April 12, 2016 Special Dispatch No. 6384

Columnist In Russian Liberal Weekly: Russia Withdrew From Syria Because Iran Refused To Participate In Russian Initiative To Freeze Oil Production

April 12, 2016
Russia | Special Dispatch No. 6384

In a March 21, 2016 article in the Russian independent weekly The New Times, journalist Orkhan Jemal, whose father is Heydar Jemal, a leading Russian Islamic intellectual and chairman of the Islamic Committee of Russia, presented his overview of Russia's reasons for intervening in and then withdrawing from Syria.[1] Writing under the headline "The Conqueror's Whim," Jemal noted that Russia's intervention in Syria had been presented to the Russian people by its leaders as a necessity so that the Islamic State (ISIS) could be eradicated, along with any Russian ISIS fighters who might return home to create "another Syria," and also as "a continuation of the counter-terrorist operation in the North Caucasus, only from a distance." An additional, but not officially acknowledged, motivating factor for the Syria intervention, he wrote, was the need to repair the damage caused by the Ukraine crisis, that had resulted in Russian President Vladimir Putin's ostracization and diplomatic isolation. Russia's Syria intervention forced the world to negotiate with Putin and to acknowledge Russia as a global player.

In Jemal's view, Russia's gains in Syria were modest; he wrote that ISIS's losses during the six months of the Russian military intervention could hardly be referred to as critical. Additionally, as far as the Geneva negotiations are concerned, international pressure could lead to the creation of a coalition government in Syria, and the country could be divided up into "a number of territories that would remain under the control of the forces that Russia, not so long ago, referred to as terrorist." Jemal is convinced that Putin did not attain his objective of international acknowledgement of Russia as a global player, since he did not manage to achieve peace "at least in some form" in Syria. Putin's withdrawal from Syria, he concluded, means that the operation to "force the world and Russia back onto speaking terms" can also be considered terminated.

Also in his article, Jemal revealed Iran's role in Russia's military intervention, as gleaned, he said, from an informal conversation with an unnamed Hizbullah official. He said that Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force, had apparently persuaded the Russian military to support Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and "turn the tide in Syria." Russia's main issue regarding its possible military intervention in Syria - that is, who would foot the bill - was settled when Gen. Soleimani assured Russia that Iran would compensate it for military expenses.

Since one of the Russian economy's major problems today is the low price of oil, such compensation by Iran could have come in the form of its agreement to join the Russian initiative for a temporary freeze in oil production by major oil-producing countries. In February 2016, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak announced that Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Qatar would freeze their oil production at January 2016 levels, if other countries followed suit.[2] Fifteen additional countries had given their potential agreement, but Iran not only declined to join them, but planned to increase its production, with the aim of ultimately raising its current 1.4 million bbl/d to four million bbl/d.[3]

The outcome of the Russia-Iran discussion about oil production were officially announced on March 14, 2016 - the same day that Russia announced that it would withdraw its air forces from Syria. Also on March 14, following a Tehran meeting between Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zangeneh and Russian Energy Minister Novak, Iran's Press TV news outlet reported on Novak's statement that an international agreement to freeze oil production could be signed on April 17 in Doha, but that Iran would not be part of it because it was entitled to boost its output after the lifting of years-long sanctions.[4]

Jemal wrote: "The connection between the two events [i.e. announcements] is rather obvious. Russia ended its involvement in the Syrian war for economic reasons. Iran's participation in the proposed deal to decrease oil production would, in our opinion, have compensated us for our military expenses. Iran refused to pay the bill, and we refused to continue to participate in the war."

Following are excerpts from the article:  

Now Under Discussion: Syria's "Division Into A Number Of Territories... Under The Control Of The Forces That Russia, Not So Long Ago, Referred To As Terrorist"

Russian Air Force fighter plane in Syria. (Source:  

"In late September [2015], it was announced that we were going into Syria to destroy the Islamic State. The destruction of this group... was deemed necessary by our leaders because many people from the Russian Federation are members of it and, allegedly, after gaining some military experience, may return home to create 'another Syria.' The war in the Middle East was presented to us as a continuation of sorts of the counter-terrorist operation in the North Caucasus, only at a distance.

"It is obvious that the Russian air forces and their allies on the ground did not achieve this objective. ISIS was made a little uncomfortable, but on the whole maintained its positions [on the ground], and the losses it suffered over the six months when Russian pilots were at work in Syria can hardly be referred to as critical.

"[Another] Russian objective in Syria - let's call it semi-official - is to preserve the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, who in Russia was referred to as 'the legitimate ruler of the country,' and who invited us to fight on his side 'on legal grounds' and 'in accordance with international law.' Assad's positions [on the ground] haven't changed much, although it is undeniable that at the start of the Russian military intervention his regime was one step away from the collapse, whereas at the time of our withdrawal he is much more confident.

"According to the Kremlin plan publicized last September, Russia had to stop the civil war in Syria, and therefore had to defeat all the terrorists (according to our views at the time, everyone who opposed Assad was listed as such), so that once the legitimate president had regained control over the entire territory of his country, the Syrian people could determine their future via peaceful elections. In short, six months ago Moscow was counting on a full and flawless victory for Assad. But the reality is that while at the moment Assad has a formal ceasefire with some of his enemies, in practice nobody is observing this armistice...

"Another bonus for Assad is the freeze in the Geneva negotiations. When Russia was on the side of 'Syria's legitimate president,' there was still a chance, however small, that these negotiations would lead, with the help of international pressure, to the creation of a coalition government. Now the subject under discussion is 'Syria's federalization,' or, to call things by their proper names, the country's division into a number of territories that would remain under the control of the forces that Russia, not so long ago, referred to as terrorist. Moreover, not only will these 'autonomies' fall under internal 'terrorist' control, they will also be subject to external control by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey (with whom Russia has had an ugly row), and the U.S...

"The [additional] objective set by Russia, while never officially declared, was discussed by practically all international affairs experts. Those who are pro-[Syrian] opposition presented it this way: As a result of the escapade in the Crimea and the Donbass [region of Ukraine], Putin found himself in diplomatic isolation and was, in fact, ostracized. The West, demonstratively and rather rudely, made it clear that it wanted nothing to do with him... Under these circumstances, he raised the stakes, and, by entering Syria, forced the world to negotiate with him and acknowledge that there is no solving the world's problems without Russia.

"The patriotic [Russian] experts present the same issue more sympathetically, as if we are witnessing 'a new Yalta,'[5] and as if Putin, like Stalin, is about to divide the world between the Russian or American sphere of influence. That is, we are not talking about a return to speaking terms, but about a restoration of [Russia's] superpower status - [and, according to this depiction, Russia's intervention in] Syria is not an attempt to set right what was ruined by the Crimea and Donbass [events], but is, in fact, its continuation: We are taking [back] our rightful place in the world, and asking no one's permission to do so...

"Still, it must be acknowledged that Putin has... shown the international community that he is capable of sudden, unexpected moves, and that his wishes (which he prefers to call 'Russia's geopolitical interests') cannot be ignored. But even here, the success is only local: [The world] is talking to Putin only with regard to the Syria situation - not about general matters. No Russian military presence in Syria means there is no reason to talk to Putin as an equal partner.

"Had Putin brought the Syrian story to a close -had he achieved peace at least in some form - he could perhaps have moved the situation to a new level. It seemed that the events in Syria were going to allow him to do so. However, on March 14, Putin withdrew Russia's air forces from Syria - meaning that the operation to 'force [Russia's] relationship with the world back onto speaking terms' may also be considered terminated.[6]

The IRGC Qods Force Commander "Assured His Russian Counterparts That Iran Would Cover Their Military Expenses, One Way Or Another"

"On the whole, the outcome of [Russia's] Syrian campaign do not allow us to say that 'we are leaving because we have achieved all the objectives' - we must look for another reason for the military withdrawal. In late February, on the eve of the ceasefire that was declared in Syria, this writer spoke informally with a representative of Hizbullah, a Lebanese Shia group whose many volunteers fight on Assad's side. I wanted to know what Assad's (and, therefore, Russia's) allies thought about [U.S. President Barack] Obama's and Putin's arrangement concerning the ceasefire. I discovered that Hizbullah was very much against the ceasefire; they thought that the time was ripe to 'press on.' In our talk, we touched upon the role played in Syria by the well-known Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC's special forces [i.e. Qods Force] - who, according to a popular story, came to Moscow last year and persuaded the Russian military that it was both necessary to support Assad and possible to turn the tide in Syria.

"According to my Hizbullah source, the real story was not so heroic. He said that the main issue that Soleimani discussed with the Russian generals was 'who was going to pay for the banquet.' Apparently, the issue was settled to everyone's satisfaction when the legendary Iranian general assured his Russian counterparts that Iran would cover their military expenses, one way or another.[7]

"I immediately recalled this talk with the man from Hizbullah when I put together the announcement of Russia's withdrawal from Syria and the information about the Teheran talks [i.e. about freezing oil production] and the news that Iran would not be joining the cartel agreement to freeze oil production. Russia's main economic problem is low oil prices. In search of a way out of this situation, Moscow tried to reach an agreement with leading oil-producing countries to cut back... production - thus creating a kind of oil deficit and raising the price per barrel. In February, Russia managed to interest Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela in this idea. Fifteen additional oil-producing countries gave their potential agreement to support the freeze. The Russian efforts nearly brought together the countries responsible for three-quarters of the world's oil production. However, this deal would be meaningless without Iran's agreement.

"The oil embargo against our ally in the Syrian war deprived it of leadership in the world markets. But in early 2016 the sanctions against Iran were lifted [as part of the JCPOA], and consequently Iranian oil suppliers are ready to fill any open niche. Therefore, it became necessary to persuade Teheran to hold off on its idea to capture the markets.

"However, Novak's meeting [aimed at persuading] Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zangeneh [to do so] was a dismal failure. Zangeneh declared that his country would not join the agreement, and would [aim to] regain lost ground. In the next three months alone, Iran plans to increase production by 50%, and ultimately to raise it from the current 1.4 million to four million bbl/d. Thus, the idea of raising oil prices can be written off.

"The outcome of the Russia-Iran talks on an oil production freeze were officially made public publicized on March 14, although it had been expected. 'Novak never had a chance of coming to an agreement with Iran,' says Mikhail Krutikhin, a partner in the RusEnergy consulting agency. '[Iran's] position was clear: They never promised to freeze oil production and they announced this everywhere.' Russia's withdrawal of its air forces from Syria was also officially announced on March 14 - but, as mentioned, this [intention] too was an open secret.

Left: Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh. Right: Russian Energy Minister Novak (photo by Erfan Kouchari) 

"The connection between the two events is rather obvious. Russia ended its involvement in the Syrian war for economic reasons. Iran's participation in the proposed deal to decrease oil production would, in our opinion, have compensated us for our military expenses. Iran refused to pay the bill, and we refused to continue to participate in the war. Putin, who had trusted the Iranians but was deceived, left the battlefield and retreated to his tent, like an insulted Achilles. The objectives set for the [Russian] military at the inner circle's secret meetings when Russia chose to become involved in the Syrian war will probably remain secret...

"But from the outside, the Russian military appears to be no more than medieval mercenaries - a parody of the famous 1521 anecdote, when French King Francis I couldn't find the money to pay his Swiss infantry, and they calmly abandoned the battlefield, saying pas d'argent, pas de Suisse! (No money, no Swiss!)...


[1], March 21, 2016.

[2], February 16, 2016.

[3], March 14, 2016.

[4], March 30, 2016.

[5] At the 1945 Yalta Conference, during WWII, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin decided to demand Germany's unconditional surrender and began plans for the post-war world.

[7] On March 17, Putin announced the official cost of Russia's Syria campaign: 33 billion rubles ($484 million)., March 17, 2016.


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