The Close Russian-Iranian Duo for Syria Is on the Rocks

It is a far cry from the time in July 2015 when Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s elite Qods Brigades put a proposal before President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Moscow for their joint military intervention in the Syrian war to rescue their embattled ally, President Bashar Assad.
Soleimani’s argument went roughly as follows:
“Assad’s situation is desperate, and he is on the verge of being deposed. If he goes, the two biggest losers will be you, the Russians, and us, the Iranians. In order to save him as well as our positions in Syria, we need to take a very simple step. We give you free rein in Syrian airspace, while we provide the ground forces necessary to take advantage of your air strikes to defeat the rebels, the Nusra Front and ISIS.”
By September, after Putin’s nod, Russian forces had moved into the Hemeimim airbase near Latakia and, on October 1, Russian bombers took off for aerial missions over Syria, in close sync with the Iranian ground command.
Moscow and Tehran enjoyed something of a honeymoon in the ensuing months up to the end of the year. Soleimani was a frequent visitor to Moscow. There, he synchronized their joint operations in Syria and briefed the Russians on the forces Tehran was pouring into battle, mostly from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the Shiite militias being formed to fight alongside Assad’s army.
But then, in early January 2016, relations began to sour, curdled by the accord reached between Moscow and Washington for a ceasefire, preparatory to bringing the five-year Syrian war to an end.
As exchanges between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov intensified, amid frequent phone conversations between Putin and President Barack Obama, communications dwindled between Moscow and Teheran. Gen. Soleimani stopped visiting Moscow.
The Iranians harbor three grievances against Russia:
1. Nothing was said in the Russian-Iranian agreements of September 2015 about a ceasefire. The sole agreed object of Moscow’s intervention was to help Assad achieve victory over the rebellion against his rule.
2. Contrary to reports in the West in recent months, Iran’s rulers and military are opposed to a ceasefire, and will be satisfied with nothing less than a decisive victory.
3. As DEBKA Weekly has reported in the past, the Iranian hierarchy never intended the Russian-Iranian military collaboration to be used as a platform for a rapprochement between Obama and Putin. This development is seen in Tehran as totally negative.
On Feb. 16, Iran’s defense minister, Brig. Gen. Hossein Dehgan visited Moscow to try and repair the breach. But, notwithstanding the smiles, handshakes and an enormous arms transaction, Dehgan could not persuade Putin and Shoigu to turn back and revert to their original bilateral deal on Syria.
Less than a week later, on Feb. 21, Shoigu paid a surprise visit to Tehran, bearing a counterproposal for resolving their dispute.
The Russian minister cut no ice in Tehran.
In the last two-and-a-half weeks DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report the rift has deepened. Russia has shut down its arms shipments to Iran, including the first batch of the oft-delayed S-300 ground-to-air missiles. The Iranians hold back updates for the Russians on their ground forces’ movements in Syria and are activating them independently.
Moscow and Tehran have moved into opposing positions: Russia demands Iran’s cooperation with its joint steps with the US for ending the Syrian war. Iran wants Russia to break off its contacts with the Americans and restore air strikes to full intensity until the war is won.
Still, Russia this week reduced to one-fifth the number of air strikes it had been conducting prior to the Feb. 27 ceasefire, while Tehran made an effort to paper over its rift with Moscow and its resentment against Putin.
On March 3, Ali Akbar Velayati, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s top advisor on international affairs, commented soothingly that Russian arms shipments had not been stopped. "I do not see any major obstacles to the transfer of defense objects from Russia to Iran,” he said. “Russia intends to execute its agreements in this field."

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