https://www.theguardian.com-Martin Chulov Middle East correspondent
Tehran’s supply of drones to Moscow deepens a collaboration between two unlikely allies
Vladimir Putin with the commander-in-chief of the Russian navy, Nikolai Yevmenov, and Gen Aleksandr Dvornikov. Photograph: Sputnik/Reuters
When a Russian plane arrived in Iran with €140m in cash and a booty of captured western weapons, an exchange for Iranian drones, it marked a new phase in a seven-year alliance between two unlikely bedfellows.
The delivery of cash and weapons was reportedly made in August, after Russia received its first deliveries of drones to support its war in Ukraine. It was Iran’s first known contribution to the Russian offensive in Europe. But the bond between the two countries had been forged on another continent ravaged by war, the Middle East.
At the height of Bashar al-Assad’s scramble to save Syria from forces who had battered his army to the point of defeat, the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani flew to Moscow to meet Vladimir Putin. There he rolled out maps in front of the Russian leader and spelled out Assad’s travails. The visit laid the ground for Russia’s 2015 intervention, and created a pact between two countries with little in common except a shared desire to shred the established order and undermine the west.
While Syria was the arena to start such a collaboration, Ukraine is fast becoming a battlefield on which to cement it. Iran’s usually inflexible Islamic leaders and Putin’s brand of secular blood-and-soil nationalism have found common ground despite vastly different styles of governance and goals. Their shared desires have made them natural partners.
“It was in Syria that this partnership first took form and in Ukraine where it’s evolving yet further,” said Charles Lister, a senior fellow and director of the Syria programme at the Middle East Institute.
“Whereas in Syria it was Iran that fought the long battle [in support of Assad] only to be rescued by a Russian intervention, the opposite has been true in Ukraine, with Iran’s more recent entry into the conflict through strategic weapons transfer to aid Russia’s ailing campaign.”
Sky News, which first reported the Russian cash delivery this week, said its sources suggested more Iranian drones were likely to be delivered, deepening a collaboration between the two states and exposing civilian targets to more devastation before winter.
Drones already delivered have been used to devastate Ukrainian cities. Many have been deployed as kamikazes, while others have missile platforms that have battered hospitals and electricity stations.
Widespread attacks on civilian targets have been a feature of Russian attacks on eastern Syria throughout the past seven years, where hospitals, schools, bakeries and food queues have been routinely targeted and at least several thousand civilians have been killed. Last week, a Russian drone helped guide Syrian missiles containing cluster bombs on to a camp for displaced Syrians in the country’s north-west, killing nine people and wounding 75 others.
“The biggest concern for the Syrian people is putting an end to the terrorist attacks that continue to murder their children and pursue the displaced across the country,” said the White Helmets, a first responder group that operates in opposition-held parts of Syria. “However, it is difficult to negotiate and make demands from a military machine that knows nothing but killing. It is also difficult to ask for help from an international community governed by political balances and regional interests away from human rights tracks.”
Russia’s military campaign has been focused on northern Syria, but with Iran it has carved out spheres of influence across the country, sharing cogs of the Syrian military and intelligence apparatus. Both countries hold vastly different views of the type of country they expect to emerge from the ruins of Syria, but for now they are setting visions of end games aside.
“With [the generals] Dvornikov and now Surovikin, Russia’s war in Ukraine has been managed by Syria veterans,” said Lister. “Both of whom invested deeply in establishing and expanding upon a strategic partnership with Iran’s Quds Force.
“Allies help each other out through thick and thin, and Ukraine shows just how much Iran must value its relationship with Putin. While China is smart enough to keep its distance, it’s not especially surprising to see the likes of Iran – and North Korea, another party to the Syria alliance – doing whatever it can to empower Russian aggression.”