With the approach of another round of Syrian peace talks, the extravagantly touted united front between Bashar Assad’s co-sponsors, Russia and Iran, is developing large cracks.
They are not on public display. Nonetheless, Sunday, Feb. 5, Russian special envoy Alexander Lavrentiev and Iran’s Secretary of the National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, put out separate statements after their talks in Tehran. .
Shamkhani noted that, while his government remains “committed to pursuing a political solution” for ending the Syrian crisis, “political approaches” cannot resolve the Syrian conflict, so long as “terrorist groups” such as the Islamic State and the jihadists of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Nusra Front) are in the country.
This was a signal from Tehran that the continued use of force may not be ruled out in some cases and that Iran is not at one with Russia’s resolute pursuit of a pause in military operations.
Lavrentiev declared nonetheless that “his country will continue its cooperation with Iran and Syria in the fight against terrorists and the groups refusing to commit to a political solution to the Syrian crisis.” He also “reaffirmed Moscow’s support for Tehran’s constructive role in the campaign to bring peace to Syria.”
While both powers are taking care to paper over their disagreements in public, Iran’s “constructive role” is decidedly moving away from cooperation with Russia.
It is digging in its heels over Assad’s future at the head of the regime, unlike Russia, which is cautiously contemplating him stepping aside at some point, while keeping his regime in place under a political settlement.
But most of all, Tehran is furtively stealing a march on Moscow inside Syria by grabbing positions of strength within “useful Syria” – as Assad refers to the parts of the country under his control. These steps are developing into an unacknowledged cold war with Moscow.
debkafile’s military and intelligence sources have discovered Iran setting up a kind of shadow government within the Assad regime’s ruling institutions. It is in position for sabotaging Russian and Syrian government efforts to sustain the nearly two-month ceasefire.
Also in position is an array of Iranian tools of influence outside the Syrian government, which are being polished for subversion against both Moscow and Damascus:
- The National Defense Force (NDF) militia has been set up to draw in the poor, jobless and forgotten elements of Syrian society by lavishing on them wealth and influence far beyond the wages of Syrian army regulars.
- The Shiite militias imported to fight alongside government troops – most notably the Lebanese Hizballah and the Iraqi Harakat Hezbolah al-Nujaba – receive arms, ammunition and funds from Iran. Now they have been given a clandestine task: Winning young Syrians over to join them instead of the Syrian army. In this way, Iran is sapping the central regime’s authority and boosting Iranian influence in Damascus.
- Iranian agents have bought up blocks of Syrian real estate, mainly in Damascus. Although these investments appear to be high risk, their value is exponentially enhanced as government forces make progress and rebel groups surrender the surrounding countryside areas they were holding.
- Iran has increased the number of Shiite holy places in Damascus and Homs in keeping with the massive displacement of Sunni populations as refugees.
- Shiite militias and Hizballah led the battle to seize Wadi Barada, the main source of Damascus’ water reservoir, in flagrant violation of the Russian-brokered ceasefire. The Assad regime has often complained that it has no control over Hizballah.
- Iran has been licensed as operator of Syria’s mobile phone service under five memoranda of understanding signed during Syrian Prime Minister Emad Khamis’ visit to Tehran on Jan. 17. It also won phosphate mining contracts.
- Assad granted Iran 5,000 hectares of farmland, 1,000 hectares as sites for building oil and gas terminals and additional land for animal farms.
Iran has therefore stockpiled an arsenal for upending any agreements that may be reached in the coming peace negotiations on Syria’s future – in case its interests are not fully respected.