Iranian militias in Syria under pressure from all sides

Iranian militias in Syria under pressure from all sides

The aftermath of an Israeli airstrike near Damascus. (AP Photo)

Many questions are being raised about the future of Iran’s role in Syria. For instance, how is it being affected by the rapidly shifting positions and alliances among the parties to the Syrian crisis? What about Iran’s expansionist ambitions in Syria, the US’ demands, and the intensive Israeli raids aimed at pressuring Tehran to pull its militias out of the country?

These questions arise at a time when the clerical regime in Tehran has reached its lowest point in modern times and Syria’s status as one of the most important arenas for regional conflict is still growing. It is also a time when the US strategy of maximum pressure on Iran is intensifying, after it decided not to extend its waivers on importing Iranian oil. One of the aims of this strategy is to curb the Tehran regime’s regional activities in a way that will ensure that its influence is curtailed and the regional balance of power is tipped against it.

The external activities of expansionist states such as Iran are dependent on several factors, such as their financial and economic standing (the economic lungs pumping blood to the regime’s organs elsewhere) and the scope of their influence within the regional order.

Considering these factors during an extremely confused and ambiguous stage in the Tehran regime’s regional activities, we find that Iran is facing an economic situation far worse than expected. This is due to the success of the current US administration in escalating its comprehensive sanctions to tighten the noose on Iran’s regime, and to reduce its dollar reserves, as well as to sever the financial arteries pumping funds to its regional activities. To date, this has led to Iran’s oil revenues declining by more than half. This explains why Iran has resorted to a scenario of limited confrontations following the failure of its efforts to persuade regional countries to circumvent US sanctions against it.

In addition to the Trump administration’s success in targeting the regime’s supply lines for its activities in Syria, Iran is also experiencing another terrible dilemma. While the Iranian-Russian alliance enabled the Assad regime to maintain power, tensions have begun to grow in Syria between Russia and Iran, with their positions diverging. Armed confrontations have already broken out on several occasions in areas across the country between forces loyal to Russia and Iran. The Russians have implemented their own policy of occupation, replacing Iranian forces with their own troops, with Moscow also in the process of restructuring the Syrian army in a way that ensures its upper hand in the Syrian equation.

Former allies Iran and Russia are now shifting from the phase of cooperation and coordination to one of confrontation.

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

Earlier predictions regarding the inevitable divergence in positions between Russia and Iran have been proven correct, as the former allies are now shifting from the phase of cooperation and coordination to one of confrontation over influence and control of the new Syrian equation. For Iran’s regime, this is an additional source of pressure as well as a hindrance to its schemes and ambitions in Syria, coming at a time when Tehran has waited impatiently to reap the rewards of the financial and human losses it has incurred since it first stepped in to help Assad following the outbreak of the Syrian revolution eight years ago. Iran’s regime has been desperate to seize control of the phosphate-rich areas and get the lion’s share of reconstruction contracts in Syria to help with its efforts to circumvent the US economic sanctions and to mitigate their impact on the Iranian economy.

It seems there is a growing Russian conviction that the time is right to take advantage of the US pressure on Tehran to get rid of the Iranian burden shackling it in Syria. This means that there is a convergence between Russia, the US and Israel, with Tel Aviv no longer the only power keen to expel Iranian militias out of Syria. The Russian decision-makers are also eager to impose restrictions on Iran in Syria, curb Tehran’s power within the conflict, and limit its influence and gains. The Russians want to drive the Iranians away from Latakia port on the Syrian coast and they want the opportunity to have the final say over the decisions of the Syrian regime in a way that maximizes their role in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Russian measures against the Iranian regime’s forces and militias in Syria will soon escalate to the point of no return due to the divergence of objectives, strategies and tools between the two countries. The Russians have no intention of conceding any influence in the new Syrian equation, of reducing their share in the reconstruction contracts, or of lowering their expanding control of the Syrian coast. Likewise, the Iranians do not have any intention of ceding their attempts to attain a foothold on the Mediterranean through Iraq and Syria or their demands to be compensated for the massive costs they have incurred in the conflict.

Nobody can assess the probable fate of the Iranian regime’s role in Syria without mentioning the intensive Israeli raids on the Iranian militias’ positions there, the most recent of which took place on May 17. Tel Aviv is working to erase Iranian proxies from Syria, with which it shares a 38-kilometer border. Israel wants to ensure the complete destruction of the Iranian scheme and to maintain Assad’s regime in its weak position in order to ensure that it can pose no direct threat, while maintaining the current regional balance of power so that it doesn’t change in Iran’s favor. Israel also aims to undermine the legitimacy of Syria’s demands concerning the occupied Golan Heights through blaming the Assad regime for the spread of militias in southern Syria.

All these factors show that the US strategy of maximum pressure is paying off, and Iran’s regime is going through a critical phase in Syria. There are a number of possible scenarios for its militias there. Either they will continue operating without submitting to the overt Israeli-US demands and to the tacit Russian demands that they leave; or, if there’s some shift in the seriousness of the US administration’s strategy in besieging Iran, which is possible given the recent US escalation against Tehran, the regime will be prompted to at least suspend its militias as a prelude to ceasing its expansionist activities in Syria in the short run.

The second scenario seems more likely, given the tough Russian escalation, the Israeli bombing of Iranian positions in Syria and the continued regional and international embargo against Iran, with the seriousness of President Donald Trump’s policy of tightening the noose around Tehran increasing his chances of winning a second term in the 2020 presidential elections.

  • Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is Head of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami
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