On Tuesday, October 20, a Russian plane carried Syrian President Bashar Assad to Moscow for an interview with Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader made sure that only four Kremlin officials appeared in the photo of the meeting: himself, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Bogdanov, Moscow’s lead strategist on Iran and the Middle East.
Putin was intent on driving home a clear, unambiguous and serious message. Assad was told that he must cooperate with the Russian-Iranian plan to gradually phase his regime out of power and replace it with an administration that preserved the existing Syrian military, intelligence and political structures, with one exception: Assad himself would no longer stand at the top of the pyramid.
He was given very little choice in the matter: his failure to accede to this program would result in Russia and Iran cutting down, or even suspending the daily shipments of ammunition that enable the Syrian army to keep going and continuing to fight the rebels.
The day after Assad was virtually given his marching orders in Moscow, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said during a visit to London: ”We are not working for Assad to stay in power forever as president. But we are very cognizant of his role in the fight against terrorism and the national unity of that country.” He added: “The people of Syria will make the final decision – and whatever decision they take, we will endorse.”
Iran’s agrees in absentia to Syrian peace diplomacy
The Iranian official found it necessary to show the world that Tehran and Moscow were on the same page on Assad’s future, since Iran will be absent from an important round of Russian diplomacy on Syria: a meeting on Friday, Oct. 23 in Vienna between US Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and Turkish Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioglu.
Riyadh and Ankara refuse to engage Tehran in any public diplomatic moves for bringing the Syrian civil war to an end, as they regard Iran as part of the problem rather than the solution. But because no successful outcome is possible without Tehran’s consent, some delicate maneuvering was necessary to demonstrate that Iran approved of steps for a solution, even when taken by a high-ranking international forum in the absence of an official Iranian representation.
Tehran has been in this position before: Its diplomats were consigned to working behind the scenes of the two Geneva peace conferences for Syria that took place in June 2012 and January 2014. But those meetings ended in impasse because the Iranians perceived them as part of their negotiation with Washington for a nuclear deal.
US and Russia secretly agree to fight ISIS in partnership
Riyadh continues to reject any role for Assad in a future Syrian government, and strongly criticizes Russian military intervention on his behalf. The Saudis have acted out this policy by supplying what they describe as “moderate” rebel groups with "qualitative" weapons, including TOW anti-tank missiles.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has said that without dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran there could be no political solution for the Syrian conflict. However, he came away from visits to both Tehran and Riyadh pessimistic about this prospect.
The reason why Putin is now so sanguine about a successful outcome to the new round of diplomacy is because Moscow and Washington have reached secret understandings on military and intelligence cooperation in Syria and Iraq for the final goal of defeating the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
DEBKA Weekly’s exclusive military and intelligence sources point to two key events, beside the Vienna conference, with major ramifications for US-Russian relations.
Tuesday, the day Assad arrived in Moscow, the US and Russia defense departments announced the signing of an agreement for regulating all aircraft and drone flights in Syrian airspace.
US okays extending Russia’s Syrian air strikes into Iraq
At a Pentagon briefing, the US Defense Department's press secretary Peter Cook reported that a memorandum of understanding established “protocols requiring Russia and the US-led coalition fighting ISIS in Syria to maintain professional airmanship at all times, use specific communication frequencies and establish a communication line on the ground.”
The rest of the details, he said, would remain secret at Moscow’s request.
Actually, however, both sides agreed to keep the details of their memo under wraps so as not let the cat out of the bag on their deal for their air forces to cooperate in bombing attacks against ISIS and other radical Muslim groups.
The second agreement was never published at all. DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources report that Washington and Moscow concurred that the Russian air force’s contingent in Syria will widen its range of operations into Iraq, and start bombing ISIS targets there, too. Our military sources report that initial military coordination between the two sides was in operation already this week.
Putin’s collaboration with Bush ended on a sour note
Not everyone in Washington is pleased.
On October 21, Sen. John McCain denounced the memorandum as “immoral,” saying it gave Putin a green light to bomb rebel groups that are allies of the US.
This is not the first time that an American president has agreed to cooperate with Putin against Al-Qaeda.
In 2001, then President George W. Bush consented to working secretly with Uzbek and Russian armor and air forces to gain their backing for the US invasion of Afghanistan. Russian tanks, whose military markings were erased, rolled into Kabul before even the US invasion force got there. Their partnership broke down when Putin accused the Bush administration of failing to honor its side of the bargain after the Taliban were driven from power.
Now we need to wait and see how long, and how efficiently, the latest military cooperation between the US and Russia works out, and how Iran fits into the equation.