If you listen closely, between the noise of the bombs and the cries of the refugees, you can probably hear Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s sigh of relief all the way from Damascus: Moscow finally made a power play and increase its support for him. If you listen even more closely, you might also hear quite a few cheers of victory from Tehran, especially the cheers of Qassem “Supermani” Suleimani, (the “Shadow Commander”), the chief of Iran’s Qods unit and the mastermind for all of Tehran’s military procedures and policies outside of Iran with bases in Beirut, Baghdad and Damascus. Why? Suleimani has just returned from his second trip to Moscow, despite sanctions against him travelling, and he is the crucial link between Moscow, Tehran and Assad.
All this is good news for Assad, bad news for the Syrian rebels and worrying news for the US/NATO. But will it be enough to save Assad? Tehran’s backing is ideological and the Iranians will fight for Assad right up to victory or defeat. Moscow, on the other hand will support Assad, and Tehran, as long as it politically convenient to do so. For now, it is content to send more weapons and reportedly, Russian troops, as well as shows of force of warships and submarines.
Just in Time
Why did the Russians move now? According to an article in Middle East Briefing, there are 4 reasons and all of them are related to Iran:
- Diplomacy is dead in Syria: The P5+1 have invested very little in diplomacy in Syria, compared to the nuclear negotiations with Iran, and since Assad is being supported by Tehran, it seemed impossible to deal with both issues at once. Moscow, which had favored diplomacy and had long objected to any foreign military presence in Syria, suddenly decided to do exactly what it warned others not to and beefed up its military presence there.
- The nuclear deal and the regional reshuffle: The nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran allowed Russia and Iran to become regional partners. Trade deals were inked, Russian missiles were promised to Iran, strategies to drop the US dollar in favor of local currencies were launched and Tehran finally had its option to the West. Khomeini’s “neither West nor East” slogan was put aside as Tehran found itself being wooed by the West (US/EU) and the East (Russia/China) simultaneously with Russia topping as its best ally to fight the US’s involvement in the region.
- ISIS and the rebels gained ground: As ISIS gained more control of Syria and Iraq and the rebels successfully defeated Assad’s troops, the situation in Damascus went from bad to worst. Meanwhile, the US continued its strategy of focusing on the nuclear deal and its relations with Iran for fear of leading the country to “another Iraq”. Assad was on the brink of disaster which would have led to another void that could have allowed foreign troops to enter Syria. Putin decided to follow Iran’s lead in fighting ISIS and supporting Syria.
- The US’s continued inaction in Syria: The US’s role in Syria was ineffective to say the least. Washington sent people to train the rebels without really fighting for them and in the process was labelled as a partner of the rebels without actually helping them. The vacuum left by the US’s inactions in Syria and Iraq (as well as the Ukraine) was too tempting for Tehran, and now for Moscow, to not fill. The US was so focused on the nuclear deal with Iran that is was weary of going to war against Tehran in Syria and this played directly into the hands of the Putin who, as he showed in the Ukraine, is not afraid of military options.
Beyond these geopolitical reasons, there are two others that are of a more personal nature:
- Putin and Rouhani will speak at the UN General Assembly later this month: Although Rouhani has already spoken twice at the assembly, it will be Putin’s first and both will probably use their involvement in Syria as a justification for their foreign and military policies.
- It’s become a “Putin vs. Obama” issue: Obama’s hesitancy to go to war is juxtaposed to Putin’s readiness to do so and Putin revels in his macho branding of the tough guy who walks the talk and is unafraid to take on any world leader. Although the US/NATO are “concerned” with the Russian move into Syria, Putin is betting on the fact that Obama will not send American troops to fight abroad and therefore deploying Russian troops doesn’t really put him at risk of confronting the US in the battle field.
Blame ISIS and the West
Without Moscow, Assad’s future looked dim not only on the battlefield but in the media since many are rightly blaming him for the devastation of the civil war in general and the plight of the Syrian refugees in particular. Assad is not only avoiding his responsibility for the plight of those Syrian refugees who are fleeing him and not ISIS, he is blaming the “West” (including the EU) for the refugees’ plight since the “West” at one time had supported “terrorists” (ISIS).
The fact that it is Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah fighters that are pulling the triggers is trivialized in view of the horrors of ISIS which cannot be defended by anyone but the brutes themselves. ISIS, ironically, has become a singular pretext for Assad, Rouhani and Putin to carry out their policies by redefining themselves as fighters against terror while using terrorist militias and tactics themselves. Rouhani initiated this move by redefining terror based on fighting ISIS in Iraq and in Syria in his World Against Violence and Extremism (WAVE) initiative – suddenly the narrative moved from Tehran being a massive supporter of terrorist militias to being a fighter for freedom. Suddenly, all Syrian rebels were tagged as being ISIS terrorists irrespective of the legitimacy of the Syrian rebels’ cause to oust the young dictator from power.
The fact that ISIS was supported in its infancy, long before it began its rampage, by the US/West (as well as Saudi Arabia) only made the issue easier to abuse by redirecting the blame for terrorism with total disregard to the terroristic tendencies of Tehran and Assad. Blaming Riyadh also served to support Tehran in its rivalry against Saudi Arabia. On its part, Saudi Arabia claims to have taken in 2.5 million Syrian refugees who were obviously fleeing Assad.
What the world needs to understand is that just because ISIS is labelled as “bad” doesn’t make the people fighting it “good”. Had Assad allowed free elections from the start, ISIS would never have reached the tipping point necessary to break out the way it did.
Suleimani in the Middle
Suleimani’s role in Iran’s wars beyond its borders is crucial. Widely respected and feared in the region, he had, until recently, earned the title of the second most powerful man in Tehran and voted the man of the year by the Iranians. Perhaps these acclaims went to his head because suddenly, pictures of Suleimani in the war-fields of Iraq and Syria began showing up on the internet and he must have been “tugged in” by none other than Khamenei himself.
But when it came to coordinating with Moscow on Damascus, he remains the perfect man for the job. He has a large office in Damascus where he meets with Iranian, Hezbollah and Syrian military leaders and he regards himself as the boss known for exclaiming that “the Syrian army is useless! Give me one brigade of the Basij, and I would conquer the whole country”.
His fame has placed him in a unique position to be given the reins of command by all who share Tehran’s agendas: “Experts agree that it is hard to overestimate Suleimani’s role in Iraq…at times of crisis Suleimani is the supreme puppeteer…He is everywhere and he’s nowhere.”
Suleimani’s repeated trips to Damascus, Baghdad and now Moscow place him in the perfect position to became the man in charge of coordinating Syrian, Iranian and Russian efforts in Syria and, in the future, in Iraq as well. Once Russia has entered the fray in Syria, doing so in Iraq is a natural development under the pretexts of fighting ISIS.