Russia and Iran move cautiously on Aleppo

At first glance, it may seem the US-Russia truce agreement on the Aleppo frontline in Syria could be unravelling sooner than one thought. There are ominous signs already.

on May 10, Islamic State cut a key supply route between Syria's Homs and the world heritage site of Palmyra just months after the army recaptured the ancient city

On May 10, Islamic State cut a key supply route between Syria’s Homs and the world heritage site of Palmyra just months after the army recaptured the ancient city

The Saudi Arabian media reported that the Syrian government forces exchanged fire with rebel fighters even before the extended ceasefire ended midnight Wednesday and that Syrian war planes are back in action over Aleppo.

Again, the flow of fighters to join the Syrian rebel groups from across the Turkish border shows no signs of let-up.

The Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak, which is linked to the ruling party, reported Tuesday on a limited incursion into Syria by Turkish special forces, 8 kilometers deep along a 18-kiolemtere stretch in the Jarablus region.

Turkey has possibly tested the Russian reflexes. According to the Wall Street Journal, the US knew about the Turkish incursion.

The Turkish report also claimed that the US has agreed to transfer its advanced High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) to Turkey for deployment on the Syrian border in May. These rockets have a 90-kilometre range, which enables Turkey’s projection of power deep into northern Syria.

Meanwhile, the so-called ‘moderate’ rebel groups (supported by the US and its allies) remain intermingled with Nusra Front in Aleppo. These ‘moderate’ groups – Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar Al-Sham – are also happily collaborating with Nusra.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps lost 13 soldiers in the fighting in Khan Touman on May 6

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps lost 13 soldiers in the fighting in Khan Touman on May 6

This unholy alliance inflicted a stinging defeat on the Syrian government forces in the village of Khan Touman 15 kilometers southwest of Aleppo. Iran acknowledged that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) lost 13 soldiers and another 18 were injured and another 6 at least have been captured by the rebels in the fighting in Khan Touman last Friday.

No doubt, IRGC has taken a serious hit. The secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani said that Tehran’s misgivings have come true, although as a matter of principle, Iran did not oppose the ceasefire in Syria. He said,

  • This event (Khan Touman) showed that the concerns raised by Iran were fully correct and based on the realities on the ground and that ceasefire would be merely an opportunity for the recruitment and reinvigoration of the terrorist groups by the governments which support them.

Significantly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov since telephoned Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Zarif to discuss the implementation of the ceasefire and Moscow followed up with a proposal in the UN Security Council on Wednesday to include Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar Al-Sham in the UN’s terror blacklist.

But Washington has nixed Moscow’s bid. Quite obviously, the US and its allies view these two hard-line groups in Aleppo in an altogether different light as the most effective rebel fighters at present, although they might be hand in glove with the al-Qaeda affiliate Nusra.

Simply put, Russia is not considering any precipitate move to target these two ‘moderate’ rebel groups that collaborate with Nusra.

What explains it? To be sure, there are overriding considerations. For a start, the immediate attention on the military front turns to Palmyra and Homs.

On Wednesday, Islamic State (IS) cut off the only road and the lone supply route connecting Palmyra with Homs. The Kremlin risks losing face if the ancient city of Palmyra changes hands once again.

The IS also began an offensive in Homs province. (One Russian soldier died of injuries on Wednesday in the fighting in Homs.)

For sure, it is also necessary to keep the ‘big picture’ in mind. During an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Wednesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry implicitly warned Moscow that it risked getting bogged down in a quagmire in Syria “becoming the target of the entire Sunni world and having every jihadi in the region coming after Russia”.

Kerry pointed out that Moscow has its plate full already – economy and “other challenges” – and should “avoid a morass in Syria altogether”. For all purposes, Kerry drew a parallel with the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, consider the following trends in Russia’s ties with the US and NATO in the past couple of days alone:

  • Announcement by US deputy secretary of state Antony Blinken that NATO will deploy thousands of troops in Eastern Europe on a ‘rotational’ basis;
  • Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s call demanding much stronger NATO presence in the Black Sea (where Russia’s Mediterranean fleet is based); and,
  • The activation of the web of missile systems US has deployed in Europe over the years, including the latest deployment in Deveselu, Romania.

Moscow cannot but factor in that if push comes to shove over Aleppo and a confrontation ensues between Russia and Turkey, there is a strong possibility – unlike when Turkey shot down a Russian jet last November – that it could turn out to be highly consequential for the cascading tensions between Russia and NATO.

Therefore, Moscow is moving with extreme caution. It is inclined to continue the back-room discussions with the US and other veto powers in the UN Security Council to put Syria’s Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham groups on the sanctions list, the diplomatic setback on Wednesday notwithstanding.

Equally, on a parallel track, Iran’s stance on Aleppo is going to be crucial. While speaking about the losses in Khan Touman last weekend, Shamkhani stopped well short of mentioning the likelihood of any military operations to capture Aleppo city.

The Fars news agency, which is close to the IRGC, reported Thursday that “several trucks carrying improvised explosive devices, “including chemical weapons” entered the Nusra Front-controlled areas of Aleppo in the past 24 hours.

Here, too, the bottom line is that Iran is unlikely to take precipitate steps or ratchet up tensions with the US at this point.

Interestingly, Kerry’s London trip this week also aimed at clarifying in person to western banks that they are free to do business with Iran following the removal of sanctions. He told CNN’s Amanpour:

  • Under our agreement… the banks in Europe are free to lend, to back a deal, to open an account for Iran, to engage in commerce. And it’s very clear what is permitted and what is not. So I think this is a misplaced fear, and we are prepared to clarify it for anybody, because as part of this agreement Iran has a right to do certain business that has been defined. And they have the rights to the benefit of a deal that they’ve agreed to. They have undone their centrifuges. They have lived by every component of this agreement. And therefore, the banks and the world community needs to live by its part of the agreement.

Of course, this is an extraordinary gesture on the part of the Obama administration by going the extra league to help Tehran do business with the European companies. It only underscores the phenomenal change in the narrative of US-Iran engagement.

In sum, neither for Russia nor for Iran, Aleppo is a ‘stand-alone’ affair. A real stocktaking by Moscow and Tehran may have to wait the ministerial meeting of the International Syria Support Group scheduled for next Tuesday.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

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