latakia, presumably to boost defences around the base be­ing constructed at Bassel al-Assad airport just south of the port city.
Israeli military sources say Ira­nian al-Quds Force combat units have arrived in Syria — for the first time — in what can only be a coor­dinated joint operation with the Russians to prop up Assad’s belea­guered regime, reeling after a series of battlefield defeats in a lengthy war in which more than 240,000 people have been killed and 11 mil­lion — about half Syria’s popula­tion — have been driven from their homes.
This gives weight to the belief that the joint operation was ham­mered out during a three-day late- July visit to Moscow by Soleimani, who is the éminence grise behind Iran’s largely covert campaign to destabilise its Arab opponents in the Gulf and the Levant. He report­edly talked with Putin and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu on July 24th.
The United States complained that Soleimani violated a UN travel ban by flying to Moscow. Russia is­sued a limp denial on August 14th that there had been such a meeting, with Deputy Foreign Minister Ser­gei Ryabkov saying Soleimani was not in Moscow “last week”. But the Iranians confirmed Soleimani was in Moscow in late July to discuss “regional and bilateral issues”.
The Russians have been tight-lipped about their Syrian deploy­ment, which is being tracked by US spy satellites. Moscow insisted the military equipment was to help Assad fight the Islamic State (ISIS) and other jihadists and that the de­ployment was intended to provide relief for war refugees, even as the Russians deployed a squadron of at least seven T-90 battle tanks, 20-30 BTR-82A fighting vehicles and ar­tillery pieces delivered by landing craft around Latakia airport.
“The Russians and the Iranians reached a strategic decision: Make any effort necessary to preserve Assad’s seat of power, so that Syria may act as a barrier to prevent the spread of the Islamic State and Islamist-backed militias into the former Soviet Islamic republics,” observed veteran Israeli military commentator Alex Fishman of the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.
As the extent of the Russian de­ployment in Syria has unfolded, there have been persistent reports that regular troops of al-Quds Force, the special forces wing of the Islam­ic Revolutionary Guards Corps that conducts largely clandestine opera­tions outside Iran, have also been deploying in Syria.
It is generally agreed that Assad controls less than one-fifth of Syr­ian territory. The regime is relin­quishing contested regions and fall­ing back into areas his dwindling military, badly hit by combat losses and desertions that are impossible to make up, may be able to hold.
These are Damascus and its en­virons, the Latakia coast and the north-western hinterland that is a stronghold of Assad’s minority Ala­wites, a sect that is an offshoot of Shia Islam, and the western border with Lebanon, the base of the Shia Hezbollah movement that is help­ing prop up what’s left of Assad’s power.
Further evidence of Russian-Ira­nian cooperation to rescue Assad’s foundering regime is that after the United States persuaded Greece and Bulgaria to stop letting Russian transport jets use their airspace to reach Syria, Tehran agreed to let the Russian arms flights transit through Iranian airspace. So did Iraq, much to the dismay of the Americans.