Syrian-Iranian Military Agreement: Significance and Ramifications

EPC | 05 Aug 2020

The military agreement on the development of the Syrian air defence system, concluded between Iran and the Syrian regime on 8 July 2020, raises many questions about its timing and objectives and the extent of the capability of Iranian technology to compete with the capabilities of Russia that is the dominant party in the Syrian skies, in addition to the effectiveness of the system in preventing Israel from hitting Iranian targets in Syria. The agreement also raises a question about its repercussions for the existing balances of power in the region, its impact on the confusion experienced by the Iranian regime, and the shaking of its image at home and in front of the regional allies as a result of the attacks on Iran’s assets, whether in Syria or at home.

Timing and goals

The signing by the Syrian Defence Minister Ali Abdullah Ayyoub and the Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces Major General Mohammad Bagheri, on 8 July 2020 in Damascus, of a military agreement between their two countries comes against the backdrop of unusual developments that would weaken Iran's regional position and shake the stability of its internal system, as follows:

  • The agreement coincided with an explosion at the nuclear facility in Natanz, Iran, and Iran’s exposure to many explosions, mysterious fires and cyberattacks on strategic sites, in addition to intensified strikes against Iranian sites in eastern and southern Syria.
  • The entry into force of the US Caesar Act which allows the expansion of sanctions against Syria and parties dealing with it. The advisor to the Syrian President Bouthaina Shaaban described the Syrian-Iranian military agreement as "the first step in challenging the Act".
  • The widening gap of differences between the Russians and the Iranians on the Syrian scene, and the Iranian suspicion of Russia's coordination with Israel and the US to weaken the Iranian role in Syria, especially that the recent wave of raids on Iranian sites in Syria took place after Russian-Israeli military coordination talks.[1]
  • The deployment of Russian forces in areas under Iranian control, especially in Deir al-Zour, as well as the expansion of the deployment of the pro-Russian "Fifth Corps" in southern Syria close to areas controlled by Hezbollah and Iran in Quneitra,[2] as well as mysterious assassinations of senior Syrian officers close to Iran.
  • The existence of Russian actions to develop new political arrangements in Syria through meetings with the opposition and some Alawite figures. Iran fears that this could have consequences that might affect its influence in Syria.
  • The threat by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Bashar al-Assad of toppling his regime if he continues to establish the Iranian presence in Syria. In this context, the Iranian move comes as a challenge to the Israeli threat, and to demonstrate that Syria is part of the Iranian system of interests that cannot be given up.

The Syrian-Iranian military agreement seeks to achieve a number of goals, mainly:

  • Responding to rumors that Iran and its militias have withdrawn from Syria as a result of the attacks on Iran and the economic crisis it is experiencing. Iran wants to deliver a message to its opponents that it will not abandon the Syrian card in the face of any difficulties.
  • Legalization of the Iranian military presence in Syria and the delivery of a message to Russia that it has no right to develop the Syrian arrangements on its own.
  • Preparing for possible developments. A study by the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies has confirmed that the Iran-Syria military agreement is a joint preparation for a possible withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and eastern Syria. According to estimates in Damascus and Tehran, such a development would likely allow an increase in Israeli air strikes along the Iraq-Syria border. This could be the reason for the need to strengthen the capabilities of the Syrian air defence throughout the Syrian space.[3]

The military agreement between Tehran and Damascus puts Assad in an embarrassing situation and may threaten the security of his regime if Israel translates its threats into actions. The agreement may also put Assad in conflict with the Russians, i.e. the regional and international protector. This leads to wondering about the reasons and motives behind Assad's acceptance to conclude the agreement under these circumstances. Assad has tried to place the agreement in the context of developing the relationship with Iran. He described the agreement as reflecting the high level of strategic and multi-dimensional relations between the two countries, and the common experience gained in the war on terrorism.

An analysis of the context of the circumstances of the signing of the agreement and Assad’s position thereon indicates that there are several motives behind Assad’s position, as follows:

  • The agreement gives Assad a margin of manoeuvrability that he needs in the face of Russian pressures on him to accept a political solution that is compatible, albeit at a minimum, with the provisions of Security Council Resolution 2254 (2015), which Assad rejects because he considers it an introduction to his removal from power.
  • Russia’s refusal to allow Syrian crews to operate the S-300 air defence system to counter the Israeli raids that embarrass Assad.
  • The Russian-Turkish coordination, marginalization of Assad within this equation, and failure to support him in launching a comprehensive attack to regain control of northern Syria.

The content of the agreement

The Syrian air defence system is one of the central components of the agreement. The Iranian Chief of Staff Major General Muhammad Bagheri underlined that the agreement "will enhance the Syrian air defence system”. According to many reports, Iran will supply Syria with the Bavar-373 system developed by the Iranian military industry, which simulates the Russian S-300 system and can engage up to four targets simultaneously with a range of engagement of up to 200 kilometres. Tehran will also provide Damascus with the Khordad-3 medium-range surface-to-air missile system, which has a range of 50-75 kilometres. Iran boasts about the effectiveness of those missiles that shot down the US drone RQ-4 Global Hawk in June 2019 .

In addition to the aspect related to the air defence systems, the agreement aims to "enhance military and security cooperation in the various fields of work of the armed forces of the two countries". It includes the fields of training, security, technology, and military issues, according to Ali Rabiei, the Iranian government spokesman. Iran had signed a previous agreement with the Syrian regime in August 2018, stipulating that Tehran would provide support for rebuilding the Syrian army and defence industries, including missiles.

Will the agreement change the rules of engagement?

The agreement indicates that the Assad regime and Iran have taken a decision to change the rules of engagement and activate the Syrian response to the repeated Israeli raids on Syrian territories, in light of Russia's failure to operate the S-300 system to confront the repeated Israeli raids against Syrian and Iranian sites. However, Iranian sources underline that the goal exceeds responding to intermittent Israeli raids. Rather, it comes in the context of Iran's readiness for a comprehensive confrontation in the region. Iran seeks to fortify confrontation fronts.[4] On the other hand, the Syrian opposition believes that the agreement is merely a “propaganda” move that rather than affecting the balances of power aims at media consumption at both the internal and external levels in both Iran and Syria, based on the fact that the Iranian air defence weapons are outmoded, considering that they are modified Russian systems and it would be too difficult for them to hit US-made Israeli aircraft, which are the most advanced in the world.[5]

Positions of the parties concerned

1. Israel’s position

The signing of the Syrian-Iranian military agreement raises a question about Israel's position and options to confront this development and its possible repercussions for Israeli security, and whether it will resort to striking the Iranian systems once they were installed and before their activation, or whether it will stop the raids in anticipation of a direct military response?

Israeli reports reveal a concern about the possibility that Iran would supply the Syrian regime with the missile systems. According to the Breaking Defence website, Israel has asked Russia to rein in Iran, which plans to deploy its anti-aircraft system in Syria. This is considered by Israel as a threat that could aggravate the situation again. Israel considered that the deployment of the Khordad anti-aircraft system would pose a potential "killer" threat to Israeli pilots. The website said that Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz called his Russian counterpart Sergey Shoygu on 17 July 2020 to warn him that Israel would not tolerate the deployment of the Iranian Khordad system, and asked Russia to pressure Iran not to send anti-aircraft weapons to Syria.

Israeli security circles estimate that Iranian missiles may actually have reached Syria. Ron Ben-Yishai, Yediot Aharonot’s security and military affairs analyst, asserts that it is safe to assume that the Israeli attacks on 22 July 2020 on Syrian sites near Damascus International Airport mainly targeted air defence systems that arrived in Syria on cargo flights from Iran.[6]

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had previously warned in a joint conference with the US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook, a week before the announcement of the Iran-Syria agreement, that Bashar al-Assad would risk the future of his country and his regime if he allowed Iran to establish a presence in certain parts of Syria, especially on the borders with Israel.

What annoys Israel most about the new agreement between the Bashar al-Assad regime and Iran is that the agreement gives Iran an official license to “position” in Syria, while Israel has worked for years to curb the Iranian presence militarily in preparation for ending it. Israeli observers believe that the agreement will constitute a factor towards greater justification for Israeli operations in Syria against Iranian activity, and perhaps against Syrian military commanders close to Iran.

Netanyahu's threats, which intersect with the strategic readings of Israeli security and military experts, show that Israel may search for new mechanisms to deal with the Iranian presence in Syria, given that the "Campaign between the Wars” strategy pursued by Israel over the past years to weaken the Iranian influence may not be suitable for dealing with the new developments.[7]

2. Russia's position

The Syrian-Iranian military agreement raises the question about Russia's position, as the controller of the Syrian skies. Besides, the operation of the Iranian defence systems may conflict with Russia's systems. Most of the readings indicate the existence of overlaps in the Russian position on the agreement stemming from the Kremlin’s already complicated calculations in the Syrian arena and its policy of winning allies and refraining from taking sharp positions in dealing with them. Accordingly, it would be difficult for Russia to take a clear position on this development, which may have repercussions for the Russian influence in Syria, for two reasons:

  • The agreement threatens to weaken Russia’s position in Syria because it makes it lose its position of controller of the Syrian military and political developments, and weakens its influence on the Assad regime.
  • The agreement may lead to a war between Israel and Iran in Syria, which would affect the strategic position of Russia’s power and force it to line up with one of the parties to the conflict. This would make Russia lose its flexibility in dealing with all parties, which would entail possible conflicts depending on the position that Russia may choose.

The agreement comes in the context of negative developments at the level of Russian-Iranian relations in Syria. The expert of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) Ilya Kramnik underlines this fact by saying that "the coordination of Russian operations with Iran in Syria is not at its best”.[8] It is clear that the agreement, especially the part related to the modernization of the Syrian air defence system, is a message that Iran deliberately delivered to Russia in order to push it to curb Israeli attacks in Syria. It may also be an attempt to persuade the Russians to allow the Assad regime to manage and use the S-300 anti-aircraft missile system in order not to lose its position in Syria.

However, it seems that the Russians are aware of the Iranian intentions and way of thinking. The Russians bet on the weakness of Iranian technologies as well as the fact that Israel would not allow the installation and operation of those systems. Based on this estimation, Russia is likely to adapt to the agreement between Iran and the Syrian regime, without hurrying to take decisions as long as the Iranian activity does not exceed the working regions of the Russian systems. The Iranian missile systems are likely to be installed in the Syrian Badia (Desert) after Iranian militias have settled near the Syrian-Iraqi border, an area that has become more vulnerable to Israeli-US attacks.

However, there is a question that can be raised in this context on whether the Iranian move has been taken with Russia's consent and based on coordination with it. The installation and operation of the Iranian system is not possible without certain arrangements being made by the Russian forces to prevent interference between the two systems on Syrian soil. In that case, the Russian calculations would be based on letting the Iranians manage their own protection without putting pressure on Russia and constantly demanding that it respond to the Israeli raids. On the other hand, the system makes the need by Israel and the US for Russia greater to pressure Iran and prevent it from taking steps that affect regional security.

Conclusions

The Iran-Syria agreement constitutes one aspect of the "Brink of the Abyss" game in response to the challenges that Israel and the US raise for Iran. The Iranian goal is to transfer the confrontation, which has become imposed, according to Iranian estimations, to the Syrian arena, where the losses would be much less if strikes against Iranian internal targets continue. Besides, Iran's ability to manoeuvre appears greater through its tools in southern Syria and Lebanon. These trends converge with the Syrian regime’s need to move the situation to come out of its present impasse. Despite the high degree of risk to his regime, Assad realizes that Russia would not allow Israel to topple him.

As far as Iran is concerned, it is not important to show effectiveness in the confrontation, even if the missile systems that it will install are destroyed. It suffices to shoot down an Israeli or US plane, or even embarrass Russia. What matters to Iran is to break the wave of strikes targeting it at home and manage this stage until after the US elections. The incident of the interception by a US F-15 fighter jet of the  Iranian Mahan passenger plane in Syrian airspace on 24 July 2020 indicates that Iran may have deliberately made the plane fly over the Al-Tanf base to implicate the US forces in the shooting down and draw the crisis to other directions.

Endnotes

[1] “That is how Iran responded to the Russian curtailment of its influence”, Orient-news.net, 12 July 2020.

[2] “Syria Becomes Open Ground for Iran, Israeli Messages”, Ibrahim Hamidi, Asharq Al-Awsat, 26 July 2020. 

[3] “‘Alliance of Survivors’: Iran and Syria and their Military-Technology Agreement”, The Institute for National Security Studies, 19 June 2020. Available at: https://www.inss.org.il/publication/syria-iran-agreement/

[4] Abdel Bari Atwan, “Has Iran decided to bypass the Russian veto by supplying Syria with air defence systems?”, Raialyoum newspaper, 12 July 2020.

[5] “Iranian “propaganda” missiles in Syria: Messages of Assad and Tehran from the ‘deal’”, Alhurra website, 9 July 2020.

[6] “Damascasus’ hard night: Israeli raids to prevent the enhancement of the Iranian arsenal”, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, 22 July 2020.

[7] “The Iranian-Syrian deal whets Israel’s appetite for bigger strikes”, almodon website, 16 July 2020.

[8] “Explosive air defences to Syria”, Russia Today website, 10 July 2020.

 

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