Feb. 4, 2020 —
On January 3, 2020, Iran’s Special Forces leader– IRGC Quds Force – Major General Qassem Soleimani, was killed by an American drone strike outside of the Baghdad International Airport in Iraq. Commentators noted that Soleimani had been the subject of a United Nations (UN) travel ban and an asset freeze by the United Nations Security Council (UNSCR) since 2007. Soleimani had, however, traveled frequently to Syria, Iraq and Lebanon in the decade since these prohibitions. Notably, Soleimani also reportedly made a covert trip to Moscow in July of 2015 that was conspicuous for its flouting of UN travel restrictions and for the lore associated with it having facilitated what became a precipitous escalation in Russian intervention into the Syrian civil war.
In the wake of his targeted killing, some have portrayed Soleimani as having single-handedly persuaded Putin to launch Russia’s military intervention in Syria during his clandestine 2015 Moscow trip. One pundit, for example, wrote that, “It was Soleimani who personally persuaded Putin to intervene in Syria in 2015.” Another journalist recalled that, “The man who argued Assad’s case to Russian defense and security officials — and convinced them the war was still winnable — was Soleimani, who traveled to Moscow in July 2015, unfurled a map of Syria on the table and explained what could be done to prevent Assad’s regime from falling.”
But the legend being trumpeted – the narrative being portrayed – does not conform with the facts of the time or the true context for and timing of Russian decision-making about its fateful intervention into Syria. A month after Soleimani’s death and the widespread media description of his pivotal role in convincing Russia to take its Syrian military intervention plunge, it is important to review and correct the record. In the following paragraphs I will demonstrate that Russia’s path to Syria had less to do with Soleimani’s visit and more to do with Putin’s broader policy concerns. I will also explain that January 2020 use of earlier western press reporting about Soleimani’s travels to Moscow in July 2015 has misrepresented what those reports actually stated. Finally, I will establish that parallel Russian and Iranian interests in Syria were – in fact – never fully harmonious. Russia’s role in Syria today remains less about doing Iran’s bidding there and more about Russian pursuit of its particular world view in a critical theater of interaction with the US and the west.
First, western media commentators in early January 2020 have misused reporting about Soleimani in Russia from 2015 in an a-historical manner. The main news story from that time – a Reuters report today cited by these pundits on Soleimani’s exploits with Russian leaders -- actually appeared in early October 2015, months after the July visit. Moreover, it was not a reporter-on-the scene record of events. Instead, it was a story filed from Beirut, Lebanon not Moscow, Russia. It also was a report that Reuters consistently and carefully described based upon sources it called “senior regional officials,” rather than Russian officials.
According to the Reuters report lead-in, Soleimani’s July 2015 visit “was the first step in planning for a Russian military intervention that has reshaped the Syrian war and forged a new Iranian-Russian alliance in support of Assad.” As a “senior regional official” described it, “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.”
Read in proper context, the October 2015 Reuters report actually pushed back the timing of Russia’s decision to intervene directly in Syria by several months before Soleimani’s Moscow visit. Reuters reported that “three senior officials in the region” asserted that Soleimani’s July trip “was preceded by high-level Russian-Iranian contacts that produced political agreement on the need to pump in new support for Assad as his losses accelerated. Their accounts suggest planning for the intervention began to germinate several months earlier.”
So this original Reuters account actually does not support early 2020 claims that “It was Soleimani who personally persuaded Putin to intervene in Syria in 2015.” In fact, the Reuters report provides appropriate context and timing: Russia reached its strategic decision on Syria well in advance of Soleimani’s visit. The Quds Force commander was in Moscow that July more likely as an operational coordinator than a strategic advisor to the Russian president. Reuters’s timeline jibes with my own analysis several years ago that detected an uptick in Russian shipments of military supplies to Syria through the Bosporus well before Soleimani’s visit.
The proper context for Russia’s decision to substantively increase its military role in Syria during 2015 does not conform to January 2020 western media insinuation that Russian and Iranian strategy for Syria (or, for the wider Middle East) “became one” during the July 2015 Soleimani Moscow visit. In August 2016, as he expelled Russian bombers from Iran’s Hamadan airbase, Iranian defense minister Hossein Dehqan complained that, “The Russians are interested in showing that they are a superpower and guaranteeing their role in deciding the political future of Syria.” From the beginning of their deepening involvement in Syria years earlier, Russia and Iran had different though overlapping interests and agendas. Iran was especially focused on opposing any and all efforts – outside and domestic -- to topple president Bashar al-Asad from power in Damascus. Tehran saw this as imperative in order to safeguard Iran’s existential interest in maintaining Syria as a vital link in its land bridge to the Hizballah in Lebanon from which to pressure Israel.
Russia saw Syria more as a platform from which to resist Western-inspired “regime change;” and, as a location to force the West in general and the United States in particular to deal with Russia as an equal. After bitterly criticizing the murder of Libyan president Muammar Qadhafi in October 2011, Putin vowed that there would be no repeat of the “Libyan scenario.” Syria soon became that key spot for Putin to present himself as a strong leader defending not only Russia’s global status, but also other states’ sovereignty and independence against foreign interference. Syria also helped keep Putin’s domestic approval ratings high.
From 2011-2014, Putin’s Russia secured its major aims for Syria mainly at distance. Lebanese Hizballah fighters, Iranian advisors and financial support, and Russian military supplies and diplomatic backing had preserved Asad’s Damascus regime. However, the spectacular wave of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) victories across Iraq and Syria, culminating with the capture of Palmyra in May 2015, took all by surprise. After 4 years of defending the Asad regime in the UN Security Council and 2 years of supplying its army with basic warfighting necessities, Putin viewed ISIS’s string of victories as a stark threat to his enormous personal reputational interests in Syria.
Putin responded by accelerating shipments of Russian military supplies to Damascus. Beginning in June 2015 – more than a month before Soleimani’s visit to Moscow -- there was arguably a sustained increase in the frequency of Russian naval shuttle deliveries through the Bosporus, the so-called “Syrian Express” that began in 2012. This logistical uptick during mid-2015 included preparations for subsequent Russian air operations in Syria based at Hmeimim airbase in Latakia. By September 30, 2015, Russia launched its air operations in Syria. A week after the fall 2015 air campaign began, an anonymous Russian official asserted that planning for an expanded military presence in Latakia and the port of Tartus had started more than 4 to 6 months earlier, sometime in the April–June period. Again, this was well before Qassem Soleimani’s July 2015 visit to Moscow.
Also a full month before Soleimani’s visit, Putin phoned President Obama on June 25 for the first time in 4 months. Over the years, little has been said about the substance of that call. Arguably, however, Putin used it to begin to outline the appeal he would make at the UN General Assembly that fall of 2015 for a broad international coalition to battle ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Putin’s UN pitch would not get much traction. Some observers argued it was simply a cover for Russia’s secret preparations to intervene directly with its air campaign in Syria.
By late Spring 2015, therefore, Moscow had strategic reasons of its own for urgently stepping up its military support to the Asad regime in Damascus. Given Russia’s experience in Syria over the previous 4 years, key Moscow leaders would have been aware of and grateful to General Soleimani for his exploits there, particularly in the recapture of al-Qusayr in June 2013. Moscow would have gained an appreciation for Soleimani’s contribution to Russian goals in Syria even as Iran pursued its own aims there. Nevertheless, it strains credulity to now claim that any Iranian official, including General Soleimani, could have directly persuaded Putin in July 2015 to do something in Syria that he had not already decided to do for his own strategic reasons.
Whatever coordination took place between Soleimani and Russian military-political authorities in late July 2015, it was most likely along policy lines that Moscow already had determined to be in Putin’s interests. Soleimani’s Moscow meetings were more likely than not focused on how best to use the Russian air assets that would soon be based at Hmeimim airbase in Syria. This was an evolving secret development that would not be acknowledged publicly for several months, but that would affect the sequencing of a rumored forthcoming surge of Iranian-sponsored forces into Syria.
With Soleimani subject to an international travel ban by the UN Security Council, his reported consultations in Moscow that summer were never acknowledged by Russian officials. There were apparently several more such visits to the Russian capital by the Quds Force commander. In April 2016, his agenda reportedly focused on the logistics of the Russian S-300 air defense system deliveries to Iran; and, about the Russian-Iranian cooperation in the campaign to retake Aleppo. In February 2017, Soleimani reportedly visited Moscow again, this time to relay Tehran’s objections to Russia’s warming relationship with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Sunni Arab states.
After Soleimani’s death, Russian General Aleksandr Chuyko, commander of the Group of Russian Forces in Syria, led a military delegation that paid its respects at the Iranian Embassy in Damascus. But while Russia criticized the American drone strike that killed Soleimani, paid its respects to him, and declared its support for Iran, Moscow was careful not to commit to any other action in reply – military, political, or diplomatic.
Therefore, General Qassem Soleimani’s July 2015 visit to Moscow was not – as was represented by several western media outlets in early January 2020 – some kind of a strategic watershed for Putin’s decision to intervene in Syria. Nor was this visit any kind of a strategic inflection point indicating that Iran had “won over” Moscow to pursue Tehran’s interests in Syria, or evidence that Moscow and Tehran were joined at the hip as strategic partners in Syria much less elsewhere in the Middle East. Instead, a proper assessment of the timing and the nature of Soleimani‘s covert 2015 stop in Moscow suggests that it was most likely devoted to tactical and operational coordination of Iran’s operations in Syria with a Russia already decided on its own expanding strategic course of action there. After all, Iranian battlefield commanders would soon have to co-mingle with Russian forces and interests in Syria more closely than ever before. General Qassem Soleimani thus was the key to forthcoming Russia-Iran-Syria battlefield and airspace coordination, not the catalyst for Putin’s choice to dramatically expand Russia’s direct military intervention into Syria.