The U.S. is actively trying to block new Russian military aid to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Moscow sees its best alternative is to team up with Tehran.
MOSCOW — A Russian government source has told Kommersant that Moscow is working actively with Iran to keep Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad in power.
The Kremlin source said that cooperation between Moscow and Tehran has been continuing for some time "to keep the Assad regime afloat," in the face of several setbacks recently for Damascus.
The report comes amid Western media reports that Russia is sending troops to Syria to fight alongside Assad forces, which the US says would lead to an escalation of the conflict and a direct clash with the international coalition fighting against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria. (On Wednesday, Reuters reported that the Kremlin confirmed that some of its military experts are indeed in Syria.)
The Russian presence in Syria threatens to deepen the rift between Moscow and the West, and has led to the U.S. taking the unprecedented step of asking Greece to close its airspace to any Russian aircraft carrying aid to Syria.
The deputy head of Russia's Federation Council, Vladimir Jabbarov insisted that even if Greece closes its airspace, Russia would still find new flight routes to Syria. Still, this would be difficult to carry through because it would mean going through Turkey or Iraq. Turkey is a NATO member and opposes Assad, while Iraq is closely linked to the US as part of an international coalition fighting ISIS.
Boots on the ground
For this reason, Russia considers Iran as the best alternative in its efforts to help Assad because it has long-established supply routes — mostly through parts of Iraqi territory — to reach Damascus.
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Putin and Assad in Moscow in 2005 — Photo: Kremlin.ru
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has again come out in support of Damascus, stating that the responsibility for the bloodshed in Syria lies with those countries that have called for Assad's overthrow.
Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova has said any media reports "are false" if they imply that Moscow has agreed to a deal with Saudi Arabia and the U.S. to remove the Syrian President. She even revealed details of how Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in a phone conversation that Moscow always had, and would continue, to provide military support to Damascus.
"Russia has never concealed that it supplies military equipment to the Syrian authorities to combat terrorism," Zakharova said.
A senior Russian government source told Kommersant that information of a Russian troop presence in Syria is a "gross exaggeration," but he added the caveat that "a number of military experts does not constitute a strike force," confirming that Russia is contributing nonetheless with advisors and other personnel.
Meanwhile, Russian presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov reiterated that Moscow and Damascus enjoy a "working relationship" and that there is nothing wrong with Russia cooperating with the Syrian authorities.
News of Russian troops in Syria would only increase the level of distrust between Moscow and the West, and reflects fundamental differences in the approaches for resolving the Syrian crisis. Washington sees Assad as the cause of the rise of ISIS, while Moscow says that if he is overthrown, Islamists would seize Damascus, and most of the country.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly warned Western countries about meddlesome foreign policy, "especially in regions of the Muslim world."