Moscow used its South Syrian proxy, the Fifth Corps, to send a message to Bashar Assad in Damascus. This telling slogan was shouted on Aug. 1 in the presence of Russian officers at a passing-out parade of 1,000 Russian- trained recruits of the Fifth Corps. This militia was established earlier this year to nail down Moscow’s role as the boss of southern Syria. It rules three regions, Daraa, Quneitra and Jebel Druze.
Most of the volunteers joining up are former rebels, some of them southern Syrian fighters against the Assad regime who were in Israel’s pay during the civil war. Installed as their commander is Ahmed al- Awdah, a colorful former rebel, reputed to hold a degree in English literature who is known to have changed sides more than once. Today, he answers directly to a Russian general. The Fifth Corps, most of whose recruits are Sunni Muslims, acts as a living barrier against Iranian, pro-Iranian or Hizballah intrusions or Syrian national army attempts to challenge Russian control of southern Syria.
And so the slogan, “Long Live Syria! Down with Assad!” coming from the throats of a thousand new Russian-trained Syrian recruits, at a parade attended by a Russian colonel and other officers, would have resounded jarringly in the ears of Bashar Assad and his regime. Vladimir Putin was telling him from Awdah’s Bosra headquarters in the South where the power, that guaranteed his survival by military intervention, stands today and what is planned in the Kremlin for his country and regime.
If there was any doubt about those intentions, Russian officers have also been making their way to the eastern province of Der Ezzour to raise local talent for pushing the Iranian Guards out of this Syrian-Iraqi border region. Steps are therefore in motion for asserting Russian domination in the Eastern Euphrates into the bargain.
Putin’s emissaries are also in touch with the Kurdish leaders of northern Syria. In conversation with Gen. Mazlum Abdi, head of their US-backed militia, they are holding out seductive assurances of support for the Syrian Kurds’ attainment of “decentralization” – another word for self-rule. They are also promising to look after Syria’s Kurds against retribution by the Assad regime if and when the US withdraws its troops from the country. Russian-American dialogue also seems to be taking place alongside this step.
Seen from Tehran, the spectacle of Russia, an erstwhile ally in the campaign for keeping Assad in power, quietly and determinedly forging its own path into positions of control in southern, eastern and northern Syria, must be maddening in the extreme.