The Kremlin announced the death of Gen. Igor Dmitrievich Sergun, the director of the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, on Jan. 4 with a short statement. It was reported that the cause of the sudden death of Sergun, one of Moscow's main men, on Jan. 3, was a heart attack. No further details were provided.
However, on Jan. 6, the U.S.-based global intelligence and research institution, Stratfor, claimed that Sergun had died in Lebanon on New Year's, not in Moscow. This gave rise to the suspicion that Sergun may have been assassinated. Moscow did not comment.
On Jan. 22, the British Financial Times wrote that Sergun was in the Middle East for a sensitive task and was sent to Damascus by Russian President Vladimir Putin shortly before dying in Lebanon. In brief, Sergun was tasked to deliver to Damascus the message that “the Syrian dictator's most powerful international guardian, Russia, was thinking it was time that [Syrian leader] Bashar Assad move aside.” Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quick to deny the claim.
And this week, Lebanon's El Ahbar newspaper, which is known for its ties with Hezbollah, claimed that Sergun was killed in a secret operation planned in cooperation by Middle East intelligence authorities – which also included Turkey. When a top-level intelligence staff is assassinated in Beirut, it is impossible to think that Hezbollah was unaware of its details. If Sergun was killed in cooperation by Arab and Turkish intelligence, then why have Hezbollah or its extensions in the media kept quiet about it until this time?
With the influence of Hezbollah's Lebanon policy and its role in the Syrian civil war, the tension between Gulf countries and Lebanon is like never before. Riyadh, which has tolerated Hezbollah's allowing Iran to shape Lebanon's interior and foreign policy to date, but whose patience has now worn thin, cut off the $4 billion aid it provided to the Lebanese military and police. After Riyadh cut its diplomatic ties with Tehran following the attacks on Saudi Arabia's diplomatic offices in Iran after Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr's execution, all Gulf countries as well as various Arab countries followed by keeping a certain distance from Iran. But Lebanon did not follow. This is why the aid was cut. Soon after the Gulf Cooperation Council announced Hezbollah as a terror organization.
As you know, the tension between Saud Arabia and Iran is lately at its peak, especially because of the Syria issue. While the countries in the region take position based on the polarization that formed according to their relationship with the two regional powers, those who chose not to take a stance are getting their share of this issue like in the Lebanon example. Yet, the warming of ties between Saudi Arabia and Russia at a time when it is cutting all ties with Iran should not be overlooked. One of the most concrete results of the increased Gulf-Russia traffic after the lifting of the sanctions on Iran was the agreement of the two giant oil producers on freezing oil output. While Iran, which rejoined the market after years, does not approve of the step taken to prevent the already plummeted oil prices from taking a further nosedive, we had previously mentioned that this issue could lead to a conflict of interests between Russia and Iran and cause cracks.
However, the developing ties between Russia and Saudi Arabia are not limited to oil alone. As a result of a series of meetings between Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud and Putin, an initial $10 billion economic cooperation agreement was signed between the two countries. This was followed by the Saudis saying they are interested in buying weapons from the Russians, and most importantly, although they are on opposite sides in the Syrian war, the information that Putin might open the door on the issue of Assad's withdrawal spread in lobbies.
As we discussed earlier in this column, for Russia, protecting the presence of the regime in Syria is of higher priority than Assad's presence. In Russia's eyes, Assad does not even have as much value as the Baathist generals keeping ties with Moscow. While Financial Times reported that Sergun was sent to Damascus, it wrote that Russia was leaning toward a transition period in which Assad would withdraw from his position but the Alawite regime would be protected. Saudi Arabia, which states at every opportunity that Assad needs to go, making no comment regarding the other elements of the transition administration, and furthermore, Moscow itself announcing that Riyadh supports the cease-fire that started last week, indicates that an implied agreement has been reached or is near on this matter between the two countries.
However, this is not something that can be easily embraced by Iran. In addition to the risks of the Saudi-Russia relationship in terms of Iran, unlike Russia, for Iran, the presence of Assad in Syria is extremely important for its own interests. As Assad has almost become like Tehran's puppet, Iran is able to command even regime troops on the ground, and at times, it stops them from entering certain areas as it pleases. For Iran, the existence of a military bureaucracy loyal to Moscow in Syria but Assad leaving means leaving the ropes entirely to its Russian ally in the country where both countries are currently giving equal support.
While this is the case, the death of Sergun, who went to Damascus to deliver Russia's message that it is now time for Assad to withdraw, then to Beirut, needs to be viewed from this aspect, and the Hariri assassination and the years-long exaggerated blaming of Israel by those who carried out the assassination need to be remembered.
On the other hand, let us also state that there were some large-scale conflicts of which we saw the initial signs in Ukraine between the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) – i.e. former KGB – and the GRU headed by Sergun. Although former KGB officer Putin is trying to keep the balance between the country's various institutions such as its intelligence services and military, it is said that some generals in the army are disturbed by Putin's attitude on Syria, and that certain top-level commanders have resigned for this very reason. Hence, if an assassination took place in Beirut, it is possible that this was the doing of Russian-Syrian-Iranian intelligence services rather than Arab-Turkish intelligence services. While the quest in the region for a new equilibrium continues, the reason and possible outcomes of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu's Iran visit, which carries an allusive message toward the convergence between Saudi Arabia and Russia, should be evaluated in light of these cross-correlations.