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What the struggle for Syria means for Moscow, Tehran and Beijing

Aug 24,2016 - Last updated at Aug 24,2016

Last week China declared its intention to become directly involved militarily in the Syrian conflict by dispatching advisers to aid the Syrian army.

Beijing dispatched Rear Admiral Guan Youfei, head of China’s office for international military cooperation, to Damascus where he met with Syrian Defence Minister Fahd Jassem Al Freij to discuss training army personnel and the provision of humanitarian aid.

While Chinese advisers have for some years trained Syrian troops in the use of Chinese weapons and Chinese diplomats have stood with Russia to block UN resolutions critical of the Syrian government, the offer of enhanced aid demonstrates Beijing’s deepening involvement in the Syrian conflict.

China has long had a special relationship with Syria. By joining with Russia and Iran, Beijing may seek to forge a tri-partite alliance against terrorism.

Since these three powers are influential members of the 17-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) — which includes India, Pakistan, Turkey and Central Asian countries — the three may wish to see the SCO partners play a role in the campaign against takfiris in Syria and Iraq before radical fighters spill across the borders of these countries and create ever widening chaos.

All SCO members have been or are potential victims of takfiri bombers and shooters. The Chinese move coincided with Russian military escalation and deepening cooperation with Tehran.

Moscow stepped up its efforts in the air war by, for the first time, launching from ships in the Mediterranean Cruise missiles at targets in Syria. Such missiles had previously been fired by Russia’s Caspian Sea fleet.

At the same time, Russian long-range Tupolev-22M bombers and Sukhoi 34 fighter planes took off from Iran’s Hamadan Air Base to conduct raids against Daesh in Syria’s Deir Al Zor and Jabhat Fatah Al Sham (rebranded Jabhat Al Nusra) in Idlib. 

Although Tehran has, reportedly, called a halt, even temporary Russian use of the base amounted to a major policy shift for Tehran which had refused to permit foreign forces to base themselves on Iran’s soil since World War II. 

Russia’s bombers had been previously operated against targets in Syria from southern Russia. Flying from Hamadan saved both time and fuel and allowed for more missions.

The granting of brief permission to Russia to use the Hamadan base may have been connected to the delivery of Russian S-300 air defence systems to Iran, in line with a contract reached in 2007.

Delivery was postponed until after the implementation of the 2015 agreement between Iran and the five permanent UN Security Council members — including Russia — plus Germany on the reduction of Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for the easing of sanctions.

Joint action by Russia, Iran and China is a likely response to the so-far successful efforts of Jabhat Fatah Al Sham (ex-Nusra) and Ahrar Al Sham, the two most powerful takfiri groups in Syria, to unify radical ranks in Jaish Al Fatah and mount combined operations against the Syrian army.

Allies of the Syrian government must have been as alarmed as Damascus when, on August 5-6, the takfiris broke through the army’s siege of insurgent-held eastern Aleppo, with 250,000 residents.

The takfiris also challenged Damascus and its allies by declaring the intention to seize all of Aleppo, once Syria’s second city and commercial hub.

The government cannot afford to lose control of western Aleppo, which has 1.2 million inhabitants.

To do so would be to lose northern Syria to the black flags of the takfiris and the yellow, red and green flags of US-backed Kurdish forces.

Although, the army has reimposed the siege and blockade on east Aleppo, the situation in and around the city remains precarious for government forces.

Moscow, Tehran and Beijing have long-term interests in Syria. Moscow’s ties to Damascus go back to the Cold War era when the Soviet Union backed the Arabs against Israel.

Revolutionary Tehran’s ties with Baathist Damascus were forged in 1980 as an alliance against Baghdad, ruled by a rival Baathist government that was waging war against Iran. Beijing’s connections with Syria also formed during the Cold War and were cemented by arms deals. 

Russia and China are committed to the defence of Syria because it is their last outpost in this strategic region. They cannot afford to be excluded by the US and Europe.

Russia regards the Middle East as its backyard, while China is a major consumer of regional oil and a leading exporter of commercial goods to the region. 

Iran seeks to protect its allies in Lebanon and Iraq — Hizbollah and the ruling Shiite offshoots of the Iraqi Dawa movement.

Iraq is a junior member of this alliance as Baghdad is well aware that the country’s security depends on the elimination of takfiri groups in both Syria and Iraq.

The three are also committed to the destruction of the takfiris as they constitute serious threats to the security of these countries.

Russia faces 2,500 Russian nationals and 7,000 citizens of post-Soviet countries who have fought with Daesh and Al Qaeda. Iran has to deal with a protracted separatist insurgency in western Khuzestan (Arabistan) province.

China faces an insurgency mounted by minority Turkic Uyghur radicals who have dispatched fighters to Syria since 2012. Most Uyghurs, who have been resisting Chinese rule for decades, live in the strategic Xinjian Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. 


For Moscow, Tehran and Beijing, the struggle for Syria is a war of self-defence as well as a battle to protect and assert their regional and international roles.

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