Putin Pays Iran Back for Withholding Ground Troops from Syria

During months of seeming harmony, Moscow and Iran were quietly jockeying for top position in the Syrian conflict and its aftermath, DEBKA Weekly reveals. When the rift became unbridgeable, President Vladimir Putin decided to take his winnings and run.
The partnership set out last year on a high note
Between April and October of 2015, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s forces in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, was a frequent visitor to Moscow for coordinating operations in Syria with the Russian military. At the time, Putin still entertained high hopes of Russia and Iran emerging from the conflict as the unchallenged top dogs of the Middle East.
To promote his plans, he set Tehran the task of getting Russia an air base in Iraq, preferably at Habbaniya west of Baghdad (the main US air facility in Iraq), corresponding to the Hmeymim air base in Western Syria he had obtained from Bashar Assad.
The Russian military would then hold the two bases as the opposite ends of a land bridge, that would give Iran direct access to Syria and the Mediterranean, in the same way as the US opened up the Persian Gulf to Tehran.
The difference was that Putin intended Moscow to stay in the region and work with Tehran to build a twin power hub – unlike Washington, which turned away and left Iran to cope with Israel and Saudi Arabia on its own.
Soleimani at the time assured the Russian president that he was doing his utmost to persuade Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to give the Russians the use of the air facility. When it was refused, he explained that the Iraqi leader had buckled under strong American pressure.
The Kremlin initially believed him, DEBKA Weekly’s sources in Moscow and Washington report. But when the US and Russian presidents began working in close harness in Syria, Tehran was caught out as having torpedoed the Putin plan – not the Americans, although they too were not too enthusiastic about having to share their Iraqi air facility with the Russians.
The stumbling block it turned out had been planted by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who saw no reason why Russia should control the Iraqi-Syrian land bridge, when it should be the other way round: Russia and Iraq should have to depend on Shiite Iran for access.
By then, relations between Moscow and Iran were fraying at the edges. They were wrangling sharply over ground forces for buttressing the Syrian army’s struggle against the rebels.
Putin quoted Gen, Soleimeni, who a year ago (as reported by DEBKA Weekly’s sources) presented a formula which the Kremlin had accepted: the Russian air force would control Syrian skies, while Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps would provide the ground forces for turning the war around to victory.
When Putin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu demanded those troops, Soleimani, in his capacity as coordinator, personally guaranteed Tehran’s compliance with its side of the bargain.
In the event, Russian warplanes went into action over Syria, whereas the promised Iranian ground forces never materialized and therefore never followed ;up on the successful Russian air strikes.
When Gen. Shoigu approached his Iranian colleague on the subject, he met with evasions and pretexts.
At length, Tehran finally delivered the ground forces – only they were not Iranian combatants, but hurriedly mustered Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani Shiite militiamen, armed with scrappy, outdated firearms and no combat experience.
The crisis between the two governments came to a head in the second half of February, when the two defense ministers exchanged visits to each other’s capitals. Iran stood by its refusal to send troops to Syria. A few days later, Putin decided to pull back a large part of the Russian contingent from Syria.

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