In September 2015 when Russia first became militarily involved in the Syrian conflict, the narrative in Tehran went something like this: Quds Corps Commander General Qassem Soleimani visited Moscow, held talks with President Vladimir Putin and persuaded him to join the Resistance Front led by Iran.
The expectation was that Russian intervention would provide the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad with that little extra strength he needed to tip the strategic balance in his favor. More than a year later, both the narrative and the expectation have changed.
General Soleimani, a master of public relations, has been ordered to keep a low profile and even barred from making one of his flash visits to the battlegrounds of Syria or Iraq. For his part, President Putin has made it clear that if anyone is in charge of re-designing the Middle East, it is Russia and not Iran. “We persuaded our American partners to let Iran take part in the Lausanne conference, along with other regional nations,” says Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Soleimani is not the only senior member of Tehran’s “Syrian Planning Room” to be sidelined. Hussein Amir-Abdullahiyan, the senior diplomat dealing with Syria, has also lost his job as the “Supreme Guide” increasingly depends on Moscow to seek a way out of the Syrian quagmire and reduces Iran’s human and economic losses there.
Soleimani has also been ordered to stay out of Iraq. Instead, Khamenei has sent his diplomatic adviser Ali-Akbar Velayati to “monitor developments” from Baghdad and tell Iraqi Shiite political leaders to “remain united and vigilant.”
Under an emerging pattern on the Syrian dossier, Lavrov and his American counterpart John Kerry do all the horse-trading required behind closed doors. “We must be vigilant,” says General Rahim Yahya Safavi, the Military Adviser to Iran’s “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei. “We must be careful that the Russians don’t settle their problems with America at our expense.”
He also claims that US President Barack Obama pressed the Iraqi government to start operations to liberate Mosul from the Islamic Caliphate earlier than planned so that his administration could ward off charges of weakness in the face of terrorism. “Obama asked for the Mosul operation to help Hillary Clinton get elected,” the general said on Tuesday.
The buzz in Tehran circles is that Putin hopes to end up as the new conqueror of Aleppo, sharing that distinction with Hulagu Khan the Moghul chief in the 13th century. In exchange, Mosul would “ go to Obama”, at least as far as footage on CNN is concerned, showing a small platoon of US Special Forces leading “the liberation” of Iraq’s third most populous city.
A clear sign that the Assad regime puts Russia in a different category than Iran came this week when Damascus and Moscow signed an accord granting Russia a 49-year lease on aero naval bases in Tartus on the Mediterranean. In contrast, Iran is granted only “mooring facilities” for a small flotilla.
Not content with seizing control of the Syrian dossier, Russia is now trying to gain influence over Iranian policies regarding Iraq, Lebanon and, more recently, the Muslim world as a whole. An accord signed by Khamenei’s Special representative Ayatollah Mohsen Araki and the Russian Grand Mufti Muhieddin on Tuesday envisages “joint action by Russia and the Islamic Republic in Iran to promote the true image of Islam.” “Is Syria becoming an excuse for Russia to claim leadership in the region?” demands Nasser Zamani, a Tehran analyst.
It was, perhaps, to calm down those who believe that Iran is being pushed into the background over Syria that Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has started peddling a set of “new ideas” described by Tehran circles as bizarre.
In a closed session with the National Security Commission of the Islamic Majlis (parliament) this week, Zarif claimed that Iran had scored major successes in Lausanne by forcing the US and Russia to invite Iraq and Egypt to the fruitless conference on Syria.“We succeeded in showing that Syria is not isolated, even among Arab nations,” he told the session, according to a participant.
However, several Majlis members challenged the claim at the session. “What exactly is our current policy in Syria?” asked Karimi Qoddusi, a member for Khorassan.
Apparently unable or unwilling to provide a clear answer, Zarif said that during the Lausanne conference he had “won support for new ideas” including that of holding a referendum to decide who should rule Syria. However, he could not say what question could be on the ballot paper in any referendum or under whose authority that exercise would be held.
According to one attendee at the session, speaking on condition of anonymity, at least two members objected that the idea of a referendum could cast doubt on President Assad’s recent re-election for a further seven-year term.
By dragging Russia into the Middle Eastern imbroglio, Khamenei has made a big gamble. He has given Russia base facilities inside Iran itself, has accepted the militarization of the Caspian Sea by Moscow, and triggered a trend that could turn Russia into Iran’s principal source of weapons.
“What do we get out of our Arab policy?” demanded Sadeq Ziba-Kalam, a leading analyst in Tehran and supporter of President Rouhani. A hint of an answer came in the Majlis restricted session when Zarif expressed the hope that Lebanon would soon “name a new president.” Iran’s candidate is retired General Michel Aoun who, if elected, could provide Tehran with “something to show” for a costly and so far counter-productive strategy.