Astana Talks: Why Iran and Russia differ on Syria?

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The Nur-Astana mosque in Astana on January 22, 2017. The Astana peace talks, set to begin on Monday, will be the first time a delegation composed exclusively of rebel groups will negotiate with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (AFP)

With a new administration under Donald Trump taking the helm in Washington, Iran has shown its concerns by opposing any participation by the United States in upcoming Syrian peace talks scheduled for today in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan.

“We have not invited them, and we are against their presence,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on January 17, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, citing Iran’s Tasnim news agency.

This is Iran trying to keep a straight face for its dwindling social base back home, knowing they have lost hegemony in the Syria dossier to Russia, and yet refusing to admit such a strategic setback. Zarif’s remarks, however, went against pledges made by Russia and Turkey, who have recently taken the initiative out of Iran’s hands in Syria, of inviting the new Trump administration to the Astana talks. US officials have also signaled Washington will be taking part in the new effort.

This latest development points to a major conflict over one of the many definite flashpoints to come between Washington and Tehran over the Middle East. This goes parallel to the highly possible strong approach Team Trump is on the track of adopting, making a significant U-turn in comparison to the Obama administration and their immensely flawed appeasement policy.

In fact, it also proves how Moscow never considered Tehran a strategic partner. It is quite obvious Kremlin would prefer a strong relationship and a real “reset” with the White House, and not the mullahs and what little they have to offer. While Iran considers Syria its 35th province, it has never been the case for Moscow.

“If the enemy attacks us and seeks to take Syria or Khuzestan [oil-rich southwestern Iranian province], our priority would be to keep Syria, because if we keep Syria, we can take back Khuzestan. But if we lose Syria, we would lose Tehran,” said senior Iranian cleric and former IRGC intelligence chief Mehdi Taeb in describing the utter importance of Syria for Iran.

Russia’s objectives

Russia, however, has a variety of objectives in its return to the Middle East after 40 years. With crippling sanctions imposed by the US and Europe over the row in Ukraine and Crimea, Moscow is considering to not only gain a foothold in a strategic corner of the globe, but to also obtain a bargaining chip for future deals with Brussels and Washington.

Russia seeks to maintain its hold on Syria as a Middle East ally and a profitable market for its export of military weapons. This, however, does not spell into maintaining Syrian dictator Bashar Assad in power. The arrangements Moscow is looking for can be reached in talks with the West.

Tehran, on the other hand, is trekking a completely different trail and continuing its original path of establishing a disastrous “Shiite crescent” across the region. Meaning Iran simply cannot have an overhaul take place in Syria, while this is exactly what the Western-backed Syrian opposition seeks.

Iran has invested heavily in Syria and its conglomerate of Shiite militias–far more powerful than what is left of Assad’s army–are taking orders from Tehran, not Damascus. Syria is the cornerstone and the backbone of Iran’s Middle East strategy, stretching from Iraq to Lebanon and even Yemen.

As a result, with Russia pursuing a main objective of obtaining more concessions from the US and Europe on various issues including Ukraine, the possibility of Moscow and Washington reaching an agreement over Syria vastly in contrast to Tehran’s interests should not at all be considered farfetched.

This lays the ground for a dangerous potential, from Iran’s perspective, of Russia and the US coming to terms over Syria’s future. Moscow is in pursuit of a fast solution for Syria and sees Washington involvement in the Astana talks in line with such an objective.

And this is why Zarif, Iran’s top diplomat, seems to have shown such a harsh reaction, as if Iran is being thrown under the bus by Russia. The dispute between Moscow and Tehran over Syria and its future are serious, to say the least. As I explained in a recent Gatestone piece:

“Iran may have enjoyed tactical gains in Aleppo. However, Russia apparently has separate, long-term interests in complete dissimilarity from those of Tehran. Russia has conducted secret direct talks with the Syrian opposition. To add insult to injury, Iran – viewing the Obama presidency as a golden era – is also concerned about the incoming presidency of Donald Trump and his administration, who seem to have strong views against Tehran.”

Originally posted in Al Arabiya English

Iran Threatens the Syria Ceasefire Effort

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By Heshmat Alavi

Following nearly six years of bloody warfare and an atrocious takeover of Aleppo by the Russia-Iran-Assad axis, the world has finally reached a relatively reliable settlement in this war-ravaged country. Unfortunately, Iran continues to pose a serious threat to this yet shaky and fledgling settlement.

Russia, replacing the United States, has become the main counterparty involved in the ceasefire talks with the Syrian opposition and its ally, Turkey.

Considering the lame-duck season between November 8th and January 20th before the new U.S. president-elect takes the helm at the White House, these efforts to establish a lasting ceasefire — and hopefully tangible peace — in Syria need to be respected by the international community. This is especially true since the Syrian opposition have blessed this campaign, directly engaging Russia and Turkey.

The new Russia-Turkey relationship has also led to actions against Daesh (ISIS/ISIL) targets in Syria.

“Turkish warplanes and artillery have struck Daesh targets in Syria, killing 22 of the group’s terrorists, while Russian aircraft hit terrorists near the Daesh-controlled town of al-Bab,” reports indicate citing Turkish military officials.

In addition to Turkey, the Syrian opposition also enjoys the support of a majority of its neighbors and Middle East countries, all believing Assad’s departure is key to reach a true political solution for this crisis that has taken the lives of nearly half a million and displaced over 11 million Syrians inside the country and abroad.

The dilemma, however, lies in the fact that Iran and its slate of proxy groups are erecting barriers in the path of establishing true ceasefire and peace conditions. Tehran is in full-speed mode to disrupt the entire process, as the mullahs in Iran seek nothing but the Syrian opposition’s all-out annihilation and to completely repaint the country’s social fabric in favor of Assad, ultimately maintaining his regime in power.

The Lebanese Hizb’allah, perhaps the main Iran-backed proxy entity, is feeling the heat following the latest developments in relation to Syria. Hizb’allah desperately relies on a land route from Iran to northern Lebanon to maintain the ongoing flow of support from Tehran.

“Sources in Lebanon told the London-based pan-Arab daily Al-Arab that Hezbollah has rejected the Russia-Turkey-mediated ceasefire agreement for the Syrian civil war,” algemeiner reported.

The Lebanese Hizb’allah, known to be fighting in Syria on behalf of Assad as its army has dwindled during the years, is furious over the fact that Ankara has demanded all foreign fighters depart Syria even prior to any discussion of a possible diplomatic solution.

To add insult to injury for Hizb’allah, and Tehran for that matter, is the fact that Moscow has discussed Ankara’s demands with the mullahs, meaning that the Kremlin supports the measure and is seeking an all-out diplomatic solution. This is completely against Iran’s domination and destructive policy to derail the peace process.

Such a turn of events would be the final nail in the coffin for Iran as it continues to rely on foreign recruits and the Hizb’allah to provide the ground forces necessary in Syria.

This is especially significant considering the fact that dissent inside Iran regarding the regime’s participation in the war in Syria is growing.

“On December 16th, 2016, the fans of Foolad Khuzestan B F.C chanted slogans against the dictator Assad in support of Syrians and the people of Aleppo during the football match,” opposition National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI)website reported.

The NCRI is a conglomerate of Iranian opposition organizations, including the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), advocating democratic regime change.

Videos posted on the internet show demonstrations inside Iran demanding the regime stop meddling in Syria and plunging billions to shore up the faltering Bashar Assad regime, and actually think of the Iranian people’s needs and demands.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has comissioned the Revolutionary Guards to pursue his lethal policy in Syria, resulting in horrific death and destruction across the Levant.

As long as the IRGC and its proxy militias, including the Hizb’allah, remain on Syrian soil, this country will never witness peace and tranquility. The IRGC is a major threat to any campaign to bring an end to the mayhem devastating this land.

The IRGC deserves to be designated as a terrorist organization, being Iran’s main leverage to export terrorism abroad.

It is also high time for the international community to call for the very eviction of Iran, the IRGC and all of Tehran’s proxy elements from Syria.

Originally published in American Thinker

Iran in Syria: Russia Took Over

  • It appears that Iran literally gained nothing from the Moscow conference, meaning that its participation was merely of a ceremonial nature.
  • “The regime in Tehran is the source of crisis in the region and killings in Syria; it has played the greatest role in the expansion and continuation of ISIS. Peace and tranquility in the region can only be achieved by evicting this regime from the region.” — Maryam Rajavi, President of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, and a leader of the opposition to Iran’s regime. Continue reading “Iran in Syria: Russia Took Over”

How Iran actually lost in Aleppo

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Following a historic period of perseverance, Syrian rebels and their families were forced to evacuate eastern Aleppo after its liberation back in 2012. An unjust, intense war was launched upon Aleppo by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and its proxy forces on the ground: Russia with its indiscriminate air strikes, and a lame-duck Syrian army of less than 20,000 deployable forces. Continue reading “How Iran actually lost in Aleppo”

Why did Iran publish images of their general Qasem Soleimani in Aleppo?

Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Soleimani stands at the frontline during offensive operations against Islamic State militants in the town of Tal Ksaiba in Salahuddin province
Iran IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani (L) stands at the frontline during offensive operations against Islamic State militants in the town of Tal Ksaiba in Salahuddin Province, Iraq – March 8, 2015. (Reuters)

Seeing images of Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, touring the ravaged city of Aleppo proves the utter failure of US President Barack Obama’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Iran. We are talking about a man grossly responsible for massacring innocent people across the Middle East.

Comprehending all this, Iran desperately needed to boast its tactical victory in Aleppo, knowing its future in Syria is actually quite gloomy.

Soleimani has a United Nations travel ban over his head, which the Obama administration pledged to Congress to enforce in response to clinching the highly controversial Iran nuclear deal. However, he has been photographed recently walking the streets of Aleppo, aimed to show Tehran cares less for international sanctions banning such measures.

The visit by Soleimani, who is head of Iran’s Quds Force, follows the mass evacuation of East Aleppo’s residents. (Al Arabiya)

Knowing Washington has a lame duck president, the last of Iran’s concerns are about US reactions. State Department spokesman John Kirby was asked in a December 19th press briefing whether Washington will protest to the UN Security Council the fact that Soleimani has been seen in Aleppo.

“We do intend to consult with our partners on the Security Council about how to address our concerns with this,” Kirby said. 

Small talk

Rest assured this small talk raises no concern in Tehran. This UN resolution violation by Soleimani, most certainly blessed by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, represents the regime’s need to exaggerate such victories, while major concerns are rising in its camp. Iran’s influence in Lebanon has been common knowledge, especially with its financial and military support for the terrorist-designated Lebanese Hezbollah. However, there are serious signs of dissent regarding the Syria war from this crucial Iran foothold.

“All the effort, pressure, military, and war is against the genuine Syrian opposition,” said Sheikh Subhi al-Tufayli, one of Lebanon’s leading Shia clerics and Hezbollah’s first secretary general back in 1989 to 1991. “Whereas factions of the [Daesh/ISIS/ISIL] group must remain for the regime and its allies so that there can be a comparison between the two. No one would accept [Daesh], so they must accept the regime.”

“These people [pro-Assad forces] claim they are fighting terrorist organizations. You [pro-Assad forces] are its mother and father. You raised them [Daesh] and continue yet. You ARE the terrorists. You are the killers, in secret and in public. And let me tell you: If you seize Aleppo – and a hundred Aleppos – you will be defeated,” the influential al-Tufayli added.

Hareth Sleiman, a renowned Lebanese Shia academic and political analyst, described the recent events in Aleppo “a shame on humanity… shame on the monsters Putin, Khameinei, Assad, and mercenaries from all corners of the world.”

Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Qassem Soleimani uses a walkie-talkie at the frontline during offensive operations against ISIS militants in Salahuddin Province, Iraq March 8, 2015. (Reuters)

This is exactly why Iran has been enduring the direct burden of financially and militarily shoring Assad on the ground, while giving in to losing hegemony over the entire Syria dossier by begging the Russians to lend lethal air support.

“Without Iran’s expanding military intervention, the Assad regime would have fallen months ago,” said Jim Phillips, a Heritage Foundation Middle East expert, emphasizing that Assad’s army is depleted thin after the six-year carnage. “While Russia’s military intervention has dominated media coverage on Syria, Iran has been responsible for almost all of the ground offensives in recent months that clawed back territory from the rebels and encircled Aleppo. It has deployed thousands of Revolutionary Guards,” he added.

Scope of involvement

The Iranian opposition recently unveiled the scope of Tehran’s involvement in Syria.

“The regime in Tehran is the source of crisis in the region and killings in Syria; it has played the greatest role in the expansion and continuation of ISIS. Peace and tranquility in the region can only be achieved by evicting this regime from the region,” said Maryam Rajavi, President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a parliament-in-exile calling for peaceful regime change in Iran.

Iran is also concerned over the fact that Russia has successfully established communication channels with the legitimate Syrian opposition groups. Russia also enjoys relations with the Syrian Kurds, while Iran’s links are limited to the Assad regime. To this end, any major alteration in the Assad regime structure or the sheer governance of Syria will most definitely strike a strategic blow to Tehran.

Heshmat Alavi

In the political spectrum, while Iran was recently involved in talks with Russia and Turkey over Syria, it is also pursuing separate goals they do not necessarily share. “As the situation moves closer to the realization of these separate goals, one can anticipate that differences in the Russian and Iranian approaches will become more apparent,” explained al-Monitor.

Iran is also concerned over the fact that Russia has successfully established communication channels with the legitimate Syrian opposition groups. Turkey has most recently hosted talks between Moscow and Syrian opposition representatives. Russia also enjoys relations with the Syrian Kurds, while Iran’s links are limited to the Assad regime. To this end, any major alteration in the Assad regime structure or the sheer governance of Syria will most definitely strike a strategic blow to Tehran.

Worries over Trump

Tehran also has deep worries over a potential warming in relations between Washington, with a Donald Trump White House, and Moscow. The selection of Rex Tillerson as America’s top diplomat, with his close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, has Iran’s mullahs worried of Moscow bridging gaps with Washington, while distancing itself from Tehran.

Putin is known to favor a “solution among great power” to tackle terrorism, while Iran is the leading state sponsor of terrorism.

In such a scenario, Iran will most likely be excluded from any solution seeking effort for the Syria mayhem. This spells a disaster recipe for Tehran and may even force the mullahs to revise their Levant options.

All in all, Iran is on a course of losing maneuverability power in post-Assad Syria. Expecting a domino effect amongst its very small social and dwindling base back home, Iran desperately needs to publicize images of it forces on the ground in Aleppo.

History has shown such victories are short lived. Even Hitler, after initially enjoying Soviet Union support and parading his troops in Paris, was forced to commit suicide in the end.