Iran and Hezbollah too entrenched within Syria to step back now

Iran is looking to establish a long-term military presence in Syria, where it would have basing rights and possibly control thousands of militias.
Sunday 10/06/2018
Syrians wave Iranian, Russian and Syrian flags during a protest against US-led air strikes in Damascus, last April. (Reuters)
Complex web of conflicting agendas. Syrians wave Iranian, Russian and Syrian flags during a protest against US-led air strikes in Damascus, last April. (Reuters)

BEIRUT - The confusion regarding whether or not Iran and its allies are to withdraw from southern Syria illustrates that the alliance that has bound Russia and Iran in a shared goal of preserving the President Bashar Assad regime may be unravelling.

Numerous reports suggested that Russia and Israel are discussing a deal that would see regular Syrian forces deploy in the south-western provinces of Daraa and Quneitra, close to the border with Jordan and to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

However, no such confirmation has come from Iran and it is difficult to see why Tehran would agree to a deal that benefits Israel. Iranian Brigadier-General Massoud Jazayeri, a senior officer in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), on June 3 said Iranian forces are in Syria at the request of the Syrian government and dismissed reports they were leaving.

“The biggest fear of the Zionist regime is to have a border with the fighters of Islam,” said Jazayeri. “Right now, this has happened. The United States and Israel will knock on any door to change this situation but they must know that this will not change.”

Hezbollah has remained quiet on the matter but Lebanese parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri, an ally of the Iran-backed party, said Hezbollah would not withdraw from Syria until the country is “liberated” and its “territorial integrity” is restored.

A senior member of a pro-Assad militia that works closely with Russian forces in Syria was adamant that Hezbollah would not pull out of southern Syria because “it has invested too much in that area.”

“There is no way they can back down,” the official, who is Lebanese, said. He added that the Syrian Army is too weak to single-handedly deploy to Daraa and Quneitra and fight rebel forces without the assistance of Hezbollah and other Iran-led forces.

Iran has bestowed billions of dollars to prop up the Syrian economy and has committed tens of thousands of fighters from Iran, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan to Syrian battlefields to ensure that Assad remains in power. Iran has had a strategic alliance with Syria since 1980, one of the most enduring of the Middle East. The alliance has deepened since 2000 when Assad succeeded his father, Hafez Assad, as president.

Hafez Assad controlled how much influence Iran could exert in Lebanon but Bashar Assad had a warmer attitude towards Iran and especially to Hezbollah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah. The floodgates opened in 2000 and Hezbollah began to acquire ever greater quantities of weaponry, much of which was of a quality that Hafez Assad would never have permitted.

Bashar Assad’s cooperation helped turn Hezbollah into the most formidable non-state military actor in the world with an army numbering in the tens of thousands and an arsenal that would not embarrass a medium-sized European country.

Little wonder, then, that Iran was quick to go to Assad’s aid in 2012 when the rebellion against his rule came close to unseating the Assad dynasty.

The intervention of Hezbollah and Iran-led Shia militias from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan helped stave off defeat. By the latter half of 2014, Iran and Hezbollah were sufficiently comfortable to turn part of the northern Golan Heights into a potential zone of confrontation with Israel.

Bunkers and tunnels were constructed in what was intended to replicate the formidable defensive infrastructure Hezbollah built in southern Lebanon from 2000-06. An IRGC general and several senior ranking Hezbollah officers were touring the facilities in January 2015 when they were attacked by a missile-firing Israeli drone, killing the general and six Hezbollah men.

The Russian intervention in 2015, providing air support to Iran-led ground forces, helped swing the conflict firmly in Assad’s favour. Despite the military cooperation between Russia and Iran, there long has been a view that their interests in Syria would diverge.

Russia is looking for stability in Syria, a commencement of a meaningful process that would end the conflict. It established a military toehold along the western coast of Syria, is eyeing contracts once a reconstruction process takes hold and, perhaps most important, has become the indispensable external influence in Syria at the expense of the United States.

Iran is looking to establish a long-term military presence in Syria, where it would have basing rights and possibly control thousands of Iran-guided Shia militias. That would allow it to project power across the Middle East.

The Russian and Iranian strategic goals in Syria are not necessarily incompatible if left alone but Israel has made it clear that it will not tolerate an Iranian military entrenchment in Syria, especially close to its occupied Golan Heights.

The Netanyahu government has shown an uncharacteristic boldness in attacking Iranian bases across Syria, causing considerable damage and casualties and leaving the Iranians with the unpalatable choice of retaliating and risking an escalation or doing nothing and inviting further attacks.

Given Iran’s difficulties in Syria it is possible that a temporary arrangement could be reached in which Iran-led forces are seen to pull back from the Golan Heights front and from the Jordan border. However, the war in Syria is not over and Russia needs the assistance of Iranian forces to finish off what is left of the armed opposition, so Moscow’s leverage against Tehran has its limits.

Ultimately, it is inconceivable, given the investment it has made in Syria, what one Iranian official once described as “Iran’s 35th province,” to simply accede to an Israeli demand and leave.