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Russia, Iran Not Allies in Syria, Says Senior Russian Diplomat

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) meets with Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov in Tehran, January 12, 2015

Days after sustained Israeli attacks against Iranian targets in Syria, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has said Russia and Iran are not allies in Syria. He stressed that Russia is committed to Israel's security and Iran is aware of that.

Ryabkov added that Russia was against Iran's hostile acts against Israel.

During an interview with CNN on Friday January 25, when asked if Russia was Iran's ally on the ground in Syria, Ryabkov answered, "I wouldn't use this type of words to describe where we are with Iran," adding that "We in no way underestimate the importance of measures that would ensure very strong security of the state of Israel."

Ryabkov added that Iran was also aware of Russia's position. "The Israelis know this, the U.S. knows this, everyone else, including the Iranians, the Turks, the government in Damascus. This is one of the top priorities of Russia,” The Times of Israel quoted him as having said.

Ryabkov's denial of Russia's alliance with Iran in Syria contradicted remarks by Russia's ambassador to Tehran Levan Dzhagaryan, who in an interview with the state-owned Iran newspaper on 19 January repeatedly highlighted the two countries' alliance.

Dzhagaryan said, "the weakening of the Iran-Russia alliance is a myth. Those who, in the West, talk to Iran about these issues are the enemies of the alliance between Moscow and Tehran. Those who spread such things in Iran are the West's friends. The individuals who criticize Russia are not interested in the alliance between Iran and Russia and we know them very well."

Dzhagaryan added that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin and Putin's special representative for Syrian affairs Alexander Lavrentiev visit Iran regularly "once in a month or once every two months to report to [our] Iranian ally about Syria."

Russia is clearly sending contradictory messages here, but the ambassador’s remarks could have been mainly directed at his Iranian audience, prior to Ryabkov’s statements.

Ryabkov's statement on the denial of the Iran-Russia alliance was made one day after Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, the head of the Iranian parliamentary committee for foreign relations and national security spoke about "serious criticism of Russia's behavior," adding that Russia de-activated the S-300 anti-missile systems when Israel attacked Syrian and Iranian targets.

Falahatpisheh told the Iranian press, "It appears there is some sort of coordination between Israeli strikes and the Russian air defense units based in Syria."

It is not clear why Iranian leaders seem to be so surprised at Russia’s decision not to confront the Israeli air force in Syria. It could mean they expected Moscow to issue different orders to its forces and now find themselves exposed to Israeli air attacks.

Air defenses under Russian control in Syria did react more aggressively in 2018 against Israeli sorties. But now it appears they leave the Syrians to use the less capable S200 system, withholding the more sophisticated S300s.

In his interview, Ryabkov said that Russia has been trying to limit Iranian military and political influence in Syria, and has been distancing Iranian forces from the Israeli borders with Syria by 85 kilometers. However, he said that "The re-imposition of sanctions against Iran by the Trump administration has stopped Russia's measures."

Iran and Syria have always said that their forces are in Syria to offer military advice and cooperation based on an invitation by the Assad government.

Israel is vehemently opposes the presence of Iranian military forces and their Shiite allies in Syria and started strikes on Iranian targets and those of Iran's allies three years ago.

While Israel previously refrained from assuming responsibility for the strikes, recently Tel Aviv changed its policy and acknowledged that its forces are directly confronting Iran's Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force in Syria.

Israel has acknowledged that its forces have carried out thousands of strikes against Iranian positions in Syria since 2017. The latest Israeli strikes on Iranian targets in Syria took place on January 20 and 21, one day after Iran fired a missile at the Golan heights. The missile was destroyed in mid-air according to Israeli forces.