On Thursday evening, we chronicled the latest in the drama that is Syria’s horrific civil war, noting that, according to an Israeli defense source, “hundreds” of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are on the ground in Syria fighting alongside the Russians to support Bashar al-Assad’s depleted forces as they battle to regain control of the country.
If true, that would answer the following question which we’ve been asking for quite some time: will Iran remain on the sidelines and allow the Houthis to be routed in Yemen and Assad deposed in Syria, or will Tehran, like Moscow, finally decide that the time for rhetoric has come to an end?
Reports of Iranian involvement come on the heels of rampant speculation about the scope of Russia’s military buildup near Latakia where US “intelligence” and a series of unnamed “Lebanese sources” claim Moscow is essentially preparing for a full-on push to rout any and all domestic opposition to the Assad regime. The question, of course, is what happens when foreign opposition to the Assad regime isn’t willing to accept the restoration of the strongman’s rule.
Predictably, there’s been no shortage of back-and-forth banter between John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov over the past several days. Here's how Lavrov characterizes the exchange:
“Kerry was also pushing the very strange idea that supporting Bashar Assad in his anti-terror fight only strengthens the positions of ISIS, because the sponsors of ISIS would pump even more arms and money into it,” Lavrov said.
“It's an absolutely upside-down logic and yet another attempt to appease those who use terrorists to fight dissenting regimes,” the Russian FM said, mentioning US attempts to cooperate with varrious extremist groups in Syria over the past few years.
“It's a colossal mistake that the US-led [anti-ISIS] coalition never considered interaction with Syria, not even information exchange,” Lavrov said. “I cannot comprehend this logic, or rather absolute lack of logic.”
“We help not only Syria, we also provide weapons to Iraq and other countries of the region that find themselves on the frontline with the terror threat. Equally for Iraq and other countries, we do so without any political preconditions,” Lavrov said.
And on Friday, Lavrov took it up a notch with a series of very serious-sounding (albeit hilariously overstated, we hope) soundbites delivered at a news conference in Russia. Here’s Reuters:
At a news conference, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia was sending equipment to help Assad fight Islamic State. Russian servicemen were in Syria, he said, primarily to help service that equipment and teach Syrian soldiers how to use it.
Russia was also conducting naval exercises in the eastern Mediterranean, he said, describing the drills as long-planned and staged in accordance with international law.
Lavrov blamed Washington for cutting off direct military-to-military communications between
Russia and NATO over the Ukraine crisis, saying such contacts were "important for the avoidance of undesired, unintended incidents".
"We are always in favor of military people talking to each other in a professional way. They understand each other very well," Lavrov said. "If, as (U.S. Secretary of State) John Kerry has said many times, the United States wants those channels frozen, then be our guest."
Yes, "be our guest", which, unless something is lost in translation there (as it was when Hillary Clinton hilariously presented Lavrov with a giant red button that was supposed to say "reset" but actually said "overcharged" in 2009) sounds quite a bit like the Kremlin telling Washington that it's just fine with Russia if the West wants to risk getting into a scenario where Russian and US jets end up in an "accidental" dog fight in the skies above Syria.
We will now anxiously await Kerry's response which will almost certainly contain the words "very" and "concerned", which would be accurate as long as he's talking about Assad's fate and not the fate of ISIS.