While diplomats from 70 countries talked in London about how to raise $9 bn for projects to rehabilitate Syria’s refugees and rebuild their war-ravaged country, its future was further clouded this week by an argument that flared between the main arbiters, Russia and Iran.
Ali Akbar Velayati, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s foreign affairs advisor, spent three days in Moscow Feb. 1-4 haranguing Russian leaders, including President Vladimir Putin, whom he saw twice, on the differences that had cropped up in their long political and military cooperation for propping up the Assad regime.
The Iranian official went home without resolving those differences, debkafile’s sources report exclusively. Left pending were not just the next stage of the war but also the fate of President Bashar Assad.
Velayati told Iranian reporters on his plane: “We are against stopping the war,” and “The war must be continued until all (Syrian) terror cells are eradicated.”
He did not elaborate, but debkafile’s Iranian and Moscow sources point out that he was underlining Tehran’s concerns about Moscow’s reported plans for the Assad regime, in which Iran is heavily invested, and the slowdown of Russia’s air campaign against every last rebel group.
Most of all, Iran’s leaders were troubled to find that Russia, by dint of its proactive military intervention, had maneuvered itself into position for calling the shots for Syria.
They are particularly distrustful, according to our sources, over Moscow’s complicated deals with Washington on the Syrian question and the dialogue Russia is holding with the Persian Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia. The Iranians fear that Putin is calibrating his offensive against rebel groups according to the pace of these interchanges and may therefore scale back strikes on pro-American or “moderate” rebels, or even refrain from subduing them.
Tehran also looks askance at the improved relations Moscow is fostering with its rivals in the region, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited the two Arab capitals to allay their concerns for the Syrian rebel groups they support. He promised the Saudis not to harm them, so long as they did not get in the way of the joint Russian-Syrian steps in their country.
Given the Russian moves, the Syrian war looks increasingly to Tehran as unlikely to end in President Assad’s favor.
Lavrov seemed to confirm this Iranian concern on Feb. 2 when, during his visit to Oman he said, "Russian air strikes will not cease until we truly defeat the terrorist organizations ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra, And I don't see why these air strikes should stop."
The Iranians immediately jumped on his omission of all other rebel groups but the two Islamists as the enemy, confirming their suspicions that Moscow was now acting in Syria on its own account. This was the cause of raised tempers in Velayati’s second meeting with the Russian president in Moscow.
The Iranian official demanded the expansion of Russian military operations to cover more inclusive rebel targets. Putin shot back that if Iran wants to ramp up war operations, it should send its own troops into the fray – and not just generals.
He touched on a sore point: Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps don’t have troops available for fighting in Syria. And so, Velayati’s mission to Moscow ended on an acrimonious note.