Russian Defense Minister Gen. Sergei Shoigu, when he arrived in Damascus on Tuesday, March 19, gave Syrian President Bashar Assad a timely reminder: “…with the support of Russia, Syria has achieved significant progress in the fight against international terrorism. Also, the Syrian state has been preserved and conditions created for the return of its citizens to a peaceful life.”
The Russian minister referred obliquely to Iran when he said: “… not everybody is satisfied with the success of the Syrian government in the restoration of peace. Western countries are trying to bring down to a minimum any positive transformations in Syria and create new obstacles to see that the crisis continues.”
It was on Feb. 14, when he last got together in Sochi with his erstwhile allies Presidents Hassan Rouhani and Tayyip Erdogan. that President Vladimir Putin saw the political wagon, by which he hoped to steer Syria into the next stage of its history, was stuck in the sand. In less than two weeks, on Feb, 25, Putin had his forebodings confirmed when he found Syrian President Assad sitting in the office of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dealing out a fresh pack of cards, with no room at the table for Russia or a word to Moscow on their new game.
Two days later, on Feb.27, Putin made his first response: At a meeting in the Kremlin with Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu, the two leaders established a joint Russian-Israeli committee to work on the removal of all foreign forces from Syria. It was the first time that any of the big powers had brought Israel aboard a process for determining the future and military status of an Arab country.
But that was not all. After previous encounters with the Israeli prime minister, the Russian president was wont to brief President Assad and through him Tehran on the content of those conversations, omitting only details on their agreed military arrangements. This time, Putin deliberately left Damascus and Tehran in the dark. They found themselves clueless on five pivotal issues:
1. Were changes made in the Russian-Israeli de-confliction, liaison mechanism operating in Syria following their spat over the downing of a Russian plane last September? Were those arrangements affected by the conclusion of the Syrian civil war?
2. Why is Russia keeping its advanced S-300 air defense missiles in Syria? and why have they not been made operational?
3. Was Prime Minister Netanyahu able to persuade Putin not to hand the missiles over to Syrian control?
4. Is the slowdown of Israeli air strikes against Iranian targets in Syria the result of the removal of those targets away from the Israeli border further north? Or is it because of a new, secret Russian-Israeli deal?
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report that US sanctions have left Tehran strapped for cash, as a result of which Iran has withdrawn around one-third of the 3,000 officers and men previously stationed in Syria.
5. As DEBKAfile first revealed on March 14, the widening US military deployment across Iraq and Syria is taking place in contrast to the partial drawdown of Russian troops in Syria in recent weeks. The Russian defense ministry has so far ordered three battalions of Special Forces stationed in central Syria around Homs and Palmyra to return to home base, leaving a small ground force of just 3,000 soldiers in the country. The two opposite movements leave an almost equal number of Russian and American troops in the country.
Russian-Syrian relations deteriorated still further after Assad returned from his Tehran visit without a word of briefing to Moscow on the decisions he reached there. Russian defense minister Gen. Sergei Shoigu flew to Damascus on March 18 to find out what was going on at the trilateral meeting between the Iranian, Syrian and Iraqi chiefs of staff. He found them secretly charting their next military steps in eastern Syria, western Iraq and along the Syrian-Iraqi border, without thinking to invite a Russian officer.
Shoigu went straight to President Assad and handed him a Note from President Putin sternly warning him of consequences if he continued to turn his back on the Russian military presence in his country while going forward with a new military and political agenda behind Moscow’s back. The first step would be for the Russian army to discontinue its rehabilitation program for Syrian military units and instead engage them in combat. (See a separate article on another Russian reprisal.)