Iran’s ticking time bombs in Syria could prove difficult to uproot

How the United States would deal with the threat of Iran-backed militias could be much trickier than its fight against ISIS.
Sunday 14/04/2019
A swirl of suspicion. Afghans return home at the Islam Qala border with Iran in the Herat province, last February. (AP)
A swirl of suspicion. Afghans return home at the Islam Qala border with Iran in the Herat province, last February. (AP)

With Syria’s 8-year war waning, attention is shifting to the ticking time bombs Iran has planted in the form of militias that threaten to destabilise the country for years to come.

Following the United States’ designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organisation, Iran’s proxies are expected to act more aggressively towards the US presence in Syria and the greater Middle East.

Scattered across Syria, Iran-aligned fighters have proven effective for Iran in gathering intelligence and assisting in counterintelligence operations and deterrence. Through their entrenched presence on the ground, the militias are difficult for the United States to counter, both militarily, because they often engage in unconventional warfare, and economically, due to their complex funding networks.

Despite Iran’s initial denials of involvement in the Syrian conflict, a pile of evidence, collected by civil society groups and journalists, proved that Tehran was active in the country from the very beginning, providing significant logistical, technical, financial, training and combat support to Damascus.

After Tehran’s role in Syria was made public, the country claimed its presence there was aimed at protecting Shia holy sites. The United States and its allies obviously did not buy those claims, maintaining that Tehran’s main goal is destabilising the country and expanding its influence.

Tehran’s aggressive posture in Syria can be understood as an attempt to replicate the Hezbollah model in Lebanon, forming militias that include not only Syrians but Iraqi Shia fighters and foreign recruits from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

At the apex of the conflict, the militias were directed to provide security and social, political and economic services for the population. The aim was to garner support or at least acceptance for Iran’s involvement in Syria. However, activists and civil society groups repeatedly warned that Iran-aligned proxies are used to advance Tehran’s agenda and pose a serious threat to civilians and national security.

Iran’s proxies have also created a headache for Washington. During the battle for Aleppo (2012-16), Iran-backed militias played a key role in countering US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, fighting alongside Syrian and Hezbollah forces in eastern Syria to capture territory for Syrian President Bashar Assad. The US-led coalition was pushed to retaliate, targeting militia positions in what was described as “defensive” air strikes.

One of Iran-backed militias operating in Syria, the Baqir Brigade, threatened attacks against US personnel in April 2018. That announcement, which would not have been made without approval from senior Iranian officials, set a dangerous precedent, indicating that US forces in Syria would eventually become targets.

Despite its significant losses in Syria and the heavy cost of its intervention, Tehran has sought to maintain its presence, especially after Washington abruptly announced in December 2018 a plan to withdraw US troops from northern Syria.

Just after that announcement, Iran embarked on a diplomatic blitz aimed at hammering out an agreement with Turkey and Russia over Syria’s future.

Of course, the US administration delayed its withdrawal, realising that any hasty move would empower Iran not just in Syria but across the region.

This is especially true given that the area of north-eastern Syria where US troops are deployed is highly coveted by Iran. Apart from being rich in oil, the area is near the border with Iraq, through which Iran has been sending in fighters from the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces under the guise of fighting the Islamic State (ISIS).

The presence of US forces near the Syrian-Iraqi border has severely limited the militias’ movement and blocked Iran’s access to oil fields and other possible sources of revenue that could help Tehran offset economic losses following the United States’ reimposition of sanctions.

Now, with the IRGC’s ban, the militias’ wings can be further clipped as Iran comes under further financial pressure.

However, the battle against Iran’s tentacles has just begun and could prove more difficult and complex. Beyond militias’ activities, Iran has sought to indoctrinate young minds on a sectarian basis, particularly foreign fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan, amplifying its influence and making it more unpredictable.

While most foreign fighters were convinced to join the battle through financial incentives, indoctrination also plays a big part. By letting go of these fighters in times of dire economic conditions, Tehran could exacerbate the problem by scattering its ticking time bombs outside Syria.

How the United States deals with this threat could be much trickier than its fight against ISIS. Sure, US decisions to reimpose sanctions against Iran and blacklist the IRGC are helpful, if long overdue, moves but more needs to be done to ensure Syria and the region move towards stability and away from Iran’s orbit.

A swirl of suspicion. Afghans return home at the Islam Qala border with Iran in Herat province, last February. (AP)