Analysis: Iran tightens its grip on Syria

Over the past five years, Iran has played a major role in assisting President Assad to the brink of victory in Syria’s bloody civil war.

However, the Islamic republic’s actions have not been driven simply but its long-standing friendship with the Syrian regime. Instead, Iran has used the civil war to bolster its strength in the region – establishing a land bridge connecting Tehran to the Mediterranean – and to increase its ability to menace Israel.

But as a new report from an Istanbul-based think-tank suggests, Iran is embedding itself in Syria not only militarily but also economically and socially. Its aim appears to be to ensure that, even after Assad no longer needs its fire power, the Islamic Republic will continue to hold considerable sway over Syria.

“Iranian influence in Syria is often reduced to its military support,” the Omran Centre for Strategic Studies argues. However, “Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its auxiliary institutions not only provided military and financial support to the Syrian regime but have expanded their administrative and economic activities in Syria by infusing their institutions within the armed forces, service-delivery ministries, local political and armed bodies, and non-governmental organisations.”

None of this detracts from Iran’s strong military presence. As the extensive examination of its activities in Syria in 2017 shows, the IRGC has deployed fighters reporting directly to it on five main military fronts – including around Damascus, southern, central, coastal and northern Syria – with bases established in each to accommodate up to 10,000 men.

This auxiliary army of 50,000 troops is the result of extensive Iranian recruitment efforts – in mosques, holy sites, seminaries and via social media –in Pakistan and Iraq. Additionally, Iran has recruited among Afghan refugees who have fled to the Islamic republic, warning some that they will be deported back to their homeland if they do not assist in its war in Syria. Iran has, of course, also been assisted by its proxy army, Hezbollah, which has been able to move an estimated 15,000 troops freely across the border between its Lebanese base and Syria.

Despite agreements signed by Russia and the US last November, Iran has also worked to increase its presence in southern Syria, “continuing to push the limits and expand its presence in recent months,” according to the study. This is evident in the construction of a new military base south of Damascus, a mere 31 miles from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. Some 500 troops, the report says, have been deployed there.

In all, suggests Nawar Oliver, a military researcher at the Omran Center, Iranian forces currently operate out of 11 bases around the country, as well as nine military bases for Iranian-backed Shiite militias in southern Aleppo, Homs, and Deir Ezzor provinces and approximately 15 Hezbollah bases and observation points mostly along the Lebanese border and in Aleppo.

But it is the manner in which Iran is seeking to entrench its power socially and economically which is perhaps most striking.

Throughout 2017, the report reveals, Iran has signed a series of deals involving reconstruction, energy supplies and humanitarian aid. Working with the Assad-supporting Local Defence Forces, the Iranian Reconstruction Authority and the Iranian-backed Jihad al-Benna charitable foundation has worked to rebuild schools, hospitals and infratructure, and has engaged in “outreach efforts, everything from rubble clearing to blood drives, sporting events, city beautification projects, and children’s camps in Aleppo”.

Iran’s effort to establish its ideological hegemony can be seen in the establishment of a branch of the Islamic Azad University in Aleppo, while its newly enhanced role in the Syrian economy and grip over the country’s infrastructure can be seen in the signing of a power scheme linking the Islamic republic, Iraq and Syria.

Iran’s actions are unsurprising. It has lost over 2,000 soldiers and invested between $30bn and $105bn in military and economic aid to Syria. As the editor of Tehran news site told Foreign Policy magazine earlier this month: “I don’t think Iran is willing to abandon its presence in Syria. It gives Iran good leverage against Israel. The ground is very important, and Iran is very skillful at managing the ground — the one area where even Russians are weak. The one who has control of the ground doesn’t take seriously those who don’t.”

Both the US and Israel have made clear that they want to see Iran completely withdraw from Syria.

Last month, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, made the withdrawal “of all forces under Iranian command throughout the entirety of Syria” one of the 12 conditions imposed by the Trump administration for the lifting of sanctions. How seriously the Iranians will take this threat, given the president’s reported order just two months ago that US forces should completely withdraw from Syria, remains to be seen.

As the Brookings Institute warned at the time: “Withdrawing from Syria will allow a Russia-dominated security architecture in the region and hasten the hegemony of Iran.” It cited the precedent of Iraq, where a precipitous US withdrawal in 2011 “proved to be critical to Iran’s dominance in Syria, as Iraq was a crucial transit point that reinforced the Assad regime with substantial arms and tens of thousands of powerful Iraqi Shiite militias who are now the most dominant force on the ground”.

Israel, which has also made it clear that it will not tolerate a permanent Iranian presence in Syria – last month, Benjamin Netanyahu vowed that “we will continue to act against [Iran’s] intentions to establish itself militarily in Syria besides us, not just opposite the Golan Heights, but any place in Syria” – has adopted a more consistent and methodical approach than Washington.

During his European visit last week, the prime minister appeared to win the backing of Germany, Britain and France for Israel’s objective. Angela Merkel, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron, Netanyahu told the Israeli cabinet on Monday, “agreed with the main goal that I set, and this is formulating a broad international agreement that Iran needs to leave Syria”.

Iran, however, appears to have no such intentions. Last month, it slapped down a statement by Vladimir Putin, hitherto its principal ally in bolstering the Assad regime, who suggested that all foreign forces should eventually leave Syria. “No one can force Iran to do anything, Iran is an independent country that determines its own policies,” the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman responded.

Meanwhile, with its forces now able to menace Israel’s northern border – in February, it flew a drone, reportedly laden with explosives, into Israeli airspace from Syria; an act which represented the first direct attack by the Islamic republic on Israel – Iran’s leaders continue their blustering threats towards the Jewish state. Last week, its supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei branded Israel a “cancerous tumour” in the region that must “removed and eradicated”. The country’s supposedly reformist president, Hassan Rouhani, backed up that warning last weekend, telling reporters that Israel can “never feel safe”.