Russia has denied this charge and has sought the blessings of Western powers by framing its actions in terms of a global conflict against IS, wherein Iran, Russia, Iraq, and the Syrian government comprise a viable alternative to a US-led coalition, largely comprised of Arab states, that has been carrying out airstrikes against ISIS for the past year.
But The Guardian pointed out on Wednesday that US intelligence indicates that more than 90 percent of Russian airstrikes have targeted the moderate opposition to Assad’s dictatorship, and not ISIS. This is supported by Iran’s declared support for the Russian actions, insofar as it highlights the fact that Iran and Russia have broadly overlapping goals in Syria, primarily the preservation of the Assad regime.
That regime has allowed Iran and Russia to maintain influence in the westernmost reaches of the Middle East. At a time when Iranian-backed rebels had taken control of the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, Iranian officials described Damascus as one of four Arab capitals under Tehran’s control, the other two being Baghdad and Beirut. Officials also declared that the Iranian presence in Syria meant the military borders of the Islamic Republic actually extended to the east coast of the Mediterranean.
Russia, meanwhile, maintains its only naval base on the Mediterranean at the Syrian city of Tartous, and Moscow is apparently concerned that advances by non-ISIS rebels toward the coast will soon threaten not only the Assad regime but also Russia’s foothold there. Now the latest reports indicate that Moscow came to this conclusion with some help from Iran and specifically from Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani, whom the Associated Press says lobbied for Russian intervention in Syria in a three hour meeting with Russian officials.
It had already been reported last month that Suleimani had had meetings with the Russian Defense Minister in Moscow. At the time, critics of current Western policies toward Iran were disturbed by a lack of action in response to this news, given that Suleimani is listed by the US and EU as a sponsor of foreign terrorism and is banned from international travel by UN resolutions.
It was generally understood that Suleimani’s meetings in Moscow would deal heavily with the issue of Syria, where Russia had already been involved via financing and arms shipments to the Assad regime. But it was only recently confirmed that these meetings entailed explicit appeals for direct intervention, which were ultimately successful. What’s more, those meetings likely precipitated the more closely coordinated activities in Syria that are now being seen. Reuters reported on Wednesday that when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would begin airstrikes, he told Iranian government officials then in Moscow to “send Qassem Suleimani.”
The subsequent coordination involves Russian airstrikes and an apparent increase in the numbers of Iranian boots on the ground. Iran was already known to have dispatched Revolutionary Guard officers to the battlefield as advisors, though some intelligence sources including the National Council of Resistance of Iran reported that IRGC personnel in the country has numbered in the thousands for at least the last several months. In addition, Tehran has coordinated Shiite militias fighting alongside Assad’s forces, provided fighters for those militias, sometimes conscripting Afghan refugees, and dispatched Lebanese Hezbollah, which Tehran controls, to the conflict.
The coordination between these forces and Russian air power necessitates intelligence-sharing, and it was reported last week that Iran, Russia, Syria, and Iraq would establish an office for this purpose in Baghdad. Naturally, this opens the door for coordination that extends well beyond the fight against Syrian rebels.
Indeed, the Iraqi government has repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction with the specifics of US involvement in the conflict in Iraq, which is similar to the Syrian Civil War in that it involves ISIS, Kurdish forces, and a Sunni uprising against a Shiite power structure closely allied with Tehran. The AP pointed out on Wednesday that the Baghdad government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has also signaled that it would welcome airstrikes from Russia, which is in any event flying over both Iraq and Iran to reach its targets in Syria, having been denied access to Bulgaria’s airspace.
The apparent rapid growth in multi-party coordination leaves no doubt as to why Iran has been quick to support Russian airstrikes. These and other actions can be assumed to have been cleared with Iran in advance, if not planned and ordered by Tehran in the first place.