Iran has spent many years exploiting the weakness of the Syrian regime to entrench its forces in the country, hoping to come out of the Syrian civil war in a much stronger position in the Middle East. It is part of Iran’s grand strategy through which it has also sought to take over parts of Iraq’s government and lever unprecedented influence over Lebanon’s political system.
There isn’t much standing in Iran’s way, as the US has indicated its long-term objective is to leave Syria and its role in Iraq is tailored only to fighting ISIS. Iran’s role in Syria increasingly threatens Israel, as revealed through recent tensions and numerous air strikes on Iranian targets that Israel has said it carried out over the years.
Iran’s role in Iraq has a new spotlight on it after 700 pages of documents were leaked from Iran’s intelligence services to The Intercept and The New York Times. In Syria Iran’s role is more murky but it is also well known. Iran has so many forces in Syria that in 2018 the US included in its official policy the “removal of all Iranian-led forces and proxies from the country.”
US recent studies, such as the Defense Intelligence Agency, include classified information on Iran’s presence, but a recent Inspector General report about the US-led operations against ISIS noted that “the bulk of Iranian-commander forces were concentrated in the western half of Syria prior to the USS withdrawal.” Iranian-backed militias are in close proximity to US forces “as part of the Iranian goal of forging ground lines of communications from the Iraqi border.”
We also know that satellite images from ImageSat International show Iran continues construction of its Imam Ali base near Albukamal on the Iraqi border. Other reports indicated that Iran had up to 19 bases in Syria in 2018.
From Iran’s perspective, Syria has been a key ally and a conduit for arms shipments to Hezbollah. This has gone back decades. But Iran knew in the early 200s that the Assad regime was flirting with the West and that if it could balance Iran’s role it would like to. The uprising in 2011 led the regime deeper into the hands of Iran, making it more dependent on Iran and Russia.
Increasingly the regime was hollowed out, losing tens of thousands of casualties that it couldn’t replace and inviting in more of the IRGC and IRGC allies such as Hezbollah and Shi’ites recruited from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. Syria became a modern version of what Germany looked like during the Thirty Years War, a kind of massive black hole of suffering upon which was built a chess board for foreign powers.
The Syrian civil war began as one between Syrians. It looked like Syria had fallen into brief chaos, like Libya in 2011, but in fact the regime’s crackdown and the arming of the rebellion led to years of strife and destruction. Little by little, foreign actors moved in. Hezbollah in 2012-2013, ISIS and 50,000 of its foreign fighters in 2014, Russia in 2015, Turkey in 2016, and of course the US and Iran. The US, backing the Syrian Democratic Forces, came to control a third of Syria. Turkey took over another twenty percent.
The regime eventually defeated the rebels in the south in the summer of 2018. But the regime then watched as Russia gave the approval for Turkish operation against Kurdish fighters in Afrin in January 2018 and also signed an Idlib ceasefire in September 2018. Russia was now the guarantor of Turkey’s role, because Russia was selling Turkey the S-400 air defense system. Russia, the ally of the Syrian regime, was also a kind of enabler of Turkey’s role. Russia could turn over more areas or not. It signed another deal on October 22 enabling Turkey to grab areas it had taken from the SDF and the Americans in October.
Now Syria appears partitioned, between Turkey in the north, a fading US influence in the east and south, and a growing Iranian influence in the south. Russia plays the big grandmaster watching all of this take place. But Russia is not interested in confronting the US or Iran or Turkey. Russia’s goal is to use Sochi and Astana, and even Geneva, to bring Iran and Turkey to the table again and again. The US is cut-out from this process and the US anyway sought to exclude its own SDF partners from Geneva. So long term, the US role in Syria is likely going to be deeply reduced or end.
But Iran’s role will grow. The problem for Iran is it has too many missions in Syria. It wants to cement its bases. It wants to build its “land bridge” to the sea and Hezbollah with an off-ramp toward the Golan. It wants to sign deals with Assad. And it wants to project influence along the Euphrates river valley towards Deir Ezzor.
Iran is struggling economically though. Protests at home harm its abilities abroad. It has an uphill struggle in Syria to maintain and expand its role. Iran has the technology that it wants to transfer, the precision guidance for instance that it hopes to put in Hezbollah’s hands. But it must be careful because protests in Iraq have also targeted Iran’s presence.
Protests in Lebanon have also led to uncertainty there. Iran faces now what all great powers face as they become too powerful. They must manage their power. Iran says it is the “resistance.” But people are now “resisting” Iran throughout the region and at home.
It’s bases are open targets, it has difficult conducting truly clandestine affairs. It’s main power is in human resources and deepening its human ties to places in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. This is how it gets its power, through its network of Shi’ite allies, and places like the Sayyida Zaynab shrine in Damascus where pro-Iranian fighters gather.
Now Iran must determine what its next step is in Syria. The role of its IRGC Quds Force has been key to supporting the Assad regime while also benefiting on the side. But Iran understands that its role is entangled with the regime and also with the Russian role. Its presence must not undermine either of the others. In addition the Syrian regime and Russians are focused more on the north today, while there are questions about what the US is doing in the east.
In the south and west therefore Iran’s forces have tended to be targeted by Israel over the last years. Iran boasts that it its IRGC believes the destruction of Israel is no longer just a dream. Towards that end it invested in new missiles, drones and other technology. It even transferred that technology to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Those transfers have made Iran’s role in Syria even more dangerous.
Source » jpost