Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami (right) meets with his Syrian counterpart Abdullah Ayoub in Damascus, August 26, 2018. (AFP)

By Akram Bunni

June 27, 2020

Assuming the reason behind the Caesar Act is not toppling the Syrian regime and instead, pressuring and forcing it to make concessions and agree to a political process according to the 2012 Geneva Conference and UN resolution, 2254 which sets the stage for expelling Iran’s militarily and the influence it has gained in Syria, and if we also assume that Israeli raids on Revolutionary Guards and allied bases in Syria will continue after Israel irresponsibly professed that the rules for its struggle with Iran have changed and that the aim today is not to size it down in Syria but to completely expel it, then it is intuitive to assume that Tehran is executing plans and steps to confront these two developments and to reduce their impact in a way that preserves its existence and influence in Syria.

First, there have been maneuvers to conceal its presence and military tactics that have taken different forms to reduce the impact of Israeli raids, including changing the locality and reducing the number of their bases and those of its proxies while raising their competency and effectiveness on the ground and making them more specialized and flexible.

This explains what has been said about Tehran’s move toward repatriating members of its non-elite militias, as well as reducing its military presence to distinguished cadres and fortifying them in its bases in Syria, most notably Damascus International Airport, al-Kaswa in Damascus countryside, Azzan Mountain in North Aleppo countryside, al-Seen and Shayrat military airports, and Izra’a military base in South Syria, and withdrawing its forces from sensitive areas on the border to avert any provocation or skirmishes, as well as agreeing with the regime to redeploy its army from the Jordan-Israel-Syria triangle and the areas facing the occupied Golan heights to pacify Israel by getting rid of Israel’s pretext of Iranian forces being near its borders.

It has also withdrawn from some of its borders in Deir Ezzor and has handed them to Syrian militias that are sponsored by Russia such as Liwa al-Quds and the Desert Hawks Brigade to avoid any collisions with the US. Most importantly, it has expanded its infiltration in the Syrian army’s structure and provided support to some of the power centers that are in favor of Iran, such as air force intelligence and the Fourth Division led by Maher al-Assad, through trained military officers and cadres serving as consultants, in parallel with attempting to unite local armed militias that it had contributed to establish during the Syrian war and preparing them well to form an armed party like the Lebanese Hezbollah.

Second, Iran is encouraging Hezbollah to tighten its grip over Lebanon and its capacities and borders and to consolidate its arms and dominance. On the one hand, this will reduce the pressure over Syria and Iranian influence there and bypass the economic implications that the Caesar Act will have, and on the other, it will threaten US interests and Israel’s security.

The threatening language that Hassan Nasrallah used in his last speech and the timing of his media releasing a video that included vital Israeli military targets, imply Hezbollah’s ability to strike them are but one manifestation of this threat.

On the other hand, Tehran’s rulers will not miss the opportunity to activate ISIS that has recently carried out several operations to use them as a scarecrow to intimidate the west and keep it busy. It is no longer a secret that there is chronic collusion between extremist Islamist groups and Tehran and that the latter has influence over the decisions of these groups, pushing them to carry out terrorist acts against western societies and their interests.

Third, Iran is focusing its efforts on enhancing its social and economic infiltration in Syria, calling for conversion to Shiism and ideologically recruiting people under the headline of confronting Israel.

Indeed, Iran has succeeded in expanding the size of the Shiite bloc in Damascus and the Syrian coast and has gained local supporters from all religions and sects. It has also activated the role of its agents in education and social services, most importantly, by providing aid to those in need and winning them over through more than 40 “civil and humanitarian” associations the presence of which has been rising with the deterioration of living conditions and the economic crisis.

Finally, it has further engineered demographic changes in more areas inhabited by Syrian Sunnis, whether on the borders or around Shiite holy sites. This was facilitated by Iranian real estate agents buying lands and building houses, turning them into areas inhabited by its Shiite militias after securing Syrian citizenship for many of its members.

Fourth, Tehran has been keen to avoid any potential confrontation with Moscow which is moving more and more toward running Syria alone.

Iran has focused on resolving any dispute and competition with Russia over influence in army and security institutions and economic resources and vital facilities by providing temporary concessions, reassured that their relations will not be disrupted considering how deeply they’ve cooperated.

Iran has realized Moscow’s need for it while negotiating with westerners, Israelis and Arabs. Worse of all is that Tehran has rushed to justify splitting regional influence with Ankara. It is not strange that there is talk about a deal between Iran and Turkey to exchange benefits, not only in Syria but also in Iraq, Libya and Yemen. This is evidenced by the fact that their raids against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in North Iraq are in sync and the cover that Tehran is providing for Turkish infiltration in the Libyan conflict, in line with Ankara’s support of Iran’s role in Yemen. Do the two sides not have a common Islamist ideological root? Do they not understand that the failure of this model for one side will reflect negatively on the other?!

Even though nobody in Iranian circles is discussing a response to the pressures on it to leave Syria, on the contrary, some signs and statements imply that they will be more adamant to stay, especially that Tehran knows very well that leaving Syria will jeopardize all of its regional influences.

It is also true that Israel’s raids and the US sanctions have started to curb Iranian influence in the region and Syria, but it is also true that they are insufficient and will be fruitless if they are not accompanied by a political change that guarantees the rights of Syrians in line with international resolutions. In such an environment, Tehran would no longer have an opportunity to stay in Syria and will be forced to leave and never return.

Asharq Al-Awsat

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.