In its April 11, 2016 editorial, the Iranian daily Kayhan, the mouthpiece of Iran's ideological camp which is led by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, discussed Russia's interests in Syria and the Middle East, and Iran-Russia relations. The editorial warned Moscow not to reach a secret agreement with Washington at the expense of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and Iran in exchange for Washington's lifting its pressure on Russia over Ukraine and Crimea. It also underlined that such an agreement would in any case be doomed to failure, because it would not have Tehran's knowledge or agreement, and stated that Tehran is opposed to Russia's federal plan for Syria.
Noting that while it is important to Russia, Syria is not strategic to it as it is to Iran and Hizbullah. Russia's might in the region stems solely from its protection of the Iran-Hizbullah-Syria resistance axis, it said, adding that if Moscow sells out Assad and Syria, it will become a minor player in the region, like France and the U.K.
The editorial revealed that the Russian military had entered Syria in October 2015 at Tehran's request, and acknowledged that major parts of northern and southern Syria are directly controlled by Hizbullah and Iran. It added that Tehran has for some time been providing Assad with strategic weapons, and that Russia had withdrawn from Syria because its presence there was no longer needed.
The following are excerpts from the editorial:
"What Part Does Syria Play In Russian Foreign Policy?"
"...What part does Syria play in Russian foreign policy? Is it great or small? To what extent is Russia's Syria policy based on cooperation with the West? Great or small? Is Russia's security situation such that it would prefer to trade Syria for Ukraine - meaning that Russia will receive Ukraine and give Syria to the West? What weight does Russia have in Syria - meaning how much does Russia really influence the Syrian security issue? And on this matter, historically, in the past 50 years, was Syria, or was it not, part of the Eastern Bloc and [after the collapse of the Soviet Union] one of Russia's satellite states?
"What is the extent of the military relations between Russia and Syria? How dependent is the Syrian army on Russian arms? What was Russia's aim in becoming [physically] involved in Syria's security situation this past October? What agreement was arrived at between the U.S. and Russia at the Geneva talks?
"Isn't Russia's becoming a main focal point at the Geneva talks, and isn't its secret agreement with the U.S., aimed at weakening Iran's role [in Syria] and placing the fate of Iran's allies in the hands of Moscow-Washington agreements?
"According to this, and in light of the fact that it is clear what the outcome of the secret Kremlin-White House talks will be, what was the point of our five-year effort to protect the Syrian government, and our sacrifice of beloved martyrs? And, ultimately, in light of its past reputation, can Russia's game be trusted?..."
"All Russia's Might Lies In Its Preservation Of Iran, Hizbullah, And Syria; If It Does Not Do This, [Russia] Will Become A Minor Player, Like France And England"
"Syria plays a major part in Russia's foreign policy... Syria and its Mediterranean coast is the only point in the Middle East and North Africa that has [physical] contact with the southern reaches of NATO territory. To some extent, these places are under Russian control, and any plan that impacts Russia's ongoing presence in this sensitive region is certainly contrary to Russia's interests and national security."
"On the other hand, there is no way Russia can trust that any agreement with the West that rejects Assad will not also reject Russian influence. Therefore, we can say that in terms of geopolitics and strategic interests, there is no possibility that an agreement between Russia and the West about the current Syrian government would be achieved - unless the Russians make a mistake in the talks. But even if this happens, there is a possibility for rectification [of such a mistake by Russia], thanks to the good Iran-Russia relations. Additionally, in the past year or two, we have seen at least two such mistakes that were subsequently rectified."
"Regarding Russian control over Eastern Ukraine and the Crimea, and Russian military control of the Black Sea: There is no reason for Russia to bring Syria in [to the equation] in order to obtain Ukraine. At this time, in the Ukrainian issue, the Westerners and the Western government in Kiev are apprehensive about Russia's influence and about Russia's military and security expansion in Eastern and Southern Ukraine. Therefore, the statement that is brought up in Iran - i.e. that Russia wants to trade Syria for Ukraine, is not compatible with reality.
"What weight does Russia carry in Syria? Undoubtedly, Russia is one of the countries that influence the Syrian issue. Russia's military presence in the ports of Latakia and Tartus, as well as the Russia-Syria military agreements, give Russia prominent status. But in comparison with the status of Iran and Hizbullah, [Russia's] status is not considered strategic.
"In principle, in some strategic matters, there are strategic points of contention between Russia and Syria - but there are no such disputes between Damascus and Tehran... Russia's influence in Syria is not so great that [Russia] can make decisions on behalf of the Syrian government and its allies in the region... that is, Russia has no strategic relations either with the Syrian government or with the main rebels such as Jabhat Al-Nusra and ISIS, which would allow it to establish a particular situation in Syria. All Russia's might lies in its preservation of Iran, Hizbullah, and Syria. If it does not do this, [Russia] will become a minor player, like France and England."
"Major Parts Of The Line Of Defense And The Operations Of North And South Syria Are Now Directly In Hizbullah's And Iran's Hands"
"Over the past 50 years, Syria was never recognized as part of the Eastern Bloc, and never expressed solidarity with it, despite its good relations with the Soviet Union and Russia. Perhaps the main reason there was no such alliance is Russia's active relations with the Zionist regime. In any event, Syria was not defined as part of Russia's [interests], and has, since the beginning of the victory of [Iran's Islamic] Revolution, been part of the resistance front and an ally of Iran - and now too it owes its existence to Iran's special and influential aid.
"In contrast to Russia, that has nothing in Syria that belongs to it, major parts of the line of defense and the operations of north and south Syria are now directly in Hizbullah's and Iran's hands. If Russia reaches an agreement with a third country that is unacceptable to Iran, such an agreement will surely fail - because in the past 30 years, every decision made for the resistance states and movements in which Iran had no part failed.
"Syria has no absolute dependence on Russian arms, and Iran has been providing Syria with strategic weapons for a long time. Therefore, in the [second Lebanon] war, the Assad government gave its Russian weapons to Hizbullah in Lebanon, without fearing that this would violate either the military protocols [that were in place] with Russia or the Russians' conditions. Russia also did not succeed in expressing serious opposition [to this move]. Therefore, if Moscow was Syria's only source of weapons, Assad would not have been able to unilaterally violate the agreement."
"On The First Of October 2015, Russia [Physically] Entered The Syrian Security Issue, After Iran Officially Asked It To Do So"
"On the first of October 2015, Russia [physically] entered the Syrian security issue, after Iran officially asked it to do so. Two days after a visit [to Moscow] by a high-ranking Iranian delegation, Moscow sent its air forces and missile defense systems into the war against terrorist elements in Syria, and five and a half months later, it withdrew part of its military forces from Syria. This was because the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) agreement with Putin was in force for five months at most. After the end of the [Russia-Iran] agreement, Russia withdrew only some of its forces from Syria.
"[It was at] Iran's invitation that Russia entered Syria, when such a [military intervention] was necessary and worthwhile, and [Russia] withdrew part of its forces when even withdrawing them all would not have harmed the [Assad] government and the Syrian security apparatuses one bit. In this case, Iran's conclusion was that the Russian forces should return [to Russia].
"The truth is that last summer, because of the advance of the terror elements in Idlib, Shaykh Maskin, Sakhaneh, and Tadmor, terror elements were enthused, and Syria needed a psychological shock; additionally, prior to Russia's entrance, the sensitive region of Zabadani was taken by Hizbullah.
"This shock [i.e. Russia's entrance into Syria] was implemented in early October, and it gave the [Syrian] army, and the forces connected to it, their second wind, and they carried out the Nasser 2 operation in the western part of the city of Aleppo and also determined the fate of the war in Syria. Therefore, when the Russians withdrew their forces [from Syria], there was no longer any need for their presence. So it is not at all correct to say that Iran and Syria were surprised when this happened.
"For Syria, there is a need for diplomatic talks, and Iran always stresses [the need for] this alongside military operations. Iran has had a useful presence in most [of these talks] particularly in the two recent rounds of talks held in Munich and Geneva. Here, Russia's role was two-pronged: First, in the developments in the [war] arena; in this matter [Russia] is fully coordinating with Iran. Second is Russia's special plan, the main point of which is [Syria's] federalization. Iran has neither rejected nor approved [this plan], but it recognizes it as premature, and as not serving the interests of the participants in the diplomatic talks in Geneva."