Iran, Russia disclaim collusion in Syria

 The Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated Friday in New York while addressing the America media representatives, “I do not see a coalition between Iran and Russia in the war against terrorism in Syria.”

ROUHANI-ASSAD-PUTIN

He disclosed that Russian President Vladimir Putin had told him personally that Moscow wants to play a more active role in combating terrorist groups in the region.

Rouhani said he was pleased that the United States is now open to the idea of Iran’s participation in discussions on Syria. “Iran is a powerful and effective country within the region,” he pointed out.

In Rouhani’s estimation, Iran-US ties have improved – “The situation has certainly changed. We can point to the tangibles, the many steps forward… If we continue on the path, the road will be paved to further cooperation and collaboration… we have seen good faith between the two sides.”

As regards Syria, he went on to say that Damascus would ultimately have to accept some measure of political reform. However, the fight against terrorism is more urgent today: “Stability can be imagined with democracy, but democracy cannot be imagined without stability. You cannot put a ballot box in a battlefield”.

These must be regarded as Rouhani’s most candid remarks so far on Iran’s new thinking. He reserved these comments until it became clear that the Herculean efforts by the anti-nuclear deal lobbies on the Hill have collapsed and the coast is clear now for the US to implement the deal. Indeed, he spoke while on American soil.

However, the really meaningful part is that Rouhani was most certainly aware of the launch of the new US initiative for a political solution in Syria next week on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York and the meeting Monday between Putin and President Barack Obama.

No doubt, no matter Tehran’s public posturing, Rouhani signaled to the White House that the Iranian leadership is open to engagement with the US regarding Syria within the overall framework of normalization process with the US.

Rouhani is a seasoned statesman. His remarks on Syria apparently enjoy the dominant opinion within the Iranian regime. Earlier in the week, a senior army commander, Gen. Ataollah Salehi, in fact, went a step ahead to disclose that there is no coordination on the ground taking place with Russia regarding military aid to the Syrian regime.

The general said, “We are not tied to anyone in helping the resistance and we do our own job. Russia helps its allies within the framework of the treaties it has, and we also act by our own methods”. (By the way, the fine distinction made by the general also merits attention, namely, Syria is an ally for Russia, while Iran’s commitment is to the ‘resistance’.)

Would Rouhani have signaled ahead of the Obama-Putin meeting that Tehran has an independent policy toward Syria, which is not to be mixed up whatever could be there on Putin’s mind? The possibility cannot be ruled out.

Do not be surprised if the Kremlin read such a signal. At any rate, Putin’s big move Saturday to phone up Saudi King Salman could not have been accidental. The Kremlin readout flagged that the two leaders “exchanged views on regional security matters, first and foremost, in the context of finding ways to settle the conflict in Syria and building more effective international cooperation in the fight against the so-called Islamic State and other terrorist groups… Both sides expressed interest in developing dialogue on international issues and in further expanding bilateral cooperation in various areas.”

One way of looking at Putin’s desire to touch base with Salman ahead of his meeting with Obama on Monday would be that it was an act of one-upmanship – after all, it didn’t occur to Obama to do such a thing with America’s closest ally in the Arab world. But that alone does not explain.

However, it is futile to pretend there is no regional backdrop to the display of camaraderie between the Kremlin and the House of Saud at this juncture. The point is, Iran-Saudi relations plummeted to a new low following the tragic stampede near Mecca in which over 130 Iranian Haj pilgrims lost their lives.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Al Khamenei squarely blamed the Saudi leadership – “instead of shunning responsibility (Saudi leaders) must accept their responsibility in this grave incident by apologizing to the Muslim Ummah and the families of victims”.

The Iranian official media claims that more than 2000 people were actually killed in the stampede. Rouhani has sought a UN investigation.

Putin, on the contrary, has chosen to commiserate with Salman. Interestingly, they also discussed “issues pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, given the complicated situation near the Holy Places in Eastern Jerusalem”. Clearly, Putin found it expedient to hold the Saudi hand when the morale is running low in Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia has refrained from criticizing or even voicing concern over the Russian military build-up in Syria despite the fact that Moscow is actually boosting the standing of the Syrian regime and President Bashar-Al Assad. Even Putin’s assertive statement last week that Moscow is determined to strengthen the Syrian government did not provoke any Saudi wrath.

Equally, Saudi establishment commentators are under gag orders to avoid criticizing Russia’s military involvement in the Syrian conflict. Their fury is focused at Obama and his Iran policies.

Interestingly, the prominent Saudi commentator Abdulrahman Al-Rashid wrote in the establishment daily Asharq Al-Awsat last Sunday that there could be very real differences between Russia and Iran on Syria regarding Assad’s future. According to Rashid,

  • The Middle East will change after the nuclear agreement with Iran. Tehran may swing politically towards the US in opposition to Russian policy. Maybe this is why Putin wants to make a preemptive move in regard to this change, by suggesting the solution itself: a political authority in Syria that includes Assad and some opposition forces protected by Russian forces—but without the commander of Iran’s Quds Force Gen. Qassem Suleimani, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hezbollah, and all the other Shi’ite militias currently operating in Syria.

Now, this may sound far-fetched at the moment and mere Saudi wishful thinking – unless there is some empirical evidence. However, Putin’s conversation with Salman on the eve of his departure for New York will get noted regionally and internationally.

Moscow probably gave the hint of its intention to carry the Saudis along on its long, lonesome, dangerous journey ahead on Syria (which is the right thing to do, of course), while also displaying ostentatiously that there is really no exclusivity about its cooperation with Tehran.

By dialing up Salman, Putin essentially endorsed Rouhani’s own remarks in New York regarding Iran’s independent policies on Syria. In sum, within a space of some 24 hours, Rouhani and Putin debunked the prevailing notion of Russian-Iranian collusion in Syria. Obama would probably be pleased with that, too.

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