After bilateral talks between Russian President Putin and Turkish President Erdogan and Erdogan and Iranian President Rouhani in Ankara in the course of the day, the three presidents met on Monday night for the fifth summit under the Astana Process to discuss joint steps toward a political solution to the nine-year turmoil in Syria.
Given the frantic actionism and theatrical threats following the Saturday attacks on Saudi oil facilities that go for US diplomatic activity and military planning these days, Syria will not have been the only item on the three leaders’ agenda.
Indeed, Russian and Turkish pressure on Iran’s President Rouhani to withdraw Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps forces from Syria might have motivated Saturday’s drone and/or cruise missile attack on Saudi oil production plants, strategic analysts in several countries believe. The IRGC may have instigated the attacks to preempt a deal that would have reduced its forces in Syria after a bloody multi-year campaign against Sunni rebels backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
As a collateral benefit, torpedoing any possible chance for a Trump-Rouhani meeting at the upcoming New York United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) may have been another aim.
IRGC Commander Qasem Suleimani controls a state within the Iranian state and envisions a permanent Iranian presence in Syria anchored by Shi’ite military settlers recruited from Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as Iran. Russia and Turkey oppose Suleimani’s ambitious scheme and have considerable leverage to bring to bear on Iran’s elected government. The attack on the Aramco oil plant at Abqaiq and the Khurais oil field may have been a power play by the IRGC to prevent Rouhani from restricting IRGC operations in Syria.
Russia’s Putin and Iran’s Rouhani in Ankara today will have negotiated measures to stabilize Syria after the Assad government attacked Sunni forces in the Idlib region. Turkey has 12 military observation posts in Idlib under a two-year-old agreement with Russia and Iran, and Turkish forces have come under attack during the recent Syrian government offensive. Turkish President Erdogan told Reuters last Friday that Turkey would retaliate against Syrian government forces if the attacks continued.
Russia wants to avoid a rupture in its relations with Turkey, which recently purchased its S-400 air defense system over vehement American objections. The US blocked sales of its F-35 stealth fighter to Turkey in retaliation, and Turkey is considering buying Russia’s competitor to the US plane, the Su-57.
Iran’s ambitions in Syria have also raised concerns in Moscow. Although Russia and Iran both back the Assad regime against Syrian rebels, Russia is anxious to limit the presence of the IRGC in Syria now that the threat to its Syrian ally has receded. Earlier this year, Russian-backed militias clashed with the IRGC in Aleppo.
According to sources with detailed knowledge of Putin’s thinking, Iran’s aggressiveness in Syria complicates Russia’s relationship with the United States as well as with Israel, the region’s strongest military power. Russia has looked the other way while Israel conducted hundreds of airstrikes inside Syria against Iranian forces and their allies, including Hezbollah, although Russia has occasionally complained about particular Israeli attacks. Meanwhile, Russia reportedly uses Israeli-designed drones for reconnaissance in Syria. Russia’s working relationship with the Israeli Defense Forces is chilly but efficient. Israel prefers the predictable Assad regime to the Sunni jihadists who might replace it, and Russia has no objection to Israel’s efforts to degrade Iranian military capabilities.
At a Sept. 12 summit in Sochi, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and Russian President Putin reportedly agreed to remove Iranian bases in Syria to a line 80 kilometers from the Israeli border.
Security analysts speculate that Rouhani was ready to accept Putin’s demand and that the IRGC acted to pre-empt such an agreement.
Details of the attack on the Saudi oil facilities remain sketchy. At a background press briefing today, Defense Department officials affirmed that the attacks came from the north, that is, from the southern tip of Iraq or Iran. The Defense Department believes that the 19 impacts came from both drones and cruise missiles, although it cannot confirm that. Remarkably, there is no evidence that any air defenses attempted to engage the incoming weapons, or that radar tracked any of the weapons before impact.
The absence of evidence suggests what a former Pentagon official described as a “colossal intelligence failure.” This is all the more astonishing as Iran has previously launched proxy attacks from Iraq. Moreover, the US only very recently moved substantial additional forces into the area, a move one would expect to be buttressed by added intelligence capabilities.
Relevant Saudi capabilities do not appear to exist at all. Even now, two days after the attacks, there is no reliable or credible account even of the type of weapons used in the attacks or the location from which they were launched. Colonel Turki al-Malki, spokesman of the Saudi-led military coalition battling Yemen’s Houthi movement, said that an investigation into Saturday’s strikes was still ongoing to determine the launch location.
“The preliminary results show that the weapons are Iranian and we are currently working to determine the location … The terrorist attack did not originate from Yemen as the Houthi militia claimed,” Malki told a press conference in Riyadh.
On Aug. 24, by contrast, Israeli forces struck Iran Revolutionary Guard installations inside Syria as the IRGC prepared to launch a similar drone attack against Israel, the Israel Defense Force said.
The apparent intelligence failure over the weekend reflects a broader problem of American preparedness in the face of so-called asymmetric warfare by actors such as Iran. The United States has no simple options for military retaliation against Iran. The US has lagged in developing and deploying anti-drone technology.
IRGC air forces chief Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh boasted a year ago that Iran’s missiles could hit US troops at bases in Qatar, the UAE and Afghanistan. He reiterated the threat yesterday. Whether or not Iranian missiles could swamp American (or Israeli) anti-missile defenses is not clear, but there is no question that Iran owns enough Chinese-manufactured medium-range missiles to inflict catastrophic damage on Saudi oil infrastructure.
US naval vessels are vulnerable to Iranian attacks by a number of means, including artillery dug in along the coast of the Persian Gulf.
To box in the Revolutionary Guard, Washington’s best option is to work with Russia, Turkey and China. Russia and Turkey have enormous leverage over Tehran because they help Iran transship hydrocarbons to the European market and evade American sanctions. China is Iran’s largest trading partner and also its largest supplier of weapons. Given Washington’s tense relationship with the other three countries, that is tricky – although not impossible – to accomplish.
American diplomacy is not adept at distinguishing between areas of conflict and cooperation with other powers. For a generation after the fall of Communism, the US enjoyed a monopoly of power. The present crop of US foreign policy specialists suffered in consequence from self-righteousness and complacency. The Iranian mess can be managed, but it can’t be managed by Washington unilaterally – and certainly not by the present crop of strategists.