Suleimani in Moscow

A Reuters report by Laila Bassam and Tom Perry purports to reveal the details of Qassem Suleimani’s trip to Moscow.  This trip, in violation of international sanctions, was reported on here in August.  According to the Reuters report:

“Soleimani put the map of Syria on the table. The Russians were very alarmed, and felt matters were in steep decline and that there were real dangers to the regime. The Iranians assured them there is still the possibility to reclaim the initiative,” a senior regional official said. “At that time, Soleimani played a role in assuring them that we haven’t lost all the cards.”

According to the report, Suleimani’s presence in Moscow was personally requested by Russian President Putin after repeated entreaties by the Ayatollah Khamanei that Putin intervene.  Their sources say that in addition to the illegal trip to Moscow, Suleimani has repeatedly violated the international travel bans placed on him by traveling to Syria.  He is “almost resident in Damascus,” according to a senior regional official.

The report that the Iranian government sought Putin’s involvement clashes both with statements by Syrian President Assad and with a Der Spiegel report out of Russia that claims that Assad sought Russian aid in part to protect him from the Iranians. As we have reported here, Iran is conducting its fight both in Syria and in Iraq by setting up extensive networks of Shia militia who are loyal to the Iranian ideology of Velayat-e FaqihAccording to Der Spiegel‘s source, an unnamed Russian diplomat, its networks have become extensive enough that Assad views them as “a state within a state” that could eventually allow Iran to dispose of him and rule through their networks.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard has long planned and carried out the most important missions and operations of the Syrian regime. They were responsible, right down to the details, for the sporadically successful offensives in Aleppo in the north and Daraa in the south, which began in 2013. In Iran, the Revolutionary Guard is one of those groups intent on continuing the “Islamic Revolution” — the victory of Shiites over the Sunnis….  Their goals go far beyond merely reestablishing the status quo in Syria. In early 2013, Hojatoleslam Mehdi Taeb, one of the planners behind Iran’s engagement in Syria, said: “Syria is the 35th province of Iran and it is a strategic province for us.”…

Using a variety of pathways, both civilian and military, Tehran is currently in the process of establishing itself in Syria. Military means are being employed to strengthen the holdings of the Shiite militia Hezbollah in areas near the border with Lebanon. To serve this goal, the Syrian National Defense Forces were established, troops that exist alongside the regular Syrian army and which includes tens of thousands of fighters who were trained in Iran.

Iran is also setting up missionary centers aimed at converting both Sunnis and the ruling Alawite minority, to which Assad himself belongs.  These centers aim to enshrine Iran’s particular version of Shia Islam at the center of Syrian life, which will further justify the ideological program of the militias.  That program, Velayat-e Faqih, is a guardianship of the state by Islamic clerics to ensure that state power is used in pursuit of correct Islamic principles.  However, the Islamic clerics to be entrusted with this guardianship are Shia clerics trained in Iranian schools.

To illustrate how far this has gone, Der Spiegel cites the case of Zabadani, the “last significant hurdle” between Iranian-backed Hezbollah and control of the entire region bordering Lebanon.  Hezbollah’s offensive to take this city bogged down, leading to Iranian officials — and not Syrian government officials — becoming directly involved in talks with the rebel groups.  These groups included al Nusra Front, an offshoot of al Qaeda in Iraq that is a competitor to fellow offshoot Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The entry of another powerful actor into the conflict gives Assad the hope of playing one protector off the other.  Of course, there is no guarantee they won’t decide that it would be easier to deal with each other directly, as they have already begun to do with Suleimani’s Moscow trip.