Brief n.24, August 2022

Over the past two months some Western and Arab analysts have been engaged in a discussion on the eventual weakening of Russia's military and political role in Syria. Some experts argue that Russia, consumed by the war in Ukraine, lacks necessary resources to influence the situation in Syria. Russia will have to reduce its military presence in the country and accept a diminished influence on the Syrian political process. According to this line of argument, following Russian reduced activities in Syria, Iran will fill political and economic vacuum. This transformation, in turn, could lead to an Iran -Israel confrontation with the prospect of a major war in the Middle East. It could also lead to destabilization in areas where former rebels, believing Russian promises, have joined new units of the Syrian army (such as the 5th Mechanized Corps).

For Iran, Syria is of extreme geopolitical importance: it gives access to the Eastern Mediterranean.(1) Second, the use of Syrian territory for the Iranians is critical for supplying Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hence, two of Tehran's main goals in Syria are 1) to ensure the smooth functioning of the Iran-Iraq-Syria-Lebanon land corridor and 2) to insure the political and economic influence of Iran in Syria after an eventual departure of President Bashar al-Assad and his entourage.

Strengthening Iran's Position in Syria

Iran's activities in Syria take place against the background of the Russian war in Ukraine and continuing negotiations on the Iranian nuclear deal. Tehran is not so much concerned about the preservation of Bashar Assad's regime as it has to secure its influence in the post-Assad Syria. At the same time, there is some concern in Tehran that Russia's military involvement in Syria will decrease — something that may pose additional threats to this country. In this regard, the unexpected visit of Lieutenant General Ali Mamluk, the head of the Syrian National Security Bureau, to Tehran in February 2022 deserves special attention. Ali Mamluk is Bashar Assad's most trusted lieutenant in charge of coordinating numerous Syrian special services. As of the early 2000s, there were 18 secret services in Syria, often in competition with one another. The strongest among them were the National Security Council under the President of the SAR, the Political Security Department, the General Intelligence Directorate, the Military Intelligence Directorate, the Air Force Intelligence, the security service of the Republican Guard.

In Tehran A. Mamluk was received by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Admiral Ali Shamkhani. They discussed bilateral cooperation in the context of the war in Ukraine. The Iranian leaders stressed the need to implement the Memorandum of cooperation in the economic sphere, signed in January 2019: Tehran wants to actively participate in the reconstruction of the Syrian economy, especially in the energy, transportation and agriculture sectors. On March 2, Faleh al-Fayadh, head of the pro-Iranian Shia militia in Iraq, Al-Hashd al-Shaabi, visited Damascus. His talks with Syrian military and security representatives focused on bilateral security cooperation to curb the activities of the Kurdistan Workers' Party and to put pressure on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), consisting of Syrian and Turkish Kurds in the northeast of Syria.

At the end of 2021, Iran took some steps to strengthen its military presence in several areas of Syria. In October 2021, Iranian-controlled proxy groups began building a military base on the right bank of the Euphrates near the settlement of Abu Kamal in the Deir ez-Zor area. The Iranian construction company Jihad al-Bina, affiliated with the IRGC, is carrying out the work. It will be Iran's second largest military base in Syria after Imam Ali base. The new base should become an operational command center for Shia militias in Syria under the Iranian control. The task of the new base is to repel possible attacks by US and Israeli forces to control the Baghdad-Damascus-Beirut highway. Iran sees the new base as its strategic foothold in eastern Syria for its plans to create an Iraq-Syria corridor, which would eventually erase the Iraq-Syria border in that region.(2)

Besides military component of rapprochement, Tehran actively uses religious and economic factors. Iranian aid to Bashar al-Assad has been used by Tehran for propaganda of Shiism and even for changing the demographic situation in Syria. More than 5.5 million Syrians fled their homeland during the military conflict. Of these, 80 percent are Sunni. Before the war, Sunnis accounted for 65% of the population of Syria. At the same time, the number of Alawites, widely represented in the political elite and security forces, according to various estimates, ranged from 12 to 15%. The number of Shiite Isnaasharians was about 1%. It should be noted that, although both the Alawites and the Isnaasharites (who are the majority in Iran and Iraq) are Shiites, there are great differences between them. The Alawites are, rather, the heirs of the ancient Gnostic sects that embraced Islam. In 2012-2021, the Iranians vigorously promoted the Shia faith in Syria, trying to convert Alawites and some Sunnis to it. They opened Shiite mosques and Husseiniyahs in the country. They achieved some success in Deir ez-Zor province, where they managed to convert to Shia Islam the largest Arab Baghara tribe in the province. At the initiative of Iran, the Shiite population of the towns of Nubol and Zahraa in Aleppo province, which during the civil war was subjected to a blockade by jihadists, was relocated from the north of the SAR to the Zabadani region, adjacent to the Lebanese border and of strategic importance for the security of the Beirut-Damascus highway. In turn, the Sunnis of Zabadani, who supported the jihadists and extremists, were deported to Idlib.

The Iranian political leadership is also trying to bind Syria to Iran economically. To this end, Iranian companies are expanding into the energy, construction, transportation and real estate sectors of the Syrian economy. Iranian leadership is using Syrian businessmen with close ties to the authorities in Damascus. Two groups of businessmen connected to the Bashar government emerged during the years of civil war in Syria: one is close to the President's wife, Asma Asad, the other is curated by his brother, Maher Asad. In its trade expansion in Syria, Iran has the support of several prominent businessmen and industrialists.(5)

Russian Prospects in Syria

Ukraine is taking up a lot of Russia’s strength and resources. As a result, some observers in the Middle East fear that Russia will withdraw its troops from Syria, letting Iran' to increase its influence in Syria. The prospect of Russia abandoning its role in Syria worries most of all Jordan. In 2017, Russia, the U.S., Israel and Jordan signed an agreement according to which Russia became a security guarantor of Jordanian borders. The agreement stipulated that pro-Iranian groups must keep away from the Syrian-Israeli and Syrian-Jordanian borders for at least 50 miles (80 km). At the same time, the Jordanian government is moving towards reestablishing relations with Syria. Jordan restored the movement of goods through the Nasib checkpoint on the Syrian-Jordanian border. In 2020-21 the Jordanian government significantly restricted the activities of the opposition Syrian media in the country; it also closed the International Operational Headquarters that supported the armed Syrian opposition. The resumption of trade ties between Jordan and Syria could have a positive impact on the Jordanian economy, facing a continuous decline since 2009. Transit duties for the movement of Syrian goods through the Jordan territory could alone bring Jordan up to $260 million a year. Economic cooperation between the two states, which was worth $615 million in 2010, had fallen to $94 million by 2020.

On May 18, 2022, Jordan's King Abdullah bin Hussein expressed his concern about the prospect of a weakened role of Russia in Syria. "The Russian presence in southern Syria has been a source of calm for us," he said during a speech at the Hoover Institute. As Abdullah noted, if there is a vacuum left, it will be filled by the Iranians and their proxies and, “unfortunately, we are concerned about a possible escalation on our northern borders.” A week later, Jordanian army spokesman Colonel Mustafa Hayari also voiced concerns, pointing that Jordan is facing "national security threats" related to the activities of pro-Iranian militias involved in drug smuggling. Jordanian security agencies have indeed recently recorded an increase in the drug traffic. For example, while in 2021 Jordanian security forces intercepted 14 million narcotic Captagon pills, in the first five months of 2022 they have already intercepted 20 million pills.

But drugs are not the only cause of concern for Jordan. Amman is also concerned about the prospect of destabilization of the southern regions of Syria and direct clashes of Iranian proxies with Israel. In this regard, a new challenge for Jordan was the appearance of Iranian drones on the northern border of the kingdom. The use of drones has changed the military situation and the balance of power in the region. Jordan is concerned about the prospect of a military confrontation that could arise between Iran on the one hand, and Israel and the United States on the other. The military confrontation could be conducted using ballistic missiles, drones and other means. Jordan houses U.S. military bases and is therefore exposed to a possible Iranian attack.

Another potential threat to stability comes from a resumption of hostilities in Deraa province if Iranian proxies move there. In 2018, the Syrian government occupied the zone of Deraa almost bloodlessly. Local armed groups, part of the so-called "Southern Front," surrendered to Damascus without a fight. Later, many of the fighters joined the Fifth Mechanized Corps, created and financed by Russia. Today these groups are loyal to Russia, but intolerant of Iran and its allies. They fear the Iranians will start to "shiatize" Deraa province.

Russian maintains its presence in Syria and pays close attention to the military-political situation there. The Russian activities range from jointly with the Syrians patrolling the Syrian air space to delivering humanitarian aid to the residents of Hassakeh and Suwaida. It is unlikely that the limited reduction of Russian troops in Syria will affect its combat efficiency. After the 2020 Idlib Agreement with Turkey, there are no combat operations in the country. Russia's main concern is to prevent a large-scale Turkish military operation in northeastern Syria. For this purpose, several Russian units, six Ka-52 Alligator attack helicopters and two Su-34 bombers were deployed at Kamishla airport in May of 2022. Russian troops patrol Manbij and Tell Rifaat. The Russian air force increased its activities in Hasakeh and Aleppo provinces, sending a clear signal to Ankara that a Turkish military operation there cannot take place without the "green light" from Moscow. At the same time, the Russia successfully mediates between the Bashar government and the Kurds of the SDF in order to bring their positions closer. In April of 2022, another round of such negotiations took place; the Russians managed to convince Damascus to lift the siege from the Kurdish-populated Aleppo suburbs.

The north-east of Syria is of special interest to Russia. The region is partly occupied by the anti-Assad Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). On June 7, 2022, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced his intention to conduct a military operation in this area in the coming future. The majority of the SDF coalition is composed of Kurdish nationalists associated with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is viewed as a terrorist organization in Turkey. Erdogan is concerned about the presidential campaign in 2023. Against the backdrop of a severe economic crisis, the only way to boost the rating of the president and his party is to conduct a "small victorious war”. Following the meeting between Russia, Turkey and Iran in Tehran in July 2022, shelling and attacks in Syria intensified. Syrian and Russian forces attacked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and other groups in Idlib, while the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fought the Turkish army and the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) in northeast Syria and north-central Syria. Russian air force launched airstrikes on the outskirts of the village of Yakubiyeh in the rural area of Jisr al-Shughur west of Idlib. Turkish forces bombed several areas under SDF control, especially in the area of Tell Rifaat and in the villages of Ain Issa, Tal Tamr and Kobani. SDF responded by bombing the forest of Kafr Jannah in the Afrin region and the outskirts of the city of Azaz, which is under FSA control.

Ankara's military objectives include taking control of Manbij and Tell Rifaat. If implemented, this plan could push the Syrian Kurds into the arms of Damascus and Russia. Turkish intervention will unlikely be opposed by the United States. Washington, absorbed by the conflict in Ukraine, will not enter into a conflict with its NATO ally because of the Syrian Kurds. Thus, the only way for the Kurds to preserve their autonomy would be to get closer to the Syrian regime under the Russian umbrella.

Some Conclusions

1) Despite its busy schedule on the Ukrainian front, Russia continues to pay attention to Syria and most likely to continue to do so. Russian intervention in Syria is beneficial to Moscow’s projection of power in the Eastern Mediterranean. It can also use this region as a flank to fight against NATO.

2) The Russian military and political presence in Syria is now objectively beneficial for Tehran. Iran shares Russia's concern about Turkey's strengthening position. The Iranian political elite views Ankara's attempts to gain a foothold in northern Syria and Iraq very negatively. At the same time, the real threat to Iran and Iranian proxy groups is the constant rocket attacks by Israel. Given the recent deterioration of Russian-Israeli relations, Tehran hopes that Moscow will give its consent to the use of S-400 air defense systems to shoot down Israeli targets.

3) The prospect of Iranian reinforcement in Syria and its access to the Jordanian and Israeli borders are encouraging some states in the region, primarily Jordan and possibly Saudi Arabia, to get closer to Israel as part of the "Middle East NATO," actively promoted by Washington.


1) Eastern Mediterranean has been the leitmotif of Iranian expansion since the Achaemenid Empire (6th-4th centuries B.C.)

2) Iran has 277 strongholds, fortifications and bases in 12 Syrian provinces. There were 57 Iranian military facilities in Deraa province in 2021, 46 in and around Damascus, 54 in Aleppo, 22 in Deir ez-Zor, 29 in Homs, 18 in Quneitra, 10 in Hama, 8 in Suweida and 9 in Latakia. Of these, 171 sites were under IRGC control, 79 were under Hezbullah control, and 71 were under the joint control of IRGC and Hizbullah.

3) Ithna'ashari or Twelver Shi'a Muslims are the largest group of Shi'a Muslims worldwide.

4) A hosayniya or hussainiya is a Twelver Shia Muslims' congregation hall for commemoration ceremonies. 5) They are Mohammed Hamsho, secretary of the Federation of Syrian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FCCI); Hussein Raghib and Mohammed Suriyol, members of the SAR parliament; Hassan Zaidou, a leading businessman; Firas Jijikli, manager of FCCI; Iyad Mohammed, member of the Syrian Exporters Union; Fahd Dervish, chairman of the High Commission in the Free Zone.