Iran Is Ducking around Russia’s Back to Plant a Foot in South Syria
Shortly before meeting his Iranian and Turkish counterparts in Sochi on Nov. 22, Russian President Vladimir Putin spent more than an hour on the phone with US President Donald Trump. He was apparently tapping Trump’s willingness to meet the Russians halfway on security arrangements and a political resolution of the Syrian conflict, before presenting his plans to his guests, Hassan Rouhani of Iran and Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.
Immediately after the summit, he sent Sergey Naryshkin, Director of the SVR foreign intelligence service, on a lightening briefing mission to Jerusalem, Cairo and Riyadh.
DEBKA Weekly’s Iranian sources report that the Iranians don’t entirely trust Putin. They heard him out on his plan for Russia, Iran and Turkey to take the lead in guiding Syria through the political and military thickets of its transition from war to peace, but suspect him of seeking US and Israeli approval before going forward. Tehran finds this totally unacceptable.
Therefore, behind the smiling front – and while the Revolutionary Guards Al Qods commanders regularly call on Russian air support for the Shiite militias and Hizballah fighting in Syria – Tehran is quietly preparing an alternative track in Syria to end its dependence on Moscow and the Russian air force, Already, on Nov. 27, Iran’s proxies began closing in on Israel’s and Jordanian’s borders and breaching the de-escalations zones..
What does Tehran hope to achieve by this military push?
- To sabotage the US-Russian de-escalation zones project.
- To thwart the Saudi plan for a de-escalation zone under its aegis in southern Syria.
(See DEBKA Weekly 779 of Nov. 24: Saudi Arabia Charts its Own De-escalation Zone in Southern Syria.)
- To root out Israel’s influence among rebel groups in the districts close to its border.
- To teach Moscow, which maintains 1,000 military police officers in the south – more than in any other part of the country – that Tehran and Damascus will never play along with its directives so long as they are formulated in concert with Washington and Jerusalem.
Hizballah and the Shiite militias are massing strength in southern Syria northwest of Daraa close to the Jordanian frontier, apparently preparing to move on westward towards the Syrian-Israeli border on the Golan, with a view to seizing the Syrian town of Quneitra, one of the few bulwarks remaining in rebel hands. The Syrian army will no doubt jump into the fray. Syrian army and Hizballah forces opened a direct anti-Israel front with a new offensive north of Quneitra in the Beit-Jinn pocket, no more than 4km from the IDF’s Mt. Hermon positions. This pocket is controlled by the Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, al Qaeda’s Syrian arm. Israel has sent out a warning that military force will be used to prevent Syrian and Hizballah troops seizing this strategic enclave.
Furthermore, in the southern Qunetra region, the same forces, reinforced by pro-Iranian militias, are preparing to seize Al-Harra, 8km from the Israeli Golan, a tiny town whose strategic importance is disproportionate to its size. A hostile force holding it controls the Syrian-Israeli-Jordanian border triangle and can split in two parts the main pro-Israeli rebel force lodged in the Quneitra region.
Israel is faced with an imminent decision: Either cut short the Iranian proxy and Syrian advance at this point, or reconcile itself to the new shape Tehran is carving out of southern Syria.