The Future of Iran’s Presence in Syria

Nizar Abdul Kader | 24 Feb 2021

Iran began its military intervention in Syria with the outbreak of the civil war in 2011. The main goal of this intervention was to defeat the Revolution and save Bashar al-Assad’s rule from falling, and thus maintain the “Alawite rule” which is a focal point in the Islamic Republic's long-term strategy aimed at establishing a “Shiite crescent” extending from Iran through Iraq and Syria, all the way to Lebanon.[1]

A full decade after the military developments in Syria, this paper seeks to foresee the future of the Iranian military presence in this country in the light of the intense competition for influence between the various regional and international players, especially the US and Russia, and in the light of the continuous Israeli military pressure on the Iranian presence to get Iran out of Syria.

The reality and nature of the Iranian presence in Syria

The civil war in Syria has opened the door wide for Iran's military intervention to support its ally Bashar al-Assad, in a way that enables it to secure a wide corridor that extends its influence to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, and also to the Israeli borders. Iran has strengthened its military capabilities inside Syria through the intervention of Hezbollah and other militias brought in by Iran from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, known as the Liwa al-Fatemiyoun (Fatimid Brigade), and the Liwa al-Zainabiyoun (Followers of Zainab Brigade). Over time, Iran succeeded in being militarily present in the vicinity of the separation line in the occupied Golan.

Iran has adopted various approaches to increase the size of its military presence and influence in Syria. The first approach focused on working directly with foreign militias and forming loyal local militias. The second approach focused on integrating the militias that it had formed locally into the military formations of the Assad regime and its security apparatus in order to give them a legal status on the one hand, and to secure a protective umbrella for them from possible Israeli or US bombing operations on the other hand.[2] The size of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), the said militias, and Hezbollah in 2016 reached nearly 80,000 thousand fighters at the peak of the war. The number of the IRGC personnel reached nearly 3,000 officers and soldiers.[3]

After the military victories that followed the Battle of Aleppo, and the success of the Assad regime in extending its control over most of the Syrian territories, the IRGC Command adopted a new multi-purpose strategy, the first goal of which focuses on preparing for the establishment of a permanent military presence for the Quds Force and its affiliated militias. The Iranian plan provided for the establishment of basic infrastructure that includes command centres, a group of operating rooms and regional control sectors, reconnaissance and information-gathering units, a drone regiment with a runway, warehouses for heavy weapons and missiles, and other logistical facilities. As for the second goal, it focused on establishing factories for developing and maintaining missiles. The plan stipulated converting a number of those missiles into high-precision, long-range missiles.

The third part of this strategy included building facilities to facilitate the arrival and transit of heavy weapons, supplies, and personnel to Syria by air and land, by building a logistical base at Damascus International Airport, and at other airports, in addition to warehouses and supply facilities on the land corridor located at the Iraqi-Syrian border in the Albu Kamal region.

The Israeli strategy to get Iran out of Syria

The Israeli leadership considered that the entry of the Quds Force, Shiite militias and Hezbollah into the Syrian theatre of operations constitutes a direct threat to its security, especially after their entry into the southern areas and their deployment close to the separation line in the Golan region. Israel had repeatedly warned against the consequences of transforming the Iranian deployment in Syria into a permanent presence, and had identified a set of dangers and red lines, most notably:

1. The permanent deployment of Iranian forces in Syria, under the command of the Quds Force constitutes a direct threat to its security.

2. The increase in shipments of precision and long-range missiles to Hezbollah via Syria constitutes a major threat to Israel’s security, especially to its vital and defence installations, and to Israeli cities.

3. Iran seeks to convert its forces and Shiite militias into forces capable of waging a ground war against the Israeli forces stationed on the Golan front and southern Lebanon.

4. Iran's control of the Albu Kamal crossing on the Syrian-Iraqi border poses a new threat as it speeds up the transfer of heavy weapons by land to Syria.

Israel had informed the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the various parties involved in the war of those threats and the red lines connected to them. The Iranian leaders seem not to have taken the Israeli warnings seriously. Nor did they abide by the Russian proposal to withdraw their forces to 85 kilometres from the Golan line.

The Iranian intervention in Syria since 2011 has clearly evolved from a proxy war into a direct war between Iran and Israel. The confrontation between the two since the beginning of 2018 has taken a dangerous escalatory path after Israel increased its attacks on Iranian bases and forces and the transfers of weapons to Lebanese Hezbollah in different regions of Syria. While Israel initially kept secret its responsibility for those attacks, with its resort to intensifying its attacks, it began to announce them. Thus, the Israeli Air Force announced in December 2017 that it had carried out 100 air strikes inside Syria during the previous six years. In September 2018, it stated that it had launched 200 attacks against Iranian targets in 2017 and 2018.[4] After the return of Assad's forces to southern Syria, Israel also announced that it would not allow the Quds Force and Hezbollah to base themselves in those areas.

Israel's rejection of the Iranian presence was not limited to those areas; it expanded to include all of Syria. Recently, the confrontation strategy has expanded to reach Iran itself. This was evident through the mysterious explosions that occurred at the Natanz nuclear site in July 2020, which many analysts believed were the result of Israeli sabotage operations. At the time, the New York Times newspaper reported intelligence sources as saying that the explosion at the nuclear site in Natanz occurred as a result of an act of sabotage targeting the centrifuges which Tehran restarted after Washington's withdrawal from the nuclear agreement.[5]

The limits and constraints of the Iranian response to Israeli attacks

As was mentioned above, the Iranian leaders ignored the Israeli red lines and decided to continue to establish their centres in the suburbs of Damascus and in the southern areas close to the separation line in the Golan. Israel responded by repeatedly targeting those sites, declaring that it would not allow Iran to establish a common border with Israel in Syria. Iran had rejected the Russian proposal to remove its forces a distance of 85 km from the Golan borders.

The IRGC, through its insistence on adhering to its positions in the suburbs and south of Damascus, violated its basic fighting doctrine, especially the principle of adopting proxy warfare and avoiding direct confrontation with a superior military force. Thus, IRGC barracks, military structures, bases, warehouses, and headquarters became easily accessible targets for Israeli air force. The results of the Israeli operations showed the extent of the exposure of Iranian forces and installations. As a result, the IRGC lost the glow of the great victories it had achieved in its battles against the Syrian opposition factions.

Officials in the previous Trump administration share the opinion of Israeli analysts about the reasons that contributed to the weakening of the Iranian position, most notably: the tough US sanctions, the Israeli military pressure on Iran and its allies, the killing of General Qasem Soleimani, and the coronavirus pandemic, in addition to the economic hardships and protest movements inside Iran. From the Israeli point of view, Iran has come to feel weak and isolated, and apparently will not get out of the state of weakness and isolation soon, according to what was said by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on 28 January 2021.[6]

Naftali Bennett, an Israeli politician, had talked about his country's adoption of the "Octopus Doctrine", which includes launching an attack against an Iranian nuclear facility, as well as focusing on the IRGC, Hezbollah and other militias.[7] This explains Israel’s expansion of its theatre of operations to Deir Ezzor, Al-Mayadeen and Albu Kamal. The recent attacks constitute a significant development in the Israeli war strategy by abandoning the "shadow war" and entering open warfare with Iran. An extremely striking fact is that Iran insists on preserving its presence and wide deployment in Syria despite its awareness of the weakness of its capabilities and the capabilities of the Syrian regime to respond to the Israeli attacks, offensively or defensively.

Certainly, Iran realises that maintaining its current military presence in Syria would be extremely costly, whether in terms of equipment, lives, or infrastructure that has cost billions of dollars. In an assessment by the defence circles in Israel, there is a belief that the Israeli raids have weakened the Iranian military presence in Syria and forced Tehran to withdraw a large number of the IRGC forces, which are now numbering in the hundreds instead of thousands, and that Tehran makes up for that by recruiting local and foreign Shiite fighters to take their place.[8]

In the light of the expectation that the Biden administration would delay in returning to the nuclear agreement, and in the light of the ongoing military escalation, in addition to the repercussions of the attack on the Natanz nuclear site and the killing of General Qasem Soleimani and the nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, General Amos Yadlin, the former director of Israeli military intelligence, warned of the possibility that Iran might carry out some operations against Israel and the US in order to avenge Israeli and US attacks. Yadlin advised taking precautions to prevent this.[9] According to what was reported by the Wall Street Journal on 21 January 2021, Israeli Minister Tzachi Hanegbi expected that the Israeli attacks against the Iranian presence in Syria would continue under the Biden administration based on the fact that “combating Iranian entrenchment in Syria is a shared interest”.

The Russian and US positions

1. The Russian position

Russia's intervention in Syria came at the request of President Assad, and with Iranian appeal and encouragement after General Qasem Soleimani visited it to explain to the Russian leadership the seriousness of the situation and urge it to intervene to save Assad's authority from collapse. Since September 2015 until today, relations between Russia and Iran have ranged between cooperation and rivalry due to the difference in interests and goals between them on various regional and international issues. However, the contradictions between them did not prevent the achievement of impressive military results.

It is no longer a secret today that Iran constitutes a regional rival to Russia, a major opponent of the US and its allies, and an enemy of Israel. Moscow is well aware that the atmosphere of tension and hostility is likely to grow as long as Iran remains in Syria. Russia is also aware of the complexities of the current military situation in Syria with the deployment of several armies on the ground. This forces it to devise new methods of dealing with its allies and opponents, including Iran, Israel, Turkey, the US, the Kurds, and the rest of the Syrian opposition factions.

Russia believes that Iran's withdrawal from Syria cannot be expected in the near term due to the large Iranian investments in Syria, which began in 1979 and reached a peak during the war period, estimated at between 90 and 100 billion dollars. Official debts range between five and seven billion dollars. As for the loss of life, the losses of the Quds Force are estimated at hundreds of deaths, and those of the Shiite militias and Hezbollah at several thousand. In contrast, the Russian debts do not exceed 4 billion dollars, while the losses in lives remain very limited.[10]

The differences and conflicts of interests between Russia and Iran have not reached the level of a declared crisis yet, but some repercussions have emerged, which can be summarised as follows:

First, with the beginning of the Russian intervention, the Iranian role as an ally of the Assad regime declined, as Russia turned into the main ally after it succeeded in changing the military situation, so that Damascus regained control over most of the country with the exception of Idlib Governorate.

Second, the Russian-Iranian relations faced a tense situation during the battle of Aleppo after Russia allowed Turkey to evacuate civilians and fighters from eastern Aleppo, at the end of 2016. Iran had rejected that agreement because it was seeking to achieve a decisive military victory in Aleppo. A contradiction also emerged between the two positions when Moscow called on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) to participate in political negotiations to search for a solution to the Syrian crisis, as Tehran saw such a call as completely incompatible with its strategic interests.

Third, a strong conflict occurred between the two sides at the beginning of the Astana negotiations, as Tehran sought to avenge Washington by keeping it away from the negotiations, while Moscow sought to include the US as an observer.

Fourth, the agreement between Moscow and Ankara in Sochi on a joint plan to control the situation in Idlib (without Iran's participation) was a major point of contention between Moscow and Tehran.

It is noteworthy that the ongoing war between Tel Aviv and Tehran does not raise concerns in Moscow as long as Israel does not intend to harm Russian interests. However, it seems clear that the competition between Moscow and Tehran is on the increase, as each seeks to establish its role in determining the fate of Syria. This leads to the belief that those relations are vulnerable to deterioration in the future. At the same time, Moscow seems to be continuing its dialogue with Tel Aviv in order to discuss the possibility of arranging an agreement between Israel and President Assad in order to relieve pressure on him and float him through mediation by Tel Aviv with the Biden administration. Such a development would certainly harm Iran's relations with the Syrian regime, and would lead to questions about the future of the Iranian presence in Syria.

2. The US position

The aim of the US intervention in Syria was to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (also Syria) (ISIL, ISIS, Daesh). The starting point was from the city of Kobani in 2014. Washington continued its intervention to defeat Daesh in Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and the rest of the areas in northeastern Syria, given that the Kurdish People's Protection Units (PYD) formed the main ground force in this battle as an ally of the Americans.

With the inability to reach a solution to all the contradictions and problems that resulted from the war, including finding a political solution, the return of refugees and the reconstruction of Syria, and in a manner indicating that Syria would remain divided among the various actors deployed on its territories, this reality prompted Washington to maintain its military presence in Al-Tanf and in the northeastern regions, and to link its withdrawal to the withdrawal of Iranian forces. This US position stems from the premise that it is not acceptable to replace Sunni extremists with Shiite extremists. For the US, Shiite extremism is just as dangerous as Sunni extremism. Washington stresses that its stay in Syria serves its interests and those of its allies, as well as achieving stability in the region.

Iran has suffered a lot from the policies pursued by President Donald Trump, especially as a result of the effects of the sanctions regime and the "maximum pressure" he imposed against it after announcing his exit from the nuclear agreement. This prompted it to adopt a policy of patience and betting on Trump's defeat in the presidential elections in the light of the announcement of his rival Joe Biden’s expression of his willingness to return to the nuclear deal. After Biden assumed the presidency and set the wheel in motion for his new administration, Iran seemed in a hurry to have the US sanctions lifted before entering into any new negotiations. However, the US seems to insist on the need for Iran to back down from all the violations it committed to the provisions of the basic nuclear agreement before entering into any new negotiation process with it.

What is striking about the new US policy is that Washington started talks with its allies in the region to coordinate positions on the entire Iranian strategy in the region, including the future of the Iranian nuclear project and ballistic missiles, up to Iran's strategy and behaviour towards neighbouring countries and its attempt to control four countries: Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. It seems clear that Israel, in addition to continuing to exert military pressure on the Iranian presence in Syria, is exerting pressure on Washington to convince it of its view of the need to work towards a complete cessation of the Iranian nuclear and missile programme. In the same context, the KSA and the UAE are seeking to correct the mistake committed by the Obama administration by keeping them away from the nuclear negotiations with Iran. Thus, they expect continued coordination with the Biden administration in the upcoming negotiations. Available information indicates that the parties initiated contacts to coordinate positions.

The future of the Iranian presence in Syria

Iran is supposed to reassess its strategy in Syria to realistically face the regional and international changes that have occurred during 2020, so that it conforms to the necessities of confrontation with its competitors and opponents, and activates coordination processes with its allies, if it is genuinely willing to maintain its presence in Syria.

Iran is currently facing a dangerous situation in the light of the continuous Israeli military escalation, at a time when Iran appears hesitant and fearful of the repercussions of confronting Israeli attacks by resorting to the use of its long-range missile capabilities, which are capable of achieving precise hits against sensitive Israeli targets. This reluctance indicates Iran's fear of sliding into a full-scale war with Israel, with the possibility of expanding the theatre of operations and the US involvement in the conflict.

The Iranian leadership knows that its deployment on a wide front extending from the Gulf to Syria does not allow it to mobilise the necessary military forces to wage an equal battle, both in Syria and at the regional level, with the repercussions that this would entail inside Iran itself.

In the context of anticipating the future of the Iranian military presence in Syria, the following scenarios can be envisioned:

The first scenario assumes that Israel would intensify its attacks against Iranian bases and forces and foreign militias affiliated with them, in the light of the continuing Russian-Israeli complicity and the Syrian regime's inability to help limit its results. Thus, Iran would decide to withdraw the Quds Force, keep a limited number of advisors, and place its Shiite militias at the disposal and under the supervision of the Syrian leadership.

The second scenario assumes that a settlement is reached with the US over the nuclear deal, with consensus on a new role for Iran in the region whereby Tehran would adhere to a timetable for withdrawing the Quds Force and Shiite militias from Syria while preserving its economic investments in this country.

The third scenario, in which Iran refuses any compromise on its presence in Syria, based on the exorbitant costs it has paid in the war, and decides to take the adventure of maintaining its military presence and confronting the possibility of entering an open war with its opponents there, especially Israel.

In fact, it is still too early to make preferences between those scenarios or favour one of them. The matter has come to be related to the course of the upcoming negotiations with Washington, especially with regard to the demands of Israel and the Gulf states which want a complete cessation of the Iranian nuclear programme, a change in Iran's expansionist behaviour towards the countries of the region, and the withdrawal of its militias and IRGC from the current areas of intervention extending from Yemen, across Iraq and Syria, to Lebanon.

Conclusions and projections

  • Syria is expected to remain divided into spheres of influence controlled by the various forces deployed on the ground, most notably Russia and Iran, at a time when President Assad has no actual influence on either of them, given that he is a prisoner of the large debts he owes to them. In that case, Moscow and Tehran would act as the proprietors who dispose of their property until an international consensus is reached on a comprehensive political solution to the Syrian crisis.[11]
  • President Biden's administration is preparing to enter into new negotiations with Iran after it appointed as a special envoy Robert Malley who had previously negotiated with Iran to reach the 2015 agreement under President Obama. The negotiations are unlikely to be short or easy as desired by Iran. They will take place in stages and within a specific timetable, the most prominent part of which being after the Iranian presidential elections in June 2021.
  • Iran is expected to face great difficulties in achieving its objectives in the negotiations. Its demand to have the US sanctions lifted immediately with payment of financial compensation is also not expected to be achieved. The most that it can hope for is obtaining loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as a consolation prize.
  • Accordingly, the results of the upcoming negotiations with Washington would have to be waited for to explore the nature and trends of Iranian behaviour towards the countries of the region, given that the future of the Iranian presence in Syria would not be decided before a broader political settlement is reached. However, in the event that Iran continues to insist on keeping its forces and militias in Syria, the risks would be plausible that the direct and limited war between Israel and Iran would turn into a wide regional war in which the US would participate, with the possibility that the war would not be limited to the Syrian theatre, but would extend to Iran itself.

References

[1] “Iran and the Shiite Crescent: Myth and Realities,” King Abdullah of Jordan warned about an ideological Shiite crescent in 2004. www.belfercenter.org-publications-iran-and-shiite-crescent/

[2] Navvar Saban, “Factbox: Iranian Influence and Presence in Syria,” www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/factbox-iranian-influence/

[3] Nader Uskowi, “The Evolving Iranian Strategy in Syria: A Looming Conflict with Israel,” September 27, 2018. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/in-depth-research-reports/issue-brief/the-evolving-iranian-strategy-in-syria-a-looming-conflict-with-israel/

[4] “Israel Says Struck Iranian Targets in Syria 200 Times in Last Two Years,” https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-israel-syria-iran-idUSKCN1LK2D7

[6] Al-Arabia Channel, Declaration made by Anthony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of State, January 28, 2021, News 20:00 hours.

[7] Dalla Dassa Kaye, “An Israeli Escalation Against Iran?”  July 15, 2020.  www.rand.org/blog/2020/07/an-israeli-escalation-against-iran/

[8] “Analysts See Little Change in Israel’s Strategy in Syria, Despite Reports of Withdrawal,” https://www.rferl.org/a/tactical-change-or-withdrawal-iran-s-syria-strategy-analyzed-amid-reports-of-force-reductions/30614695.html

[9] “Israel Strikes Iran-Linked Targets in Syria,” Wall Street Journal, January 13, 2021.

[10] Arsalan Shahla, “Iran Has Spent as much as $30 Billion in Syria, Lawmaker Says,” May 20, 2020. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-05-20/iran-has-spent-as-much-as-30-billion-in-syria-lawmaker-says

[11] “How Assad Balances Competing Interests of Russia and Iran in Syria,” September 20, 2019. https://www.trtworld.com/middle-east/how-assad-balances-competing-interests-of-russia-and-iran-in-syria-29976

 

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