President Vladimir Putin this week mounted a rescue operation to unsnarl his blueprint for a solution of the Syrian crisis from the blockage placed in its path by none other than Bashar Assad. The Syrian ruler won’t hear of Moscow’s proposals for ending the war, or even the cessation of hostilities approved last week in Munich by the 17-member Syria Support Group.
debkafile reports that the strains between Moscow and Damascus this week have blown back onto the working relations between the Russian, Syrian and Iranian military commands running the war in Syria.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, referring to the lack of progress toward a ceasefire during a visit to Amman Sunday, Feb. 21, pointed mainly at the Syrian opposition. Its High Negotiations Committee insists first on an end to the sieges, a halt on Russian bombardment and the inclusion of the jihadist Nusra Front in the ceasefire.
But, according to our sources, the main monkey wrench has been thrown into the mix by Assad.
When Putin discovered that the Syrian ruler had won the secret backing of Tehran in h is refusal, he decided to send the supreme commander of the Russian campaign in Syria, Defense Minister Gen. Sergei Shoigu, to Tehran Sunday, Feb. 21, with a personal message for President Hassan Rouhani.
Gen. Shoigu laid before Rouhani the extent to which Russian intervention had turned the tide of the Syrian war in favor of the regime, and the great advantages of a political resolution that would end the conflict in a way that enhanced Russian and Iranian influence in the region to the maximum.
The Russian general stressed that at the end of the proposed political process, Assad would be required to step down. This concurrence was incorporated in the Putin-Obama deal for working together to solve the Syrian crisis.
But Rouhani was unmoved, according to the statement he issued at the end of the interview.
"The crisis in Syria can only be solved through political negotiation and respect for the rights of the country’s government and people, who are those taking the final decision regarding its future," he said.
This was taken in Moscow as Iran’s rejection of at least one element of the Putin plan – imposing a solution on Assad – but not the plan in its entirety. This qualified response was meant to nudge Moscow closer to Teheran and Moscow and pull away from Washington.
The Shoigu mission therefore did not lessen the strains between Russia, Iran and Assad – at least for now, according to debkafile’s sources.
Although all the parties concerned agree that the war must be ended by political means, those means are the subject of controversy between Moscow and its allies. The Russians are seeking a staged advance towards the final goal by first scaling down military operations, the while gradually refocusing their efforts on political and diplomatic arrangements.
But Syrian and Iranian leaders want to keep the focus on the military course.
Moscow wants the Assad regime to make concessions for paving the way to a cease-fire, and to accept a transitional government taking over in Damascus with representation for the opposition. The Syrian dictator would then gradually transfer his powers to the stand-ins as they assume responsibility for the various branches of government.
But both Assad and Tehran are adamantly opposed to a transitional government being installed – or any other political steps being pursued – before the rebel forces are totally defeated in non-stop military operations – first in the north and then in the south.
Neither the Syrian ruler nor Iran show any sign of relenting, or appreciating that the dramatic progress achieved in the past month by Syrian army, Iranian and Hizballah forces were down to Russian military support and especially its air campaign against their enemies. They feel safe in their intransigence because they assume that Putin can’t afford to abruptly pull his military support from under their feet to make them bow to his demands.
After five months in which Moscow and the Russian air force have provided the Iranian leadership and Assad with signal victories on the ground, President Putin has been brought up short by the same Iranian-Syrian negative obstructionism, that has defied every effort to end the brutal five-year war, which has cost 470,000 lives, left 1.9 million injured, displaced half the country’s population of 23 million and left a Syria ravaged beyond recognition.