‘Soleimani’s surprise’, or how Iran and Russia plotted to save Assad
Beirut - If the military action taken by Russia and Iran in war-torn Syria achieves its objective of saving President Bashar Assad’s regime from collapsing, it will be in large measure due to the Machiavellian machinations of Major-General Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian strategist who spearheads Tehran’s campaign to make the Islamic Republic the Middle East’s dominant power.
Way back in early June, Soleimani boasted during a battlefield tour in northern Syria, where Iranian and Iranian-backed forces are key allies of the widely despised Damascus regime, that there would be a big “surprise” in the conflict, but gave no hint of what it might be.
Assad’s forces, backed “advisers” from the elite al-Quds Force, the largely covert expeditionary arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah were in deep trouble in their struggle against rebel groups.
Most observers expected Tehran would send in hefty reinforcements to aid the beleaguered Assad but what transpired went far beyond what anyone anticipated.
The key date was July 14th, when the Tehran regime signed a landmark agreement with US-led global powers to curtail its nuclear programme in exchange for lifting economic sanctions that had crippled the Islamic Republic’s economy.
Tehran viewed this as a major breakthrough that would end Iran’s international isolation. Because US President Barack Obama saw the deal as an historic rapprochement with the Islamic Republic that ended 35 years of hostility and was the crowning glory of his presidency, Iran’s leaders believed this gave them greater latitude in their drive to become the paramount power in the Middle East — and got it back in the diplomatic game, particularly over what happens to Syria.
On July 24th, ten days after the nuclear deal was signed in Vienna, Western intelligence sources say Soleimani, who commands al-Quds Force, arrived in Moscow at 6.50am aboard Iran Air flight 5130 from Tehran for discussions with senior figures in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s administration and the Russian military.
Little is known of what transpired in Soleimani’s talks, although diplomatic sources said he sat down with Putin and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu for three hours.
A Kremlin spokesman denied Soleimani met Putin. But an Iranian official confirmed Soleimani’s presence in Moscow and said he discussed “regional and bilateral issues” with the Russian leadership, including the delivery of advanced S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran, a deal the Americans and Israelis have fought hard to block.
“I obviously don’t know what they actually spoke about but it does appear that Moscow and Tehran were coordinating on the upcoming Russian intervention (and what must be seen as an Iran surge) at exactly the same time that Putin was undertaking a charm offensive with America and Saudi Arabia about the prospect for a settlement in which Moscow would be “flexible’ about Assad,” said Mark Katz, who specialises in Russian Middle East policy at George Mason University in Washington.
The sources say the main topic of discussion during Soleimani’s closed-door meeting with Putin was the urgent need to provide Assad with significant increased firepower — Russia providing the air cover and Iran sending in large reinforcements on the ground — because Damascus was critically short of manpower following heavy combat losses, persistent defections and large-scale draft-dodging.
Western intelligence sources say Soleimani left Moscow for Tehran at 10.25pm on July 26th aboard Air Iran flight 5120.
It is not clear whether the plan to save Assad came from Soleimani or was initially proposed by the Russians, who saw an opening to exploit the Syrian crisis and bolster Moscow’s influence on the global stage, but the audacity of the plan had Soleimani’s stamp all over it.
“Russia’s intervention was the surprise that… Soleimani was preparing for,” observed analyst Ibrahim Hamidi in an October 28th assessment in the pan-Arab Al Hayat daily. He noted that “plans are under way to form a permanent Russian military base” in Syria, “heralding a new chapter in the might Russian-Iranian alliance”.
The July 14th agreement apparently gave Tehran the confidence to go ahead with the high-risk enterprise in partnership with Russia, which has its own strategic imperatives, to rescue Assad.
The Russian-Iranian intervention in Syria has reinvigorated diplomatic efforts to end the carnage in which an estimated 250,000 people have died, with another 11 million driven from their homes, half the country’s population.
The Russians claim they intervened after an appeal for help from Assad but that explanation — only proffered after Russian military forces were installed in Syria — seems to have been little more than an effort by the Kremlin to mask its ambitious power play.
Soleimani, the wily schemer and innovative intelligence operative that he is after years fighting Iran’s shadow wars, was key in all this because he had first-hand knowledge of just how desperate Assad’s situation was becoming.
As the mastermind of Iran’s military operations that are the spearhead of Tehran’s ambition to become the paramount power in the Middle East, he had far greater insight into Syrian affairs than the Russians.
His problem was that Iran on its own could not provide the military force needed to rescue Assad, who was being pressed on all sides in the war.
Tehran could supply the manpower, including IRGC ground troops plus fighters from Hezbollah and militias made up of Shias from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan — Iran’s “foreign legion”. But Soleimani needed air power to reverse the course of a war Assad was losing.
Iran’s air force looks formidable on paper with 334 combat aircraft but most of these are ageing or obsolete and incapable of mounting the close air support needed to back a major regime offensive.
The Russians, however, have reliable and effective air power assets and the logistical capabilities to establish operational bases in Syria at short notice and provided 32 Sukhoi fighters and a number of helicopter gunships.
“Iran is no longer Syria’s sole (military) patron,” said Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It is waging coalition warfare now and Russia will have a major say in how the conflict is prosecuted.”
Like other analysts, he predicted this new alliance may not survive long because of the two powers’ divergent strategic objectives. However, Eisenstadt noted: “So far, though, Iran and Moscow seem to be reading from the same script.”
On September 7th, Putin ordered a “snap inspection” shortly before the exercise began in which air force and airborne units, along with the naval flotilla in the Caspian Sea, were placed on full combat alert.
The inspection, which ran until September 12th, simulated “an armed conflict in Central Asia” and involved 170 aircraft and 7,000 pieces of military equipment. Some of these aircraft were apparently used to haul equipment for the Russian base at Latakia.
On September 30th, Russian Sukhoi jets began intensive air attacks on rebel forces. A week later, the naval flotilla in the Caspian unleashed a broadside of 26 Kalibr cruise missiles at Syrian rebel positions 1,500 kilometres to the west. That day, Assad’s forces launched a series of coordinated offensives.