Amidst nascent signs that the United States is making a course correction on Syria, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian is scheduled to travel to Moscow on Monday. In remarks on Tuesday, President Hassan Rouhani had underscored that Iran’s priority will be to put an end to the insecurity and bloodshed in Syria.

Iran Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Amir Abdollahian
Iran Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Amir Abdollahian

“Once this goal is achieved, it will be time to discuss political issues such as democracy and opposition in the Arab country,” he added. Broadly speaking, Iran and Russia’s approaches are similar and the two countries echo the Syrian government’s willingness to hold elections that would pave the way for creating an inclusive, broad-based government in Damascus.

The Supreme Leader’s military advisor Gen. Yahya Rahim-Safavi said on Thursday that the Iranian regime has lined up behind Russia’s proposal to form an international coalition in Syria against the Islamic State. He said Syria and Iraq constitute Iran’s “strategic defence depth… Our material and spiritual support as well as military consultations given to Iraqis and Syrians are based on wisdom and logic”.

Moscow and Tehran are closely coordinating on Syria. The Iranian media widely reported the statement by the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov in Moscow on Friday that if Syria sought the help of Russian combat troops, the request will be “discussed and considered”. But then, Tehran also highlighted the remarks by the Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Muallem, which prompted Peskov’s reaction:

  • But until now, I (Muallem) believe that the Syrian Army is capable and what we frankly need is more ammunition and qualitative weapons to face the qualitative armament of terrorist groups…Up until now there’s no joint fight on the ground with Russian forces, but if we sense the need for it, we will consider and ask.

Muallem went on to acknowledge that Russia has “stepped up the pace” of supplying weapons and ammunition”.

Indeed, the Iranian reports maintain that the Syrian armed forces “in coordination with” Hezbollah are acquitting themselves well enough. The Hezbollah reports also convey similar impression. This is how a Hezbollah report on Friday interpreted the Russian role in Syria:

  • Russian commentators say that Western analysts need not feel alarmed over the presence of Russian weapon trainers and military advisors in port towns of Tartus, Lattakia and Banias. It should be seen as Russia’s fulfilling its previous contractual obligations.
  • Alexander Aksenyonok, the most senior Russian diplomat specializing in Syrian affairs, told… that Russian advisers were in Syria to help prevent the country’s breakup, to protect minority groups, and to preserve Russian presence at the Syrian ports.
  • For Russia “the primary objective is to prevent the collapse of state institutions in Syria. Otherwise a ‘Somalization of Syria’ may take place if militant forces either from ISIL or other organizations take power.”
  • Aksenyonok said that the technical supply facilities at the port of Tartos should not be described as a military base. He admitted that there has been an increase in the number of Russian advisors who were there to make sure that the Syrian soldiers were able to make efficient use of the supplied weaponry. He pointed out that the Russian advisors were helping the Syrians to organize a line of defense.

Suffice it to say, neither Damascus nor Tehran – or the Hezbollah – visualizes a scenario in terms of a Russian combat role in Syria.

In fact, Reuters reported on Thursday quoting Syrian sources that the government forces have already begun using “new types of air and ground weapons” supplied by Russia and that the weapons are “highly effective and very accurate, and hit targets precisely… We can say they are all types of weapons, be it air, or ground”.

Initially, the Obama administration might have blithely interpreted the stepped-up Russian role in Syria as an attempt to prolong the ‘staying power’ of the Syrian regime. But The interpretation was predicated on a fanciful notion – namely, that the Assad regime is about to be toppled by a non-existent ‘moderate’ Syrian opposition.

Whereas, the Obama administration would know that if Assad faced any danger of ouster, it could only be at the hands of the IS. After all, Washington has disclosed that the number of US-trained Syrian ‘rebels’ who have been inducted into the fighting this year so far runs in single digits – 9 fighters all in all. It is about time to admit that the ‘regime change’ agenda in Syria has reached a dead end.

The Obama administration’s real challenge should be about educating the US public opinion that those who still demand rev-up of the ‘regime change’ in Syria are actually living in a fantasyland.

The good thing is that a rethink seems to have begun in Washington – even if it was prompted by the Kremlin decision to raise the Russian profile on Syria.

The secretary of state John Kerry might have made a small but extremely significant beginning by hinting that President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster is not the immediate priority. He told reporters in London on Friday,

  • Our focus remains on destroying ISIL (Islamic State militants) and also on a political settlement with respect to Syria, which we believe cannot be achieved with the long-term presence of (President Bashar al-) Assad. We’re looking for ways in which to find a common ground.

Kerry said Washington accepts that holding military talks with Russia on Syria is the immediate step required. (The White House spokesman also said on Thursday that Washington “remains open to tactical, practical discussions” with Russia over the fight against the IS in Syria.)

Indeed, Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter phoned his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu Friday – the first such direct contact since August last year. Kerry hinted that structured military talks between the US and Russia could be expected “very shortly”.

Kerry also stressed that Washington wanted to find “a diplomatic way forward”. In his words,

  • Everybody is seized by the urgency. We have been all along but the migration levels and continued destruction, the danger of potential augmentation by any unilateral moves puts a high premium on diplomacy at this moment.

Now, these are encouraging signs of a rethink on the part of the Obama administration. Conceivably, Russian-American consultations may take place in New York in the coming days. A meeting between Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov is most certainly on the cards.

However, the big question remains: Will there be a meeting between President Obama and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin? Both leaders are going to be in New York during the week after the next; they are also likely to be in Antalya in Turkey to attend the G20 summit in November.  Washington probably is reluctant to be seen as being nudged forward by Moscow – although the latter scrupulously refrains from any ‘triumphalism’.

Of course, a Russian-American engagement per se doesn’t solve the Syrian problem. But, as Kerry estimated, there is indeed a “high premium on diplomacy at this moment”.

One main difference today is that Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which have been singularly responsible for destabilizing Syria, are longer in a position to be ‘proactive’. Turkey’s Kurdish wound has reopened, while Saudi Arabia is unlikely to be able to extricate itself out of Yemen anytime soon.

This provides a rare window of opportunity to push ahead the peace process in Syria while mounting on a parallel track a concerted assault on the IS by an international coalition that draws on the Syrian army’s capabilities directly or indirectly.

It is really immaterial that Washington could be following a Russian lead on Syria. The point is, Moscow took the lead role out of a sense of exasperation that Syria is fast descending into Libya-type chaos and a point of no return may be reaching.

All that matters today is that the IS threat is a shared concern for Washington and Moscow (and the world community at large) and a constructive engagement serves the interests of international security.

There is really no need for the neocons in the US to get worked up that a Russian-American ‘reset’ may follow if the two countries collaborate in the fight against the IS – or that the IS’ defeat may strengthen Assad’s hands. These are imponderables and in the long run we are all dead.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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