Hesitancy persists among many in the media regarding owning up to just how radically different in some aspects geopolitical alliances in the Middle East post-defeat of ISIS have turned out. The widespread ignoring of the fact that Russia, Israel and GCC are more of a coherent security-strategic bloc in the region than Russia and Iran-Syria-Hezbollah (called by their supporters as the Mouqawamah or ‘Resistance’ in Arabic) continues despite numerous examples of this dynamic constantly pouring in.
The latest such example is President Putin’s ‘concerns’ expressed in the wake of Turkey’s anti-PKK/SDF operation in Northeastern Syria. Reported by Russian state-run news agency TASS on 11 October 2019, Putin stated the following while citing Russian intelligence reports:
“If we talk about CIS countries, it is a real threat to us all. Where will they [the militants] go? Will they go deeper into Syria, to areas that no one controls, and then move to other countries of the region via Iran? We should understand what things are like there and muster our intelligence resources to thwart this new threat,” Putin said, addressing other CIS leaders.”
Having had Iran as a counter-ISIS partner in Syria, Russia surely cannot be unaware as to Iran’s level of experience in fighting ISIS and its constant alertness as a Shia state of the dangers of Takfirist groups. To suggest despite obvious cognizance of these factors Iran could be used by ISIS without its knowledge to move up to the former-USSR states that form Russia’s sensitive peripheral region was a clear example of dog-whistling by the Russian state toward its Iranian rival.
And, as documented extensively by the author in this 1 January 2019 article, Russia very much is a rival of Iran to the extent that it supports several of Israel’s policies toward Iran which are widely-deplored among the media and communities that make up both Russia and Iran’s support base.
The Russian dog-whistling here, thus, essentially sought to send a subtle message to Iran and remind it of Russia’s well-established views vis a vis the ‘need’ to have Iran withdraw from Syria. The implication that Iran would facilitate an aggressive destabilization of CIS states and thus Russia as well using Takfiri proxies such as ISIS showed that Russia considers Iran’s presence in Syria not only counter-productive but maybe even outright dangerous as well.
Syria has been Iran’s ally since the 1980s and a vital geographical link in the Mouqawamah axis, allowing Iran to use it to supply weapons and aid to Hezbollah in south Lebanon. Hezbollah has been, without exaggeration, the only reason Lebanon – a state not given half the attention by analysts it deserves – exists as a sovereign state since Hezbollah alone ended Israel’s 1982-2000 occupation of Lebanon and defeated Israel in the 2006 July War.
These are not factors Russia is unaware of and thus Russia’s constant signalling of its disapproval of Iran’s vital presence in Syria is not eerily similar to Israel’s agitation about the same through sheer coincidence.
Note: Interestingly, the Kremlin’s official website reporting on the same comments from Putin timed at merely 20 minutes earlier to the TASS press release has ‘Iraq’ in stead of ‘Iran’ in the passage quoting Putin’s comments on ISIS:
“According to the Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate, there are hundreds of militants there, and thousands of them, if we consider the CIS countries. This is a real threat to all of us. How and where will they head? Through Turkey’s territory? Through other territories? Will they withdraw to the Syrian hinterland, where there are areas that no one controls, and thence work their way to certain locations, through Iraq, through other countries in the region? We just have to understand this; we must know this and mobilise our secret service resources to cut short this emerging new threat.”
Iraq has no land link to the CIS nor is its current state – filled with Shia paramilitary groups – conducive to large movement of ISIS across its landmass. It is thus likely that TASS reported the correct version, i.e where Putin says ‘Iran’ and not ‘Iraq’ for the sake of dog-whistling. Also notable is that RT omitted the part where Putin implied Iran would be the conduit for ISIS escaping the Levant and infiltrating the CIS states.
(A screenshot of the TASS report with ‘Iran’ can be seen here in case TASS edits its press release or takes it down)