October 15, 2015 | Forbes

The New Axis Of Evil At War In Syria

The Iranian-Russian alliance now operating in Syria must fill Bashar Assad with great hope for his own survival. It has all the trappings of a carefully planned strategic assault on the enemies of the Syrian regime. We are reliably told that the war plans were negotiated over a period of several months by senior Russian and Iranian officials, usually meeting in Moscow. The key meeting took place on the 4th of July, when top Iranian commander General Qassem Soleimani went to Moscow (in open defiance of a travel embargo) to discuss strategy with his Russian counterparts.

As everyone knows, Russian warplanes are now bombing inside Syria, planning to send as many as 150,000 soldiers (including elite Spetsnatz units) and the Iranians are preparing a major ground offensive. Never mind the typical disinformation about the campaign (the Russians and Iranians claim they are attacking ISIS, while most of their actions are actually directed against Assad’s long-standing opposition groups); their mission is clear: to preserve the Assad regime.

Putin’s decision was a response to an Iranian failure. The Tehran regime had sent thousands of its fighters to Syria, but they had failed to defeat the insurgents. Given the secrecy that that attends such operations, it is difficult to know the precise level of Iranian casualties, but they have been substantial, including at least four generals from the Revolutionary Guards Corps and Hezbollah.

The Russian decision to intervene therefore demonstrates that the combination of Iranian and Syrian military power is insufficient to defeat the anti-Assad assault. Keep that in mind as the Russian/Iranian campaign unfolds. If it turns out badly for the new Axis, it’ll be like Hitler having to bail out Mussolini in WWII.

Will the Russian/Iranian operation succeed? I don’t know, but they will certainly go all-in. They have to; a loss in Syria would be devastating for both Putin and Khamenei. Don’t underestimate the quality of the opposition. We learned in Iraq and Afghanistan that the Islamists are tough and smart. They have the rare quality of being willing to change tactics very quickly when things go badly. They are very good planners. We’ve captured some of their documents that show they have a very good grasp of the big battlefield. And, above all, they have a genuine commitment to their doctrine. They firmly believe they will win, which is worth a lot.

In one of those paradoxes that shape human events, the Russian/Iranian invasion has catalyzed previously hostile members of the insurrection to band together against the new threat. There are reports suggesting that insurgents in Syria have created joint command-and-control centers.. Time will tell how it works out.

Finally, the outcome and aftermath of the war are uncertain because of lack of trust on both sides. The religious stresses within the insurgent armies are notable, ranging from theological/political conflicts and the well-known (and often exaggerated) Sunni vs. Shi’ite unpleasantness. Within the Axis, there is an historic distrust between Russians and Persians, dating back centuries. The Iranians don’t believe Russian promises about arms deals, for example, until the materiel has actually arrived (and been tested). The celebrated Russian antiaircraft missiles have been promised so many times, I’ve lost count. And the Russians are properly skeptical of Tehran’s promises, too, as of Iranian military prowess. It’s why Russians are fighting in Syria, after all.

You can see this lack of trust as each country leaks news about the other’s actions in Syria; it’s a form of insurance. If things go badly, each will blame the other.

The odds are long that Putin and Khamenei will have some initial success, then we’ll see. Life is full of surprises.

Michael Ledeen is the Freedom Scholar at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @michaelledeen

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