“Do we need a new policy on Syria?” This was the provocative question put by Iranian Diplomacy, a forum for retried diplomats of the Islamic Republic, in its latest issue in April. The writer, Mussavi Kahlakhali, claimed that Russia and the United States are approaching a tacit accord to divide the Syrian “cake” between them, leaving Islamic Iran to look for the crumbs.
“We may soon find ourselves marginalized by the big powers in Syria,” the writer claims.
The writer recalls the Syrian government’s decision to replace English with Russian as the country’s official diplomatic language as a sign that Moscow is raising its profile in the war-torn country.
Assad’s Ambassador to Moscow Riyad Haddad is quoted as saying that the decision is an indication that Russia is now the key force in shaping Syria’s future.
Iranian Diplomacy also claims that Bashar Assad’s children are now learning Russian with a view to pursuing their higher education in Moscow. This is slated as an implicit snub to Iran which has offered children of senior Syrian leaders places in a number of Iranian higher education establishments without attracting anyone.
Tehran’s fear is that Russia may end up settling for a partition of Syria in which it will have its own zones of influence along with other zones of influence controlled by the United States and its allies, including Turkey.
The analysis might appeal to conspiracy theorists who believe in shady deals behind the scenes. However, it also reflects a timid, though no less significant change of tune in Tehran on Syria.
That change of tune is manifested in different ways.
To start with, as if by magic, Syria is no longer headline news in the state-controlled media. And, when treated in the inside pages, Syria is portrayed as “an international issues” in which Russia, not the Islamic Republic, plays the lead on behalf of the Resistance Front which was supposed to be led by Iran.
News coverage of Syria in the Islamic Republic media shows that Iranian military personnel, having sustained heavy losses in the past 18 months have been told to keep a low profile and stay away from direct participation in military operations. The two centers to register “volunteers for martyrdom” to defend “ the shrines” in Syria, have been closed in Tehran and Mash’had, ostensibly for reorganization purposes.
For months, unhappiness, even anger, against Iran’s involvement in the Syrian quagmire has been rising steadily. Last week, one of the leading strategists of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, Dr. Hassan Abbasi, aka “Kissinger of Islam”, was rudely attacked by students in Tabriz where he was campaigning on behalf of Ayatollah Ibrahim Raiisi, one of the six approved candidates in the current presidential elections. The theme of critical students was that Iran had made too many sacrifices in Syria only to give Russia “an additional card” in its power game against the United States.
And on Tuesday, the Islamic Revolutionary Tribunal, opened a case against former Tehran Mayor Ghulam-Hussein Karbaschi for questioning Iran’s participation in the Syrian tragedy.
Campaigning for President Rouhani, Karabaschi said Iran could not achieve its aims “solely through weapons and killings.”
Care has been taken to keep Syria out of the current presidential campaign. Sources within the state media claim they have received “instructions” not to question the presidential candidates or their representatives about Syria.
More importantly, the candidates have received written instructions in the same vein. “We have asked in writing those candidates and their campaign staff not to raise issues pertaining to military and defense matters and the region,” said General Massoud Jazayeri, chief spokesman for the Islamic Armed Forces.
Reports that Iran may want to lower its profile appears to have caused some concern in Assad’s entourage in Damascus. While Assad prefers Russia than Iran in the lead, he knows that the Russians are unlikely to cater for his most pressing need: boots on the ground. Helped by Russian firepower, Assad may be capable of hanging on to the slices of Syrian territory he still dominates. But he simply does not have a sufficiently large demographic base to establish effective control let alone extend his domains by new conquests. A long prepared campaign plan for Idlib is put on hold or that reason.
Assad needs more men to fight and knows that his allies in the Lebanese “Hezbollah” have also reached the limits of their demographic capabilities. Only Iran is capable of sending in large number of fighters, including mercenaries from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.
“But why would Iran commit more boots on the ground if the fruits of any victory go to Russia,” demands Sadeq Turabi, a Tehran researcher. “It is also not at all certain that the leadership can commit large numbers of Iranian troops to Syria without risking a backlash at home.”
Assad has sent his Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Ali Abdullah Ayub to Tehran to lobby for continued “manpower input” by Tehran. The Syrian met his Iranian counterpart Brig. Gen. Hussein Dehqan.
Significantly, Dehqan, while reaffirming Iran’s intention to “help defend Syria against its emeries” and to “fight terrorism” refrained from any promise of sending in more Iranian fighters. Iran meant to keep its role limited to “advice and technical support”.
The message was further hammered in by Gen. Muhammad Pakpur, Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Land Forces.
“There is no need for sending military units from Iran’” Pakpur said.
Instead, Iran will focus on sending “advisers and technicians”. But even then, the individuals assigned to the task will come from a special unit of the IRGC known as Saberin (The Patient Ones) which specializes in recruiting, training and leading commando units in asymmetric warfare.
“Saberin elements have rich experience in technical and tactical domains,” he said. “And we are ready to send as many as needed.”
Assad, however, wants fighters, not advisers.
Pakpur made an oblique mention of the Quds Corps but did not name its commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani, an indication that, after the heavy losses Iran sustained last year, the latter is still scripted out of the Syrian dossier.
Pakpur said the Sabrerin elements had been sent “to help the Quds Corps” an indication that Soleimani’s unit had found itself in a tight corner.
Saberin was created almost a decade ago as special unit to fight Kurdish ad Baluch armed groups attacking Iran from border areas close to Iraq or Pakistan.
Pakpur also implied that an unknown number of Iranian “advisers” had already returned home.
“Iranian advisers in Syria acted as brothers to Syrian officers,” he said. “This is why (Syrian) are thirsty for them to return.”
It may be premature to announce a radical change in Iran’s analysis of the Syrian situation. But one thing is certain: the policy Iran has pursued in the past six years has reached its limits. The search for a new policy is on.