There is talk in the region about arrangements and operations that Iran is preparing to carry out on the first anniversary of the assassination of Lieutenant General Qasem Soleimani, the former commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) (Soleimani was killed together with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a leading figure in the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Committee (PMC), on 3 January 2020, in a US raid targeting their convoy near Baghdad airport). Perhaps what raised the level of belief in the possibility of Iran's retaliation is the tweet by the Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei, posted on 16 December 2020, in which he said that "whoever ordered and carried out the assassination of Lieutenant General Qasem Soleimani must pay the price", and that "this revenge is inevitable", considering that "Soleimani's shoes are more honourable than his killer’s head".

The attention of observers was drawn to the fact that the commander of US forces in the Middle East General Frank McKenzie made an unannounced tour to Syria and Iraq. His Syrian tour focused mainly on the Al-Tanf base, located at the border triangle that connects Iraq, Jordan and Syria. There, he issued threats to respond to Iran if it attacked US targets.

Triggers for shifting the Iranian response to the Syrian arena

The question being raised in this context is this: does the US have estimates of a possibility that the Iranian retaliation for the killing of Soleimani would be carried out in Syria, specifically in its eastern regions, given that there are no US targets except in that region? The importance of this possibility stems from several facts, the most important of which are the following:

  • The difficulty of the Iranian response in Iraq, as the pro-Iranian factions in Iraq have exhausted all their means without inflicting a painful loss on the Americans. The ceiling of those threats has become to hit the Embassy in the Green Zone with a salvo of Katyusha rockets. Such strikes often do not cause significant damage to the well-fortified embassy building. Rather, they often lead to harming Iraqi citizens, according to the recent statement by the Office of Iraqi Prime Minister. In addition, those blows have come to be met with a media and political campaign that rejects such a method. This rejection has been reflected in the division within the Iraqi PMC frameworks and structures after it split openly and explicitly into a "[Najaf] Authority PMC" and a "[pro-Iran] loyalist PMC".
  • The temptation of the chaos in Syria, where the US forces have many opponents, mainly Daesh (Islamic State, ISIS) and other extremist organisations, and some tribes loyal to the Syrian regime, in addition to the formations supported by Russia, which would make the perpetrator unknown and unidentified. The US forces may find themselves forced to remain silent in this case so as not to clash with the Russians or anger the Arab tribes in eastern Syria.

Accordingly, Syria appears, at least in theory, to be an option that Iran can favour over the option of responding in the Iraqi arena. However, in practical terms, there are obstacles that hinder Iran from using the Syrian arena to retaliate against the Americans for the killing of Soleimani.

Obstacles to the Iranian response in Syria

  • The weakness of the Iranian structure in eastern Syria, given that the Iranian militias are still in the process of building up their power pillars. Despite the passage of more than two years since its concentration in the areas west of the Euphrates, this force has been subjected to numerous US and Israeli strikes that have clearly delayed its capability to prepare an actual military infrastructure. This process has been affected by many factors, including the following:
  • The assassination of Soleimani who was credited with direct supervision of building this force in eastern Syria.
  • The spread of the Covid-19 epidemic that hit the Iranian militias in eastern Syria.
  • Their attrition by the Daesh organisation, given that they have been exposed to repeated attacks that resulted in the loss of a large number of their members.
  • The exposure of the Iranian force in eastern Syria, by virtue of its position in the middle of the desert, unlike Iranian militias in southern Syria that are integrated into the Syrian forces. Therefore, targeting this force is very easy, as it has no opportunity for manoeuvre.
  • The Russian presence in those areas, given that Russia has many military formations loyal to it, such as the Fifth Corps and the Jerusalem Brigade, in addition to Russian elements and forces. Russia would not allow its forces to be exposed to US strikes because of the Iranians. Therefore, any attempt to use that area to target US forces will have negative consequences for Iranian-Russian coordination and cooperation.
  • Iran has other goals from the presence of its forces in eastern Syria, much more important than carrying out a retaliatory operation for the killing of Soleimani. Those forces are considered to be the protector of the bridgehead of the crossing to Syria and the Mediterranean Sea, meaning that they are a fundamental pillar in Iran’s geopolitical project and cannot be endangered for the sake of lesser or interim objectives. Besides, in the last two years, Iran has also been able to achieve major breakthroughs in the social environment of the western Euphrates regions, especially Al-Bukamal, Mayadin and Deir Ezzor, and has established numerous investments in those areas, especially in terms of real estate purchase, investment in oil, and reconstruction through the Jihad al-Bina (Effort for Reconstruction) organisation that cleans neighbourhoods, rehabilitates some schools, spreads the Persian language, and creates demographic changes.
  • The widespread deployment of US forces in eastern Syria, which makes it difficult to target them. According to US officials, there are now nearly 750 US soldiers in eastern Syria, spread across swaths of territory stretching more than 90 miles (150 km), from Deir Ezzor to the border region east of Hasakah. As for the Tanf base, the US forces have established a 55-km buffer zone that should not be crossed by any force in eastern Syria, otherwise it would expose itself to destruction.

Iranian concern over Trump's reaction

Despite the Iranian media hype, the facts indicate, with near certainty, that Tehran will not avenge the assassination of Soleimani, neither in Syria nor elsewhere, as all of its proxies in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon have committed themselves to shelters for fear of President Donald Trump’s "madness" in the last moments of his rule. Remarkably, the Iranian Foreign Ministry hastened to denounce the recent targeting of the US Embassy, ​​considering it unacceptable. The most important Iraqi militias loyal to Iran in Iraq (Kataib Hezbollah (Battalions of the Party of God) and Asaib Ahl al-Haq (Leagues of the Righteous) militia) also rushed to issue statements declaring that they were not responsible for the targeting of the Embassy.

The British newspaper The Guardian covered from the heart of Beirut some of the demonstrations of terror and anticipation that afflict the Lebanese Hezbollah and how its elements are experiencing a state of maximum alert. Its leaders describe this stage as the most dangerous in 30 years. According to The Guardian, the Hezbollah members are watching the sky, as Israeli planes have been roaming the skies for more than a month. Over the past few weeks, the frequency of overflight has increased dramatically. According to the newspaper, Hezbollah is also watching the clock that is progressing very slowly towards 20 January 2021, when Joe Biden will arrive at the White House.

Conclusion

The US is dealing seriously with Iran's continuous threats to retaliate for Soleimani. While it is no longer possible to carry out those threats in the Iraqi arena, Iran may turn to the Syrian arena, which is characterised by chaos and the numerous opponents of the US.

However, there are many difficulties and obstacles that prevent Iran from using the Syrian arena to take revenge on Washington, such as the weakness of Iran's force and its exposure in eastern Syria, the Russian presence, and most important of all, the existence of security and military missions for Iran in that region that it considers more important than carrying out a transitory retaliatory operation.

Consequently, it seems that Iran, which has been counting the hours until President Trump's departure from the White House, has been wishing, and hoping, that this stage would pass with the least possible losses.

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