Iranian Army Chief’s Arrival in Syria Imperils Putin-Netanyahu Accord

On April 21, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu arruved in Moscow for an urgent meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The sudden trip came one day after a near clash between four Israeli F-15s and two Russian Su-30s over the eastern Mediterranean near the Syrian city of Latakia.
Netanyahu brought the Israeli Air Force commander, Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, to the meeting. Not a single detail about the actual talks between the two leaders has been released to the press. The Russians only “leaked” that Putin ordered Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who was in in the midst of a series of confrences, to immediately put everything else aside and meet Eshel in order to resolve any possible problems.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report that the talks between the two leaders and the two senior military commanders resulted in three agreements:
1. Israeli and Russian warplanes flying in Syrian airspace will not approach closer than 20 miles of each other. This distance will be strictly coordinated through the hotline between the Russian Defense Ministry in Moscow and the Israeli Air Force command in Tel Aviv.
2. Russian warplanes and helicopters will no longer approach Israel’s border with Syria, namely the Golan Heights, and will not bomb targets within 15 kilometers of the border.
3. Putin acceded to Netanyahu’s request that he shall order the Russian military in Syria not to attack targets in southern Syria close to the Israeli and Jordanian borders anymore.
It seems Putin has accepted Netanyahu’s position that Russian help provided to Syrian, Iranian and Hizballah forces in southern Syria in attacking the rebels and occuping territory held by them, will result in a direct Iranian threat on the borders of Israel and Jordan.
Immediately after these understandings were reached, relative quiet prevailed in southern Syria.
But on Saturday, April 30, the Iranians turned the tables on the Russians and the Israelis. To Moscow and Jerusalem’s surprise, by order of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian army’s chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi, arrived in Damascus. His arrival was reported exclusively by DEBKAfile’s military sources on May 2.
Khamenei gave the chief of staff three instructions:
A. Take direct command of the Iranian, Syrian and Hizballah armies fighting in Syria.
B. Not to neglect other fronts, especially Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa, as the attack by Russian, Iranian, Syrian and Hizballah forces on the city of Aleppo continues. The assault is now in its third week.
C. “To personally supervise the battles and the borders that were determined,” sources close to Khamenei said.
Those other fronts and borders include those of southern Syria.
The fact that Khamenei raised the issue of Syria’s borders among his directives is an indication that Iran intends to preserve the country’s borders, at least at this stage.
The presence of Maj. Gen. Firouzabadi for an indefinite period in Damascus until Iran achieves its strategic goals poses a serious problem for Moscow.
Previously, the Russian and Iranian military operations in Syria had been coordinated by Russian Defense Minister Shoigu and Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Al Qods brigades and of Iranian forces in Iraq and Syria, who visited Moscow occasionally during the last few months. But now, the commander of Russian forces in Syria, Col. Gen. Alexander Dvornikov, faces a delicate situation in which an Iranian officer of senior rank is sitting in Syrian general staff headquarters in Damascus and issuing orders regarding the war.
A power struggle seems to be looming between Firouzabadi and Dvornikov.
There is no doubt that the Iranian general was dispatched, among other reasons, to block implementation of the understandings reached by Putin and Netanyahu concerning southern Syria.

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