The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

Israel, Russia and to some extent the US stand in the way of Iran’s permanent entrenchment in Syria. Israel needs to continue its strikes against Iranian and Hezbollah infrastructures across Syria.

Iran is continually expanding its military, economic and political presence in Syria. Bashar al-Assad’s February 25 visit to Iran was an important marker in these efforts. Assad met with Iranian Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani, who labeled him the “hero of the Arab world.” The presence of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani and top Hezbollah official Mohammad Jafar Qasir in these meetings indicates its financial-military nature.

(Qasir is the man responsible for delivering Iranian money to Hezbollah. He heads Hezbollah’s Unit 108, responsible for facilitating the transfer of weapons, technology, and other support from Syria to Lebanon).

Iran regards Syria as its strategic province. Its hegemonic view of Syria was illustrated by Qassem Soleimani’s statement, after the visit, in which he likened the relationship between Assad and Khamenei to the connection between father and son.

With the Syrian civil war coming to an end, Iran expects a payoff from its huge investment in the Assad regime. Iranian support manifested itself in billions of dollars given to the Syrian economy, deployment of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and transnational Shiite militias across Syria.

Reportedly, 564 Iranian troops, at least 1,238 Lebanese Hezbollah operatives, and 1,100 operatives of Iraqi, Pakistani, and Afghani operatives were killed in the Syrian fighting, as of March 2019.

The West’s estimates of the Iranian economic aid given to Syria range between dozens of billions of dollars to more than $100 billion over the course of approximately eight years.

American sanctions on Iran have already forced Tehran to reduce its economic aid to Hezbollah, pushing the group into economic hardship, as publicly admitted by Hassan Nasrallah. As a result, Iran increasingly expects Assad to significantly expand its economic share in Syria, enabling it to cope with US sanctions.

After Assad’s visit, top Iranian officials declared that it aimed to thwart offers by the Trump Administration and Arab countries (mainly Saudi Arabia, according to Assad) to recognize Assad’s legitimacy and grant him generous economic assistance should he cut ties with Iran and Hezbollah. The very existence of these offers is doubtful. Apparently, Iran was seeking to bolster Assad’s fealty to Tehran and reduce his wiggle room within the relationship.

Iran has tried to pretend it maintains tight relations with Assad, but it seems that Tehran is concerned that it will both lose its influence on him as well the Syrian establishment in favor of Russia. This fear was clearly demonstrated in June 2018 when Iranian parliament member, Behrouz Bonyadi, suggested that Assad wants to expand his cooperation with Russia at the expense of Iran and warned that Iran should not regard Putin or Assad as everlasting, trustworthy partners.

In May 2018 Tehran criticized Assad harshly for his “passive” (according to Iran) stance toward the Israeli wide-scale air strike of the same month on Quds Force’s infrastructure in Syria. The critique made by Heshmatollah Falahat-Pisheh, chairman of the National Security Committee of the Iranian parliament, focused on Assad’s declaration after the air strike, where he stated that regional powers must not turn Syria into their battlefield. Assad explained that an Iranian-Israeli confrontation in Syria will further complicate Syria’s situation. Tehran interpreted this statement as an implicit call by Assad to concentrate on returning all Syrian lands to Assad’s sovereignty and to halt Iranian actions against Israel on its soil.

An Iranian parliamentary delegation informed Assad in January of Iran’s dissatisfaction with its place in the framework of Syria’s economic rehabilitation plans. The Iranian officials urged Assad to promote economic cooperation between the two countries and presented it to Assad as a debt he must repay to Iran as a reward for Iran’s leading role in his survival.

In October 2018, Assad had rejected, presumably due to Russian pressure, Iran’s request to establish an independent maritime base in Syria. Assad had also rejected an Iranian offer to sign a strategic contract which would guarantee Iran a presence in Syria for the next 49 years, similar to the agreement signed with Russia. At the end of 2017, Hossein Salahvarzi, deputy head of Iran Chamber of Commerce, complained that the Syrian government had put restrictions on export of Iranian goods to Syria, preferring to import goods from Turkey, despite the fact that Iran had given Syria a billion dollar credit line. Seeking to overcome this hardship, Tehran recently asked Damascus to cancel taxation on the import of Iranian goods into Syria.

With the cessation of battles in major parts of Syria, the disputes between Tehran and Moscow regarding the future of Syria are coming to the fore. Russia continues to maintain coordination with Israel which enables the latter to attack Iranian infrastructure across Syria; this, despite Iran’s demands that Russia end its deconfliction arrangements with Israel. Falahat-Pisheh expressed Iranian disappointment with Russia’s Syria policy by blaming Russia, claiming that its troops fail to use the S-300 missile systems during Israeli raids. Iranian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hossein Jaberi Ansari, who plays a major role in Iranian diplomacy vis-à-vis Russia in the Syrian arena, recently blamed Russia, stating that it never has stood by Iran regarding Israel. Ansari expressed Iran’s determination to maintain its offensive deployment against Israel in Syria, declaring that with the transformation of the Syrian arena from a war against Assad’s opponents to a fight between Iran and Israel, it would cause a rift between Iran and Russia.

Reportedly Russia also is preventing Iran from establishing itself economically in Syria. In February 2018, Russia signed an agreement with Syria giving it a monopoly over all oil and gas production in Syria. This development, which marginalized Iran, triggered concern within the Iranian leadership. Iranian Defense Minister Amir Khatami said in August 2018 that Iran would not only maintain its presence in Syria but also participate in its rehabilitation – “and no third party will be influential in this issue.” This statement clearly was directed at Russia.

In addition to the expected economic dividend, Iran attributes importance to its participation in the rehabilitation of Syria, because this will enable the Quds Force to preserve its presence in Syria under the guise of affiliated companies.

Tehran is also intensifying its involvement in post of LatakiaIt has been assisted by the Iranian Tractor Manufacturing Company (ITM), an IRGC-owned company which in October 2018 was designated as a supporter of terrorism by the US.The company apparently operates in the port to facilitate maritime smuggling of weapons and missiles technology to Hezbollah. Iranian activities in Latakia are anchored in bilateral trade agreements, including an agreement for Iran to build a power plant in Latakia, which were signed during the January 2019 visit to Damascus of Iranian Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri.

The other part of Assad’s meetings in Tehran dealt with IRGC and Hezbollah attempts to establish themselves in the Syrian Golan Heights, and the American plan to maintain a force of several hundred soldiers after the al-Tanf withdrawal. IRGC senior official and Political Bureau Director Yadollah Javani declared that the message and repercussions of the Assad visit included Syria’s determination to liberate the Golan Heights from Israel. Javani called on Israel to voluntarily withdraw from the Golan to avoid a painful defeat.

In parallel to their participation in the Syria War, Iran and Hezbollah have committed extensive efforts to establish an offensive terror infrastructure in the Golan Heights but these efforts have thus far been systematically thwarted by Israel. In March 2019, the Israel Defense Forces exposed the “Golan File,” a secret Hezbollah unit in the Syrian Golan Heights, currently in its initial stages of staging. This unit is headed by senior Hezbollah commander, Ali Mussa Daqduq al-Mousavi, and is composed of Hezbollah operatives as well as Syrian residents who live in villages in the region.

That same month, following the Trump Administration’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, Hezbollah and IRGC-backed Iraqi Shiite militias launched a propaganda campaign in which they emphasized the necessity to liberate the Golan. Despite this declaration, since sovereignty over all Syrian lands was recently returned to Assad, it is unlikely that Iran and its proxies will be able to implement these remote threats.

Even Javani’s threat that Assad’s Tehran visit indicated that American troops staying in Syria would suffer significant loss, seems unlikely to be acted upon. The Trump Administration is focused on an economic war against Iran, specifically avoiding a more offensive policy which would include direct military conflict. Since Trump seeks to maintain this policy until the November 2020 US presidential election, Iran’s targeting of American personnel in Syria will likely be postponed until that time in the hope that Trump will not be re-elected.

Still, after Trump announced the American withdrawal from Syria, some IRGC Quds Force leaders stated that the vision of expelling American troops from the Middle East was being realized. As such, one cannot rule out the possibility, however low, that IRGC arrogance and self-confidence following the declaration of American withdrawal would lead to miscalculation by Iran.

Despite constant challenges posed by Russia and Israel, Iran continues to seek to entrench itself in Syria, specifically through three main ventures. The first isa “Shiite-ization” project in specific areas in Syria, including giving economic incentives to Syrian residents. The second is the dispatch of companies which function as a cover for the IRGC Quds Force. (A well-known example is the Headquarters for the Restoration of Holy Shrines, headed by Quds Force commander Hassan Pelarak, which operates in the Zainab shrine of Damascus). The third is development of a land corridor which would link Iran with Syria and Lebanon through Iraq.

In the March 2019 meeting of Iranian Chief of Staff Mohammad Baqeri with his Iraqi and Syria counterparts, all the participants declared their intention to open the border passage al-Qaim, which links the Al-Anbar province of Iraq with the Deir Ez-Zor province of Syria. In addition, throughout that same month, Iran began to talk of paving of a highway stretching over 1,200 kilometers that would link Syria to Iraq. Currently, both Iran and Iraq anticipate two possible routes in which the highway could pass. (Iran seeks to distance the corridor as much as possible from American bases and presence in Iraq).

Despite objection by wide circles of the Iranian public, the Khamenei  regime has been sticking to its expansionist projects in Syria and prohibiting any public debate regarding its profitability. Accordingly, Iran has closed the Qanoon Daily, a newspaper affiliated with anti-IRGC circles, after it had labeled Assad an “unwelcome guest” during the Tehran visit.

The current leading Israeli tactic used to restrict Iranian actions in Syria is a direct military strikes. As reinforcement, the Trump Administration needs to enforce its sanctions on Iranian companies operating in Syria, including ITM. In addition, the US must impose sanctions on the Headquarters for the Restoration of Holy Shrines, which, in reality, is a military and financial cover for the Quds Force in Syria.ssia is apparently not interested in completely expelling Iranian forces from Syria. It has been playing the Iranian card in Syria, as well as in other arenas (like Yemen and the Iranian nuclear dossier), to erode American influence. Assad, for his part, owes the survival of his regime not only to the Russians but also to the Iranians. Seemingly, even though he wants to concentrate on retaking his sovereignty over all Syrian lands, he can’t yet enforce this on Tehran. Consequently, Iran is expected to continue its offensive efforts against Israel through Syria, and the struggle between Tehran and Moscow will continue.

JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.

photo: Deutsche Welle (Germany) 28.2.2019