Russia and Iran are suddenly at each other’s throats in Syria. After years of fellowship in the ruthless drive to keep Bashar Assad in power, the Russians have in the last few days suddenly turned on the Iranians and performed, without warning, a series of lightning evictions, which are disclosed here for the first time by DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources. They began by blocking a deal approved by Assad for Iran to take over the management of a marine port facility on the Mediterranean shore of Latakia near Russia’s Khmeimim Air Base headquarters. The Russians next proceeded to elbow Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) air force personnel out of the important Syrian air bases they had agreed to share with the Iranian personnel:
1. The Mezzeh military Airport southwest of Damascus, which also serves the Assads as their private family airport.
2. The Khalkhalah Military Air base at Suweida, the southernmost corner of Druze territory near the Jordanian border.
3. Beit Sahem on Damascus’ southeastern outskirts, facing the Israeli Golan.
4. The Tiyas Military Air base, Syria’s largest, also known as T-4, which is located in the Homs region west of the ancient city of Palmyra.
The hardware the Iranians were forced to repatriate from Syria consisted mainly of drone fleets. They included their most advanced UAV, the Saeqeh, which is armed with bombs and precise missiles and was supposedly derived partly from a captured US RQ-170 stealth drone; the Shahed-129 single-engine, medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV); the Mohajer-4 and Mohajer-6, brought to Syria only last year, which is equipped with a new made-in-Iran Ghaem smart bomb; and the Ababil 3, which has a low radar-cross section used for surveillance and reconnaissance communications relay and electronic warfare.
Stripped of all this hardware and its Syrian bases of operation, Iran finds the combat and intelligence capabilities of its own forces and proxies – Hizballah and the imported Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani Shiite militias – drastically impaired in Lebanon as well as in Syria. Tehran no longer has the resources for conducting air strikes against Israel and Jordan.
President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, was rubbing salt in Iranian wounds when he said on Friday, April 26, that Iranian forces in Syria had withdrawn to “within 75-80 km of the Israeli border” as Moscow had promised Washington and Jerusalem last year. The diplomat ironically put a generous face on a policy reversal that served a key Russian interest – namely, to chase the Iranians out of Syria and regain full command of its four key air bases. This had become urgent as anti-Russian, pro-Iranian elements were raising their heads in the Syrian armed forces and relying on Iranian air and intelligence contingents in the country for backup.
According to DEBKA Weekly’s military sources, the Syrian Fifth Corps which is backed by Moscow and the Fourth Division and its pro-Iranian commander, Maher al-Assad, are competing for followers in the officer ranks of the Syrian armed forces. The struggle has seeped into the various Syrian undercover arms, including Air Force Intelligence, the traditional bulwark of the Assad clan’s rule. Amid this hot rivalry between the pro-Moscow and pro-Tehran adherents, the reconstitution and rehabilitation of Syria’s armed forces had fallen by the wayside.