The Russian newspaper Izvestia published an article, titled "Politely Requested Out," analyzing why Russia has called upon other countries to pull out from Syria. On May 17, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi.
During the meeting, Putin spoke of the necessity of extracting foreign armed forces from Syria. The next day, the Russian President's special envoy for Syria Alexander Lavrentiev spoke in more detail, clarifying that the foreign forces that Putin had in mind included the Americans, the Turks, Hezbollah, and the Iranians.
Answering reporters’ questions on whether Iran was among the forces that needs to go out of Syria, the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated that some countries kept their soldiers and officers on Syrian soil "in a de facto illegitimate regime from the perspective of international law." He then added: "It is precisely these countries that we are talking about… Russia is there at the request of the Syrian leadership and has all legitimate grounds for that. However, all countries hardly deployed their troops to Syria legitimately from a legal point of view."
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov outlined that only the Syrian army should be on country's southern border. Lavrov added: "Of course, the withdrawal of all non-Syrian forces must be carried out on a mutual basis; this should be a two-way street… The result of this work which should continue and is continuing should be a situation when representatives of the Syrian Arab Republic’s army stand at Syria’s border with Israel."
However, the Russian newspaper Izvestia considers that it is premature to say that relations between Moscow and Tehran are on edge.
Below are excerpts from the Izvestia article:
Russian President Vladimir Putin held talks with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Sochi, on May 17, 2018. (Source: Kremlin.ru)
Putin's Statement Sent Shockwaves Across The Middle East
"Bashar Assad's visit to Sochi was primarily a response to those who said that the Congress of Syrian National Dialogue that took place January in this city was a failure. As became clear following the talks, the authorities in Damascus made a decision to send their representatives to form a constitutional committee, which will start discussing Syria's basic law.
"At the same time, few paid attention to Vladimir Putin's last short remark, made after both he and Bashar Assad summed up the negotiations.
"'Given the significant victories and successes of the Syrian army in the war on terror, in light of the onset of a more active period, and in light of the fact that a more active phase of the political process has begun, foreign armed forces will start departing Syrian Arab Republic territory,' the Russian president said.
"On the face of it, there is nothing new in these words. Russia repeatedly pointed out the necessity for a pullout of the U.S. and its allies' forces from Syria; they were there illegitimately and were controlling significant areas to the east of the Euphrates, as well as in the south, near the junction of the Syrian, Jordanian, and Iraqi borders. The same applied to the Turkish military, which gained control over the north-western areas of the country as a result of two operations.
"But only one day after the negotiations between the two presidents, Alexander Lavrentiev clarified that 'foreign forces' included other countries as well. 'This includes the Americans, the Turks, Hezbollah, and of course the Iranians,' said the diplomat on May 18.
"A follow-up question on whether foreign forces should be pulled out immediately was answered with 'It should all be done in a package.' Apparently, he meant it should be done in parallel with the conflict resolution process.
"The mention of the last two players literally shook up the Middle East mass media. [This was] especially in light of Lavrentiev's statement that 'once the situation is stable, we (i.e. Russia – iz.ru) will, of course, still have our two bases.' And as Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov let it be understood, the Russian presence in Syria will continue 'as long as Syria's legitimate leadership and the friendly Syrian people need it.'
'The Number Of Iranian And Pro-Iranian Forces In Syria Is Either Equal To Or Exceeds The Number Of Servicemen In The Syrian Army Itself'
"Armed Hezbollah units have been engaged in combat operations practically since the very beginning of the Syrian conflict. Although this fact had been denied for a long time, in 2013, the leader of the movement Hassan Nasrallah confirmed that his troops were taking part in the conflict on the side of the government forces.
"The presence on the Syrian territory of the military from the Islamic Republic became common knowledge rather quickly as well. According to some estimates, the number of Iranian and pro-Iranian forces in Syria is either equal to or exceeds the number of servicemen in the Syrian army itself. And Tehran did not only send its military to take part in combat operations; it also supplied equipment and provided financial aid to the Syrians.
"All this gave rise to accusations against Iran that it was actively reinforcing its positions in Syria. In April, the press office of the Israel Defense Forces published a map that showed the air force bases of the Islamic Republic on the territories under Damascus' control. Syrian military experts, however, parry such reports by saying that all Iran's activities are under the control of the central government in Damascus. In addition, the Iranians don't have any official bases in Syria (unlike Russia).
"Earlier, in April 2017, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov commented on the presence of Hezbollah and the Iranians in Syria. 'We proceed from the understanding that both, just as Russia's Aerospace Forces, are in Syria at the invitation of the legitimate government,' the minister remarked.
Foreign Mass Media Speculate On Tensions Between Russia And Iran
"These statements by the Russian officials gave rise to an entire series of speculations in various foreign mass media about growing differences between Russia and Iran. For example, the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, based in London (financed, however, by the main regional rival of the Islamic Republic, Saudi Arabia), reported that Moscow on the one hand, and Tehran and Damascus on the other have absolutely different ideas about how the situation in the field should develop. Thus, the latter allegedly insist on conducting a combat operation against militant groups in the de-escalation zone in the south, whereas Russia thinks it necessary to adhere to the cease-fire agreement.
"The same is true concerning the political process. The same newspaper has detected a whiff of discord (in this case, quite reasonably) in the concluding words after the meeting between Vladimir Putin and Bashar Assad in Sochi. The newspaper noticed that the Damascus government is going to send its delegates to the future constitutional committee 'in order to discuss amendments to the existing constitution.'
"At the same time, the UN Security Council resolution No. 2254 — the framework document on the Syrian settlement, which Moscow constantly invokes — directly points to the necessity of 'developing a new draft constitution.'
"The Sky News Arabia TV Channel also saw an increase in disagreements between Moscow and Tehran in the statement of Bahram Qassemi, Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, who said that 'no one can force Iran to do it (i.e. withdraw its troops — iz.ru).' According to his words, 'as long as terrorism exists and the Syrian government wants, Iran will maintain [its] presence there.'
"Some other mass media interpreted the Russian statements about the necessity to pull out the Iranian military and Hezbollah, alongside other forces, as Moscow's desire to get into the 'Syrian pie' (contracts for rebuilding the country destroyed during the war) all by itself.
"In the meantime, the website of the Lebanese Al Mayadeen TV Channel attempted to clarify the situation. It cites Syrian sources that claim, quoting an unidentified Russian high-ranking official, which Vladimir Putin did not refer to Russian and Iranian forces in his statement because the issue of their pullout will be determined by the decision of the government in Damascus.
'The Dialogue Continues: The Next Meeting Of The Astana Process Will Take Place In Sochi In July'
"Be that as it may, if there is something Moscow is interested in, it is the absence of tension on the Syrian-Israeli border and the prevention of armed confrontation between Iran and Israel in that area. That thing alone could have necessitated the statements about the necessity to withdraw foreign forces from Syria. And this can be achieved primarily by ensuring the normal functioning of the de-escalation zone in the south of Syria, the creation of which was agreed upon by presidents Putin and Trump in July 2017.
"By the way, this agreement envisages, in particular, the withdrawal of all non-Syrian forces to the distance of several dozen kilometers from the de-escalation zone. However, as Sergei Lavrov remarked in February, this item was not yet implemented at that time. It is evident that the West interpreted this idea as the disengagement of Hezbollah and the Iranians, whereas Russia points out that it refers not only to them but also to those non-Syrians who are in the armed opposition camp.
"In this context, less than two weeks ago, Israel and the Iranian military in Syria exchanged blows. In the early hours of May 10, the Golan Heights occupied by Israel underwent a missile attack from the Syrian side, and the blame was put on Tehran. In response, 28 Israeli fighters launched a number of strikes against Iranian facilities in Syria.
"Commenting on the incident, Sergei Lavrov called the escalation of the situation between the two countries 'a very alarming trend.' 'We proceed from the assumption that all issues should be settled through dialogue,' said the Russian minister.
"Earlier, there were reports in Arab mass media that Hezbollah was planning to phase out its military units from Syria in stages, since it had almost finished its mission there. According to some rumors, Russia was pushing it to pull out, hoping in this way to defuse the tension in the region and restrict the activity of Tel-Aviv, which justifies its strikes against Syria by the fact that they are made against Iranian and pro-Iranian forces.
"Finally, it is important to read very attentively the statements of both Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lavrentiev. Their keynote idea is that the pullout of foreign forces should go side by side with activation of the political process to settle the conflict. That is, it must happen not today and even not tomorrow.
"Moreover, when illegal armed gangs are put an end to, the issue of the pullout of foreign forces, which, in fact, only arrived in the country to fight terrorists, will come up again (naturally, this has nothing to do with the presence in Syria of Russian military bases, for Damascus has already spoken positively about keeping them). Then unpredictable steps on the part of different players will be possible.
"At the same time, it is a bit premature to say now that Moscow and Tehran have had a falling out. The dialogue continues: the next meeting of the participants of the Astana process will take place in Sochi in July, and the negotiations between the leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey are tentatively set for late August – early September."