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