Back in June, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, Qasem Soleimaini, visited a town north of Latakia on the frontlines of Syria’s protracted civil war. Following that visit, he promised that Tehran and Damascus were set to unveil a new strategy that would “surprise the world.”
Just a little over a month later, Soleimani - in violation of a UN travel ban - visited Russia and held meetings with The Kremlin. The Pentagon now says those meetings were “very important” in accelerating the timetable for Russia’s involvement in Syria. The General allegedly made another visit to Moscow in September.
The timeline here is no coincidence. Iran has long provided covert and overt support to the Assad regime via financial transfers, logistical support from the Quds, and via the involvement of Hezbollah in the Assad government’s fight to regain control of the country.
As we’ve documented extensively over the past several weeks, what appears to have happened here is that Iran, unable to simply invade Syria in support of Assad (because doing so would obviously be a disaster in terms of preserving the optics around the P5+1 nuclear deal), turned to Moscow which has in the past used Russia’s Security Council veto to block the referral of the war in Syria to the Hague and which is a known ally of both Tehran and Damascus.
While it’s unclear exactly what the pitch was to Putin, Russia clearly saw an opportunity to advance The Kremlin’s geopolitical agenda at a key time in history. Moscow is keen to put on a brave face amid the most contentious standoff with the West since the Cold War (as a result of the conflict in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea) and amid the related effort to preserve Gazprom’s market share in Europe.
In short, Putin looks to have viewed this as the ultimate geopolitical win-win. That is, Russia gets to i) expand its influence in the Middle East in defiance of Washington and its allies, a move that also helps to protect Russian energy interests and preserves the Mediterranean port at Tartus, and ii) support its allies in Tehran and Damascus thus preserving the counterbalance to the US-Saudi-Qatar alliance.
Meanwhile, Iran gets to enjoy the support of the Russian military juggernaut on the way to protecting the delicate regional nexus that is the source of Tehran’s Mid-East influence. It is absolutely critical for Iran to keep Assad in power, as the loss of Syria to the West would effectively cut the supply line between Iran and Hezbollah.
The same dynamic is playing out in Iraq. That is, Iran is fighting ISIS via various Shiite militias just as it’s fighting the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen via the Shia Houthis. It is thus extremely significant that Baghdad has agreed to share intelligence with Syria and Russia, as that effectively means the Iran-backed Shiite militias battling for control of Iraq will enjoy the support of the Russian military.
What should be obvious here is that this is a coordinated plan.
The Kremlin has effectively agreed to bring the might of the Russian air force to bear on Assad’s opponents in Syria and on Sunni militants in Iraq in support of Iranian ground troops and because the US and its allies have failed so miserably in terms of fielding anti-Assad rebels who don't turn out to be extremists, Putin gets to pitch the whole thing as a "war on terror." It would be difficult to design a more elegant power play.
If you think that’s far-fetched, consider the following just out from Reuters:
Hundreds of Iranian troops have arrived in Syria in the last 10 days and will soon join government forces and their Lebanese Hezbollah allies in a major ground offensive backed by Russian air strikes, two Lebanese sources told Reuters.
"The (Russian) air strikes will in the near future be accompanied by ground advances by the Syrian army and its allies," said one of the sources familiar with political and military developments in the conflict.
"It is possible that the coming land operations will be focused in the Idlib and Hama countryside," the source added.
The two sources said the operation would be aimed at recapturing territory lost by President Bashar al-Assad's government to rebels.
It points to an emerging military alliance between Russia and Assad's other main allies - Iran and Hezbollah - focused on recapturing areas of northwestern Syria that were seized by insurgents in rapid advances earlier this year.
"The vanguard of Iranian ground forces began arriving in Syria: soldiers and officers specifically to participate in this battle. They are not advisors ... we mean hundreds with equipment and weapons. They will be followed by more," the second source said. Iraqis would also take part in the operation, the source said.
And then consider this, also just out (via Reuters):
The Russian Foreign Ministry said on Thursday it would consider any request from the Iraqi government to conduct air strikes against Islamic State inside Iraq, but said it had not yet received such an appeal, the RIA Novosti news agency reported.
It cited the foreign ministry as saying it would evaluate the "political and military" logic of such a move if a request was forthcoming.
Finally, to drive the point home and further confirm the veracity of the thesis outlined above, here’s Saudi Arabia panicking at the prospect that Russia’s presence is set to completely disrupt the Mid-East BOP (via Reuters, yet again):
Saudi Arabia, a leading foe of President Bashar al-Assad, demanded his ally Russia end its raids on Syria, saying the strikes had caused civilian casualties while failing to target the hardline Islamic State militants Moscow says it opposes.
In remarks at the United Nations in New York, a senior Saudi diplomat suggested both Russia and Assad's other main ally Iran could not claim to fight Islamic State "terrorism" at the same time as supporting the "terrorism" of the Syrian authorities.
Saudi ambassador Abdallah Al-Mouallimi expressed "profound concern regarding the military operations which
Russian forces have carried out in Homs and Hama today, places where ISIS forces are not present. These attacks led to a number of innocent victims. We demand it stop immediately and not recur."
"As for those countries that have claimed recently to join in the fight against ISIS terrorism, they can’t do that at the same time as they support the terrorism of the Syrian regime and its terrorist foreign allies like Hezbollah and the Quds Force and other terrorist sectarian groups," he added in comments broadcast by Saudi-owned al-Arabiya television.
ISIS is a common acronym for Islamic State, also known as ISIL. Lebanon's Hezbollah Shi'ite militia openly fights on behalf of Assad's government, and the Quds Force, part of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards, is also widely believed to be aiding Damascus.
It would be difficult to overstate the significance of what appears to be going on here. This is nothing short of a Middle Eastern coup, as Iran looks to displace Saudi Arabia as the regional power broker and as Russia looks to supplant the US as the superpower puppet master.
Do not expect Saudi Arabia and Israel to remain on the sidelines here.
If Russia ends up bolstering Iran's position in Syria (by expanding Hezbollah's influence and capabilities) and if the Russian air force effectively takes control of Iraq thus allowing Iran to exert a greater influence over the government in Baghdad, the fragile balance of power that has existed in the region will be turned on its head and in the event this plays out, one should not expect Washington, Riyadh, Jerusalem, and London to simply go gentle into that good night.