Recent statements by a number of Israeli officials have claimed a degree of success in Israel’s efforts to contain and roll back Iran’s entrenchment in Syria. But while Israel’s tactical successes are certainly notable and impressive, the big picture is that Iran’s influence and strength in Syria continues to deepen and expand.
Iran’s efforts are taking place at three levels: below the official Syrian state structures – in the arming and sponsoring of Iran-controlled paramilitary formations on Syria soil, within the Syrian state – in the control of institutions that are officially organs of the regime, and above the state, in the pursuit of formal links between the Iranian and Syrian regimes. As Tehran seeks to impose its influence on Assad’s Syria in the emergent post-rebellion period, meanwhile, there are indications that its project is running up against the rival plans and ambitions of the Russians.
A report by the generally reliable Syrian Observatory for Human Rights this week described in detail the nature of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’s efforts to entrench its presence in a single, significant Syrian town: al-Mayadin, west of the strategically important Albukamal border crossing between Iraq and Syria, and just west of the Euphrates River.
The Observatory described extensive recruitment of local Syrians, including individuals who were formerly involved with the armed opposition, into the ranks of Iran’s various paramilitary “Syrian Hezbollah” type structures that have been established in Syria. The report noted that the incentives given to entice individuals into these structures included a monthly salary of between $150-300, allowing individuals a variety of options as to where they wish to serve, and immunity from arrest at the hands of regime security forces.
The report also noted that the IRGC and Lebanese Hezbollah have positioned themselves in key areas of al-Mayadin, and are maintaining exclusive control of these areas (i.e., without cooperation with, or permission sought from, the forces of the Assad regime).
Among a number of specific examples quoted in this regard, “Members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards took over the al-Nurain Mosque and houses around it on Korniche Street in the city, where they prevented civilians, members of regime forces, and NDF from entering or passing through the area, without orders from the command forces located in al-Mayadin,” while “members of the Lebanese Hezbollah took over the area extending from al-Finsh junction to Al Shuaibi Villa at al-Arba’in Street in al-Mayadin city, and prevented entry and exit except by orders of them.”
Control of al-Mayadin and its environs matters because it is located along Highway 4, which is the only road leading out of the Albukamal border crossing, which is currently controlled by the IRGC and its allies. From al-Mayadin, Route 4 reaches Deir al-Zor, where it connects to the M20 highway, which heads west in the direction of Damascus, or, if a traveler prefers, toward al-Qusayr and the Lebanese border.
That is, the specific example of al-Mayadin shows the means by which Iran seeks to maintain exclusive control along vital nodes in Syria, for the passage of personnel and matériel, in the direction of its allies in Lebanon or its enemies in Israel, according to the needs of the moment.
The activities of the IRGC on the ground in such locations as al-Mayadin go hand in hand with the more conventional, regime-to-regime relations that Tehran maintains with Assad in Damascus.
This week, for example, Iranian Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri was in Syria, where he signed a number of economic agreements and met with Assad. The agreements, 11 in number, together offer a road map for long-term strategic economic cooperation between Iran and Syria. They cover a variety of areas, including “education, housing, public works, railroads and investments,” according to a report by the Syrian Arab News Agency, the regime’s official media outlet.
Jahangiri’s visit was the latest indication of concerted Iranian efforts to secure a major role in the massive project of reconstruction within the 60% of Syria currently controlled by the regime. The UN estimates the cost of reconstruction in war-torn Syria at around $400 billion. Earlier landmarks in this process include a military cooperation agreement concluded in August 2018, a 2017 memorandum of understanding for the extraction of phosphates from the al-Sharqiya mine southwest of Palmyra (one of the largest such mines in Syria), and an MOU for the restoration by Iran of over 2000 MW of electrical power production capacity.
There is even a putative plan for an Iran-Syria rail link, to run from the Shalamcheh border crossing between Iran and Iraq, via Basra in southern Iraq and eventually to Latakia on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. Such projects are more in the line of visions at present. But they demonstrate the depth and scope of Iran’s plans for the area between its western borders and the Mediterranean.
A THIRD element in the Iranian ambition lies within the structures of the official Syrian state. Iran has invested heavily in the creation of Basij-style paramilitary structures under its control within the Syrian security forces – such as the National Defense Forces. Evidence is now also emerging that conventional military units of the Syrian Arab Army are also identified closely with the Iranian interest. The evidence in question suggests that this is leading to fissures, as these units face off against other formations more closely allied with the Russian interest in Syria.
A report in the opposition-linked Ana Press this week, confirmed by additional Syrian sources and also reported in Der Spiegel and by the Turkish Anadolu Agency, detailed clashes on January 19 in the Hama area between Col. Soheil Hassan’s 5th Corps, associated with the Russian interest, and Maher Assad’s 4th Division, generally seen as closely linked to the IRGC.
According to the report, a number of fighters from both units were killed in the Sahel al-Ghab area in Hama, after a dispute about control of the area. These incidents show the extent to which the Russian and Iranian projects have the potential for collision, especially in the all-important area of control and influence within the official security structures of the Syrian state.
Taken together, all this evidence points to a deep, long-term Iranian strategic plan by which Tehran means to dominate the Syrian space in the period ahead. The blueprint being applied is clearly that which has achieved such impressive results in Lebanon, and later in Iraq. According to this approach, Iran is activating a variety of tools below, within and above the structures of the Syrian state. The intention is to achieve a level of penetration and influence that will make their ambitions invulnerable both to superior Israeli air power and intelligence, and to the opposing project for domination of Syria currently being undertaken by Russia. The results of all this remain to be seen.
Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Lebanon, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the founder and executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis (MECRA) and a fellow at both The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and the Middle East Forum.