March 4, 2021 Special Dispatch No. 9211

Russian Experts Debate Whether Military Exchanges Between US And Iranian Proxies Herald A War Or Serious Negotiations

March 4, 2021
Russia | Special Dispatch No. 9211

On February 26, 2021, the US launched a retaliatory strike against pro-Iranian militias in Syria in the Abu Kemal area (along the Syrian-Iraqi border). According to Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby "Specifically, the strikes destroyed multiple facilities located at a border control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups, including Kata'ib Hezbollah and Kata'ib Sayyid al Shuhada."[1]

The US attack followed attacks on coalition forces in Iraq including a February 15 rocket attack near Erbil International Airport in Iraqi Kurdistan that killed a civilian contractor and wounded nine others. In another attack on the same day, 14 rockets were fired at US and coalition forces in Erbil.

The official Russian position is that America's presence in Syria as opposed to the Russian and Iranian presence. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded to the American strike.

"Our military were notified of this four or five minutes before the strike. Even if we talk about de-conflicting, which is customary in relations between Russian and US military personnel, this kind of notification, when a strike is literally in the process of happening, doesn't do much. This concerns the military side of the matter. But in no case should it be considered in isolation from the fact that the United States' presence in Syria is illegal and breaks every norm of international law, including the UN Security Council resolutions on the Syrian settlement.

We have repeatedly expressed concern over the US actions in Syria, including in the Al-Tanf area on the border with Iraq and on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River in northeastern Syria. They continue to play the separatism card and block, using pressure on other countries, all supplies (even humanitarian aid, let alone the equipment or materials needed to rebuild the economy) in the areas controlled by the Syrian government. In every possible way, they encourage and force their allies to invest in the regions that are not controlled by Damascus. At the same time, they illegally use Syrian hydrocarbon resources...

Recently, we have been receiving information from various sources (we cannot confirm them yet, and we want to ask the Americans directly) that they are allegedly in the process of making a decision never to leave Syria and even to break up that country.[2]

Russia believes that it is America that has prevented Russia from achieving a settlement in Syria that would rehabilitate Syria and allow Russia to scale down its military effort and reap benefits from its presence in the country. Even before the American attack an analysis in Ria Novosti blamed the American umbrella for the resurgence of ISIS activity in the country. The agency quoted Russian military sources who charged that "The opportunity to hide in the Al-Tanf area is the possible explanation to the question why the militants are able to secretly move in the desert area. Al-Tanf is controlled by the international coalition (led by the United States) and gangs composed from the former Free Syrian Army loyal to the coalition."

According to the Russian Ambassador to Syria Alexander Yefimov, "the American occupation not only impedes the development natural of resources rightfully owned by Damascus, but also prevents the restoration of the legitimate government's authority on the Syrian territory in particular, by conniving to separatist aspirations."[3]

However aside from opposing America's presence in Syria in general Russia tried to grasp the takeaways from Joe Biden's first military action since taking office. Some felt that this sensed American frustration with the inability to draw Iran back into the nuclear deal that the Trump Administration had walked out upon, and this frustration could lead to war. Others believed that a resumption of the deal was very much in the cards and both sides were feeling each other out.

A survey of Russian reactions to the American airstrikes follows below:

American airstrike in Syria (Source:

Ryabkov: An Attempt To Sabotage Negotiations With Iran

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that the United States launched an air strike on Syrian territory at the time of intensive preparation for  a meeting between the American and Iranian delegations. "Undoubtedly influential forces in Washington have taken steps to disrupt this event," reasoned Ryabkov.[4]

Pushkov: Back To Obama's Failed Policies

Senator Alexei Pushkov ascribed the attacks to the trigger happiness of the Democrats who have just returned to power:

"The Democrats who have too long stagnated in the political "stable" are pawing the ground. Just yesterday they were bombing Syria, and today they are already announcing an introduction of new sanctions against Russia, promising to adopt them very soon, "within weeks, not months".

"They are in a hurry, so to speak, to please the world (or to put it more precisely the Russophobic public) as their guru Obama did, who made every mistake possible and failed miserably in foreign policy. Biden should have learned from Obama's mistakes, but he doesn't want to. This is a wrong decision.[5]

The administration wanted to set the stage for cajoling the Iranians into an improved nuclear deal: A classic USA. This is signal to Moscow, Tehran, Damascus, China, as well as to Tel Aviv and Riyadh. The target of the strike itself is insignificant, however the very fact of a military strike on Syrian targets less than 40 days since the Democrats entered the White House is important.

As for Iran, so far, the United States hasn't offered an "olive branch" to Tehran. Olives do not carry the same message as bombs, especially when the latter are dropped on militants close to Iran in Syria. Most likely, the US wants to return to the "nuclear deal" on new conditions, first of all: change in Iran's regional policy, and termination of the missile program. Bomb strikes fit into such a policy.[6]

Another influential senator Konstantin Kosachev, head of the of the Federation Council's International Affairs Committee, expressed concern that American strikes might "disrupt the emerging US-Iranian dialogue in the JCPOA framework."[7]

America Watcher Suchkov: The Strike Was Calculated To Send A Message To Foreign And Domestic Audiences

In an interview with Kommersant Maxim Suchkov, director of the Center for Advanced American Studies believed the strike sent a message to foreign and domestic audiences alike:

"By attacking Syria, Biden claimed several goals at once: firstly, he showed the Iranians (at a low cost) that he, like Trump, won't tolerate attacks on the Americans. At the same time, he did not attack the positions of Shi'ite groups in Iraq, to avoid prejudicing the Iraqi authorities, who must maintain a political balance both internally and externally...Additionally, domestically, Biden strengthened his administration's position in the dispute with the Republicans, who feared that the new administration would make concessions to the Ayatollah. As a bonus effect, [Biden was able] to show to Russia that Moscow does not control everything in Syria." said the expert.

Riafan [Federal News Agency]: An Opening Salvo In A Forthcoming NATO Campaign Against The Pro-Iranian Militias connected the airstrike to the February 18 announcement by NATO Secretrary General, Jens Stoltenberg that the NATO contingent in Iraq will be increased at Baghdad's official request. "The coalition's airstrike at the militants of Kata'ib Hizbullah" and Kata'ib Sayyid al-Shuhada may indicate that the real reason behind an increase in the number of [NATO] Alliance troops is a fight against pro-Iranian proxies, which are at the forefront of the fight against the terrorist underground of the Islamic State."

Military Expert Lyamin: Unless A US-Iran Agreement The Military Exchanges Can Lead To War warned of a new Middle East conflict and interviewed military expert Yuri Lyamin to sustain its apprehension. Lyamin likened the present hostilities to the incidents that preceded and followed the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani

"Back then everything also started with fire launched at a US Army base. One American citizen was killed. In response, the United States attacked the very same military base on the border between Iraq and Syria. The casualty toll was in the dozens. Following that, thousands of [pro-Iranian] demonstrators went to the American Embassy in Baghdad and orchestrated pogroms there."  This was following by the killing of Soleimani and a retaliatory Iranian strike.

"In any case, the confrontation with Iran will continue until Biden returns to the nuclear deal. Otherwise, Iran, or rather, its allies will continue to attack American objects, simply because so far Biden has done nothing for reconciliation and for the first time has authorized an attack against Iranian forces...Thus, if the parties do not start negotiations in the near future, the war will continue. The question is whether it will be an exchange of attacks, which had become almost a routine, or will it turn into a real conflict like a year ago."[8]

Yuri Lyamin (Source:

An Alternate View: Strikes Are A Prelude To Negotiations

Other Russian experts discounted the possibility of conflict, and believed that the military incidents heralded the onset of serious negotiations.

Alexander Shumilin, head of the Europe-Middle East Center at the Russian Academy of Sciences claimed that "the likelihood of a major war between the United States, Israel and Iran today is close to zero. Individual blows have been delivered, positions are being defined. Washington thus displayed its attitude towards Tehran's regional behavior. As yet, no grounds exist for any major joint operation by the United States and Israel against Iran, since the process of a gradual return to the idea of ​​reaching an agreement on a 'nuclear deal' with the Islamic Republic has begun.

It is yet unclear to which agreement the countries are headed - to the previous one, concluded back in 2015 under Barack Obama, or to an updated one. But this political process is now visible.

Recently, the Europeans offered Iran to enter into negotiations with the United States on this issue, Tehran refused, but this is nothing more than a posture. It is already obvious that contacts are beginning to reconcile the parties' positions...In this context, there is no reason to expect any large-scale military operations. Individual strikes may well continue, but no major military action is expected. There are many reasons for this. For one, the Joe Biden administration is unprepared for such a conflict. It only entered the White House quite recently and it is now studying the situation in and around Iran. "

Alexander Shumilin (Source:

Middle East expert Mikhail Magid believes that the incidents are typical of Middle East diplomacy that combines military actions with negotiations: "The Joe Biden administration, unlike Trump, intends to return to the 'nuclear deal.' Negotiations are underway, but the parties are setting conditions for each other and flexing their muscles. The recent shelling by pro-Iranian forces of a number of targets in the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, Erbil, has resulted in the injury of several US military personnel. The United States responded immediately by striking the bases of pro-Iranian formations assisting the Assad regime in Syria...Unfortunately, this is the language of local diplomacy and the principles of mutual probing. The sides flex their muscles and shoot. This is the custom in the Middle East. But now it is diplomacy. Suggestions that a new war is coming are most likely unfounded. They just show each other that you shouldn't underestimate your opponent and the stakes are high. Otherwise, the region won't talk to you at all. Alas, this is the Middle East.

"Therefore, most likely, the exchange of strikes will not go beyond the 'missile diplomacy' typical of the Middle East.

"Like the United States, Iran is interested in the "nuclear deal" because sanctions are destroying its economy and this threatens an uprising of the impoverished population. Thus, both sides want to come to an agreement today. "[9]


[1], February 26, 2021.

[2], February 26, 2021.

[3], February 22, 2021.

[4], March 1, 2021.

[5], February 27, 2021.

[6], February 26, 2021.

[7], February 27, 2021.

[8], February 26, 2021.

[9], March 3, 2021.

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