The Syrian conflict: An Iranian perspective on the Russian involvement and a potential Turkish cooperation
by Aram Mirzaei on 18 Aug 2016 1 Comment

Since the fall of 2015, the Syrian-Iranian-Russian coalition has been highly effective in the Syrian conflict, scoring multiple victories on the battlefield, most notably in the Latakia and Aleppo provinces where over 90% of the Latakia province was liberated from the Western-backed throat-cutters.


In February, a nationwide ceasefire was negotiated by the US and Russia, a deal excluding the notorious terrorist groups Jabhat Al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The Russians offered the other militant groups who fought side by side with these terrorist groups a chance to disassociate themselves from these groups, something which has not happened despite multiple calls for them to do so. Instead, the NATO-backed Islamist militants have exploited these ceasefires to regroup and re-arm in a bid to recapture lost territory from the Syrian Armed Forces. As a result of these ceasefires, the Syrian-Iranian-Russian momentum was halted and the terrorists who were severely battered and beaten managed to catch a breath.


Starting in April-May of 2016, the Western backed Islamist groups launched several offensives, most notably in Southern Aleppo and managed to recapture some of their lost territories, including the strategically imperative hilltop town of Al-Eiss. Following the fall of Al-Eiss, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) stationed in Southern Aleppo was rather dissatisfied with the Russian insistence for the Syrian Army and its allies not to respond to the provocations. This dissatisfaction culminated in June when the IRGC and its Lebanese allies Hezbollah threatened to withdraw from Aleppo entirely.


In order to understand the Iranian view on the Syrian conflict and why they have been dissatisfied with Russia, it is important to examine both parties’ views and ultimate goals with the ceasefire and how to continue this war.


The Russian view on the Aleppo situation


Since the implementation of the ceasefire and reconciliation deal back in February, Russia has committed much of its political prestige to upholding this agreement. In March, Russia withdrew a large part of their air force stationed in Latakia, in a sign of goodwill and to show that it was serious. Russia has since advised the Syrian Armed Forces not to launch further offensives in Aleppo and Latakia, thus freezing these combat zones. Instead, Russia has continued to launch airstrikes on the ISIL and Nusra terrorist groups, and directed the Syrian Army to focus on them rather than the US backed Islamist rebels.


This culminated by the end of March when Syrian Army units recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra, thanks in large part due to heavy Russian airstrikes and support. In early April, the Syrian Army regained the ancient Christian city of Al-Qaraytayn, also dealing a heavy blow to the ISIL terrorists. Despite numerous violations of the ceasefire by the US-backed Islamists, Russia has time and again given them a chance to stop “intermingling” with the terrorist classified Jabhat Al-Nusra, something that has not happened as of yet. Russia has well noted that the US does very little to control its proxy forces on the ground.


On June 6, a Russian official who spoke off the record in Moscow told a group of journalists, that relations with Washington are surreal. “One day we agree on something, the second day they do the opposite. When we ask them, they blame it on others. There’s difficulty in building confidence with them. Even when they commit themselves to an agreement, it takes them months to implement it.” [1]


The Russian intervention will probably not regain the same momentum it had in the first months since entering the conflict back in October 2015. It would seem that the Russians believed that their intervention and their achievements were sufficient to successfully embark on a political process in February, something that never actually happened, despite several ceasefires negotiated.


The Russian intervention has indeed failed to achieve the operational goals announced by the Russians themselves in November 2015. The Russians had stressed the imperative need to reach the Turkish-Syrian border, setting the closing of border crossings and supply routes with Turkey as a precondition to any solution. However, the Russians renounced this approach. Instead, the Russian truce has allowed armed factions, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to reorganize and rearm their ranks and rebuild most of the infrastructure destroyed by the joint Russian-Syrian operations.[2]


This situation has caused a lot of frustration among Russia’s allies, most notably Iran and Hezbollah who are highly distrustful of Washington and do not believe in cooperation with the same regime that continues to support the Al-Qaeda linked factions in Aleppo.


In an interview published May 31, 2015 in Russia’s daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, Lavrov said that the deadline given by Moscow to the “moderate rebels” (to disassociate themselves from Jabhat Al-Nusra) was about to expire, adding that: “They [the US] have now asked us for several more days before their plan, under which everyone who has not joined the ceasefire is a legitimate target, regardless of whether they are listed among the terrorists or not, swings into action. They asked for several more days in order to respond, and these several days expire this week.”[3]


Washington’s response however has always failed to address the Russian’s intentions and worries, instead continuing the “Assad must go” mantra with John Kerry making another such statement in June: “Russia needs to understand that our patience is not infinite, in fact it is very limited with whether or not Assad is going to be held accountable,” Kerry said.


Moreover, neither during Russia’s military operation nor after the ceasefire went into effect did Washington stop re-arming militant factions. The United States and its allies even supplied these factions with nearly 3,000 tons of weapons, offered them training and organized and coordinated their operations in a bid to wear out the Russians in Syria. It should be noted that this has been a clear Obama policy objective aimed to prevent any political solution as part of the United States’ desire to isolate Russia. Washington, in fact, had even asked Russia not to target Jabhat Al-Nusra’s positions, something Lavrov himself confirmed. [4]


It would seem that a feeling of bitterness and frustration has prevailed within the Syrian Army about the loss of initiative to achieve a victory, especially in Aleppo, which would change the course of the war, with some sources within the army reporting of growing discontent to Russia’s position towards the constant ceasefires. This however seems to have changed during the last month. Ever since the start of the Aleppo offensive in June by the Syrian Army, the Russian Air Force has been very active in targeting the terrorists. This successfully led to the Syrian Army capturing the Al-Castillo road in northern Aleppo, thus cutting of the last terrorist supply route into the eastern parts of the city. Maybe Lavrov has grown convinced that Washington is deceiving the Russians and that the “anti-ISIL coalition” is standing idly by as terrorists and arms flow through the Syrian-Turkish border.


The Iranian position on Aleppo and the conflict as a whole


For Iran, the ongoing war in Syria is no longer a matter of regional security. The conflict now has direct effects and implications for Iran’s national security. This perspective is clear in the daily statements coming from Tehran, the images circulating in Iranian media of martyred Iranian soldiers and high-ranking officers buried in the Iranian capital. Also the rather recent appointment of Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, as military and security coordinator of the joint cooperation group on Syria with Moscow and Damascus, tells a tale to Iran’s position on Syria.


Formerly a naval commander of the IRGC, Ali Shamkhani will report directly to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, “who’s the man who has the final say on main issues in Syria,” an Iranian official once said. It is expected that Shamkhani will regularly share ideas and opinions with Khamenei to “contribute to the power and independence of this exalted Islamic system” [5]


Tehran supports every effort aimed at ending the Syrian conflict, with an Iranian official saying that: “In Geneva, Vienna or anywhere, seeing people sitting together around the table is the best thing. Yet sitting just to buy time doesn’t make sense. The Americans are buying time for their new president at the cost of lives in Syria. We can’t accept such hesitation amid people’s tragedies.” He added, “Our friends the Russians went to the end [of the road] with the Americans. We warned on several occasions that this is not right. We even lost several officers and observers because of Russia’s position, and now that they discovered that there’s no outcome, we are going to start a new level of cooperation.” [6]


Iran has been clear about their intentions in Syria, they aim to completely crush terrorism in Syria, something that Iranian defense minister Hossein Dehghan has made very clear. [7]


The Iranian defense minister has expressed Tehran’s determination to continue to provide military aid to the Syrian government. At the same time, he noted Iran’s concern regarding the possibility of the Islamic State gaining access to nuclear weapons. He also commented on the temporary cease-fires in Syria, especially in Aleppo, saying, “We agree to a guaranteed cease-fire that does not lead to terrorists building up their powers.”


Dehghan was referring to a May 7 attack in which Jaysh Al-Fateh (A jihadist coalition that includes Jabhat Al-Nusra among others) attacked and captured the village of Khan Touman in southern Aleppo, killing more than 13 Iranian officers and taking several more captive. More importantly, members of the Iranian Green Berets (Nohed Brigade), who were also present on this front, suffered serious losses and had to retreat from their positions. The May 7 attack was the biggest one on Iranian forces in the country so far. This sparked an outrage in the country.


After the fall of Khan Touman, several IRGC strategists and experts who had previously welcomed the Russian military presence in Syria began to express doubt and worry about Russia’s objectives in fighting alongside Iranian, Lebanese and Syrian forces. [8]


Something that also is a cause for suspicion from the Iranian view is the fact that Russia keeps avoiding to cover Iranian, Hezbollah and allied Iraqi paramilitary forces with air support whenever they come under attack in south Aleppo, instead focusing heavily on bombing the northern Aleppo countryside. It was only after the massive Jihadist advance on Khan Touman in May, when the Jihadists reached the Syrian Army positions that the Russians began to target the south Aleppo front again. This has led to speculation that Russia may have promised the Israelis not to support Hezbollah and the IRGC, two sworn enemies of Israel’s.


On June 10, Iran hosted the defense ministers of Russia and Syria at its own Defense Ministry. The stated aim was to exchange views and discuss the war on terror.


It is safe to say that Russia understands that it cannot bring about the endgame in Syria without collaborating with Tehran and Damascus. This is why Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu traveled to Tehran. According to Iranian sources, Shoigu expressed regret over the Khan Touman incident and also about Iran not being informed regarding the cease-fire in Aleppo, during the meeting. Furthermore, he emphasized that Moscow is committed to collaborating with Tehran on all political and military issues, indicating more Russian support for IRGC troops stationed in South Aleppo.


Although the Russian pledge to commit itself to collaborating with Tehran to meet the tactical objectives of Iran and Hezbollah may be a short term solution, it cannot in the long term bridge the gap between Russia’s objectives and those of Iran when it comes to the Syrian war.


Moscow’s main objective in Syria is to maintain a dependent government in Damascus and to keep access to port cities in the eastern Mediterranean for its naval fleet. Iran needs Syria and access to its southern regions (Quneitra) to maintain its support for Lebanese Hezbollah. If Russia achieves its goals, it would see no reason to maintain the status quo (having Assad in power), and this is exactly what has concerned Iran ever since this game began.


When it comes to the battle of Aleppo and its surrounding area, Iran’s main interest lies in clearing the southern parts of the province and moving into the Jihadist stronghold of Idlib where two predominantly Shia towns are besieged since the spring of 2015 (Kafraya and Al-Fouaa). This endeavour would resemble the same operation as the northern Aleppo offensive of February 2016 where the Shia towns of Nubl and Al-Zahraa were liberated after a three-year long siege. Not only does this provide a strong morale boost for the Iranian and Hezbollah forces stationed there, but it also gives them a strong support from home.


Because of Russia’s insistence on Syria and its allies to not respond to the Jaysh Al-Fateh offensives, Iran and Hezbollah threatened to leave the frontlines, citing a refusal to remain sitting ducks as the Jihadists took advantage of their inactivity. This could potentially have explained both the June 10 meeting in Tehran, where Iran took the initiative to set the agenda, and the Russian comeback we have been witnessing in the Aleppo province since late June. It would further explain the final push by the Syrian Army to fully besiege the city of Aleppo, something that would not have been possible without the major boost given by the Russian eye in the sky.


The Turkish coup attempt and its broader consequences for the Syrian war


In a phone conversation on July 18, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani congratulated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the people of Turkey for pushing back the coup attempt by members of the military. Rouhani is reported to have said to the Turkish president, “Fortunately, the Turkish people showed their great political maturity throughout this coup and proved that bullying approaches have no place in our region.”


“Just as we struggle for our own country’s stability and security, we are duty-bound to feel responsible for the stability and security of neighbours and friendly Muslim countries as well,” Rouhani pointed out. He also stressed that the countries in the region should work together to eradicate terrorism. Rouhani said, “This event was a test to identify your domestic and foreign friends and enemies.”


The Turkish president, for his part, appreciated Rouhani’s phone call and said “bullets and tanks may kill people but cannot destroy a nation’s ideals.” “We are resolved to cooperate with Iran and Russia for the settlement of regional issues and increase our efforts to restore peace and stability to the region.”[9]


The coup and its aftermath is likely to affect the relationship between Erdogan and several countries both in the region and globally. One should assume that Erdogan has kept a tally of which countries condemned the coup, which kept silent and which waited to see the outcome before condemning the coup. The support of Russia and Iran, who both quickly condemned the coup and who have been Turkey’s rivals in the Syrian conflict are of utmost importance.


In contrast, the Saudi government, a supposed ally of Turkey’s, at least in Syria, congratulated Erdogan more than two days after the coup failed. [10] Some Iranian sources are also reporting that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were involved in the coup attempt, something that would not be so unthinkable considering the Saudi foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir’s threat to Turkey a day before the coup attempt in reaction to a Turkish signaling of a policy shift towards Syria. [11]


When it comes to Washington’s stance, Erdogan is even less satisfied. Senior members of his Justice and Development Part (AKP) have even claimed that Washington may have backed the coup leaders. Speculations about US support for the coup attempt were highlighted when it became clear that the F-16 jets that the coup makers used had taken off from the Incirlik Air Base, where US forces are also stationed and that the commander of the base who is now arrested had approached US officials, seeking asylum in the US. [12] Of course, Washington denies backing this coup but the controversy has already tested Turkish-US ties with Erdogan supporters rallying outside Incirlik Air Base chanting “Death to America”. [13]


The aftermath of the coup attempt has also threatened to strain relations with the European Union too as the crackdown on the pro-coup forces are likely to push Erdogan to reinstate the death penalty, something that the EU has clearly said is unacceptable if they are to continue talks regarding Turkish EU membership.


When it comes to Syria, the Turkish discontent with Washington and the EU, mainly regarding Washington’s demands for a stronger Turkish role in the “Anti-ISIL coalition” and their cooperation with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, YPG (which Turkey regards as a terrorist organization) are matters that further cause a split between Turkey and its allies in the West.


The most significant prospect in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt is the possibility of rapprochement with Russia and Iran to settle the regional issues. The two Turkish pilots responsible for downing the Russian jet back in November 2015 are reportedly among the arrested pro-coup members, something that could help ease the ties with Moscow.


In sum, Erdogan has two options on Syria: to maintain the status quo and ride the wave of solid nationalist-conservative support, or to take further steps toward change by boosting cooperation with Russia and Iran.


Despite the differences between Russia and Iran, it would seem that they remain close allies on the battlefield while sharing different goals for Syria’s future. After all, Iran recognizes the tremendous political and military boost the Russian presence has given Syria and her allies. It is possible that Iran understands that Russia was basically forced to agree on a ceasefire, under heavy pressure from Washington. However, Iran, especially the principlist faction does not bow down to Washington’s pressure so easily, something that was very clear during the Iranian nuclear negotiations. This would perhaps disappoint the Iranian hardliners who view Russia as a far more powerful force who does not need to submit to US hegemony.


As for Turkey, an eventual policy shift would not necessarily mean a moderation in Turkey’s fierce objections to Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria, on the contrary, it could move Erdogan closer to Assad as he might see the Syrian state as the only thing that could stop the Kurds from achieving a federal autonomous state, a prospect which the Syrian government has rejected.









7)     Tasnim news, June 21, 2016

8) May 9, 2016







Courtesy The Saker

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