How Russia wooed a key IRGC commander in Syria

Flipping a prominent commander exposes the central tensions between Moscow and Tehran

A Russian air force Mil Mi-28 military helicopter flies over Turkish (L) military MRAP (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected) and Russian (R) armoured infantry vehicles (IFV) driving as part of a joint Turkish-Russian military patrol in the countryside of the Syrian town of Darbasiyah near the Turkish border in the northeastern province of Hasakah, on April 22, 2020.  / AFP / DELIL SOULEIMAN
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As Russian maestro Valery Gergiev strolled onstage amid the ruins of Palmyra in 2016, few were in any doubt how much of a PR coup the orchestral concert was for Russia.

Moscow had helped recapture a historic site, ravaged by ISIS, but more importantly, they had beaten the Iranians to the prize.

Out of that fierce desert battle for the city rose several heroes. Among them was Abdullah Salahi, a commander in an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-created militia known as the Fatimiyoun.

Comprised of Shiite Afghan refugees in Iran from the Hazara ethnic group, the group has played an increasing role in the IRGC’s strategy in Syria.

Thousands of Hazaras have joined the fight in the country’s civil war, often on the promise of permanent residency in Iran, others simply followed the call to help defend Syria’s Shiite shrines.

Yet the militia, which hitherto has remained viciously loyal to the IRGC which created it, is now facing unprecedented divisions which expose the tug of war for influence between nominal allies Russia and Iran.

Fissures revolve around that once-unknown Mr Salahi, commander of Hudrat Faisal Al Abbas, a unit of approximately 500 Fatimiyoun fighters now based in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor.

Abdullah Salahi, pictured in Deir Ezzor last year, was a prominent militia chief in the battle for Palmyra, Syria. Supplied photo
Abdullah Salahi, pictured in Deir Ezzor last year, was a prominent militia chief in the battle for Palmyra, Syria. Supplied photo

Mr Salahi recently accepted an offer of enhanced training and support from the Russians, something that several separate sources within the militia told The National has angered their IRGC handlers, and others within the group. The move was described by one analyst as an attack at the heart of Iran's networks in Syria.

It represents one of the first documented successful cases of Russia drawing a contingent of IRGC-backed forces into its orbit since intervening in the conflict in September 2015 and is indicative of growing tensions between the two powers inside Syria.

Mr Salahi’s relationship with Russia traces back several years. The commander rose to notoriety during the Battle for Palmyra in 2016. It was here that he would foster close relations with one of the highest-ranking Russian generals in Syria, Col Gen Aleksandr Dvornikov. This relationship is now being used to drive a recalibration of the conflict's dynamics in its 10th year.

Syria's civil war, a decade of decay

Syria's civil war, a decade of decay

In 2016, a rivalry was already brewing as Russia raced IRGC forces to recapture Palmyra from ISIS. Col Gen Dvornikov, then Commander of the Russian Armed Forces in Syria, made Mr Salahi, and the Fatimiyoun fighters under his command, an offer they couldn’t refuse – preferential air and ground support. A hero was made of Mr Salahi, his face appeared on billboards in the recaptured city.

That May, the Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra would play a concert in the city's ancient ruins –broadcast around the world, it was a major PR coup for the Russian effort in Syria. Moscow had beaten her IRGC rivals in the race to recapture a bastion of ancient culture.

Col Gen Dvornikov continued to invest in his relationship with Mr Salahi. As the Fatimiyoun source told The National "Salahi and Dvornikov were friends, they had good relations between them, very good relations that were not work-related."

The source added that Mr Salahi travels regularly to meet with the Russian forces. “They [Russians] do not have permission to enter [Fatimiyoun bases] because the Iranians have informants and spies among the ranks of Fatemiyoun. Mostly Salahi goes to them.”

Col Gen Dvornikov left Syria later that year, taking over as the head of the Southern Military District, a position that held responsibility for the flashpoints of Crimea and the Black Sea. Yet the relationship he had cultivated with Mr Salahi remains.

This month, the Fatimiyoun commander accepted the unprecedented offer to work closely with Russian forces.

Though Fatimiyoun fighters have previously been pictured with Russian arms and photographed alongside Russian Special Forces, this offer of training and supply of advanced Russian weaponry, and strategic training from the Russians, draws them closer than any IRGC militia has ever come before.

Phillip Smyth, the Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of the Hezbollah Cavalcade blog, described it as a move against Iran’s modus operandi in Syria.

“The Fatimiyoun is different from any Iraqi militia and even Lebanese Hezbollah. It’s a direct IRGC branch, with no understanding of autonomy like the Iraqi groups.

“For the Russians to be doing this, it’s an aggressive signal to send to the Iranians, it’s an attack directly at the heat of how Iran is cultivating itself within Syria.”

He noted that the move may indicate Russia exploiting the IRGC at a moment of weakness.

“This may say more about how Iran is operating now, possibly because of coronavirus pandemic and because of the US sanctions. It’s entirely possible that they are not able to maintain the same level of control over their networks and the Russians are taking advantage.”

The killing of Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani may also have thrown groups like the Fatimiyoun into a degree of uncertainty.

Sources within the group told The National of widespread unease in the immediate aftermath of Suleimani's killing in a US drone strike on January 3 near Baghdad airport.

The move also digs Russia a deeper foothold in the country’s restive east, where recent attention has focused on several potentially lucrative oil fields.

Many see the city of Deir Ezzor, where Mr Salahi’s fighters are based, as a potential gateway to those oil fields.

In October, US President Donald Trump redeployed US troops to secure the oilfields, whilst in March, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan mooted a plan to use the oil fields to fund Syria’s reconstruction.

A deadly cocktail of US sanctions, a global epidemic, and the death of its much-lauded figurehead, may be undoing Tehran’s suffocating grip on a much beleaguered Syria.