As the Islamic State (ISIS) collapses in Syria, Iran is converting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from an ally into a client—while consolidating Iranian influence throughout the Levant. In fact, Damascus is on the verge of recuperating most of eastern Syria, the former ISIS stronghold, which is key to Iran’s control of a “land bridge” from Tehran to Beirut.
In southwest Syria, the July ceasefire between Assad’s military and opposition forces is already fraying. In this area that borders Israel and Jordan, Iran and its proxies—Hezbollah and other Shia militias—are vaunting their long-term goal of establishing a “second front” against Israel (to complement Hezbollah’s front in Lebanon).
In 2015, a combination of Iranian, Hezbollah, and Russian military intervention in Syria prevented the Assad regime from falling to Sunni rebels. But since then, Iran’s relationship with Syria—which for years was based on cooperation not domination—has become that of master and vassal. Iran now has 13 military bases in Syria, which compose a command-and-control network that covers the entire country, save for a few rebel strongholds.
In September, White House National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster stated that the United States’ current strategy is to “weaken Iranian influence in the region.” Preventing Iran from gaining a permanent stranglehold on Syria is crucial to this objective.
Iran’s Military Triad in Syria
The Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Qods Force—a special forces unit led by General Qassem Soleimani that spearheads Tehran’s intervention in wars throughout the Middle East—commands Iran’s military behemoth in Syria. The number of Iranian military personnel in Syria has fluctuated over time but normally includes hundreds of Qods Force officers and trainers, 1,500 to 3,000 regular Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) troops, and, since 2016, units of Iran’s regular army (the Artesh). This year, Tehran publicly revealed that members of the Basij—a mass civilian militia run by the IRGC—are also fighting in Syria. The Syrian conflict is the first in which the Islamic Republic has deployed the Artesh and the Basij to a non-contiguous state. The Artesh deployment may be as large as 5,000 to 6,000 soldiers and includes crack units such as the 65th Airborne Special Forces Brigade.
Qods Force, IRGC, and Artesh forces in Syria perform a wide variety of functions, including providing overall strategic direction to the war, training non-Iranian fighters, facilitating arms shipments, and recruiting Shia from throughout the world to fight there. Additionally, they sometimes act as shock troops in especially difficult campaigns, such as last year’s conquest of the rebel-held portions of the city of Aleppo. Iranian media report that over 1,000 Iranians have died in Syria, including about a dozen general officers.
Second only in importance to these Iranian troops is Hezbollah. The Lebanese terrorist group—created, funded, armed, and trained by Iran—has long been Tehran’s proxy in its confrontation with Israel. Now, Iran is using Hezbollah’s estimated 20,000-man military to protect its investment in Assad’s Syria. Hezbollah rotates its fighters in and out of Syria, with roughly 7,000 soldiers there at any given time. These troops do not conform with the outdated image of Hezbollah as an irregular militia group struggling against Israel. Rather, they are a highly trained and well-equipped regular military force that bears the brunt of the bloodiest fighting in Syria, including the battle for Aleppo and most recently a campaign near the Syrian-Lebanese border against ISIS. More than 1,000 Hezbollah militants have died in Syria since it openly entered the war in 2013, with many more wounded.
The third element in Iran’s military triad in Syria is the Shia militias recruited primarily from Iraq, Persian Gulf countries, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Known variously as Iran’s “International Brigades” or its “Foreign Legion,” these IRGC/Hezbollah-trained forces form the bulk of the foot-soldiers defending Assad’s regime. As with Hezbollah, these militiamen swear formal allegiance to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and follow the theocratic ideology that makes him Iran’s uncontested political and religious authority. Most sources estimate that Iran has mobilized upward of 65,000 Shia foreign fighters; casualty information is sketchy, but some sources report at least 1,500 deaths. The most prominent Shia militias in Syria—Harakat al-Nujaba, Kata’ib Hezbollah, and the Al-Abbas Brigade—consist of Iraqis trained at specialized military facilities in Iran and Syria. The Pakistani Zeynabiyoun and Afghani Fatimiyoun Brigades protect Shia-majority villages and shrines such as the Sayyida Zaynab mosque in Damascus.
From Partner to Proxy to Puppet
The massive Iranian-led military presence in Syria has hollowed out the authority of Assad’s government to Tehran’s benefit. In addition to the Iranian troops, Iranian-controlled forces in Syria number at least 65,000—many well trained and equipped—while the Syrian Arab Army has only about 20,000 well-trained combatants as well as some lesser-trained troops suited primarily for police work and stationary protective tasks. These facts on the ground translate into clear Iranian control over the Syrian government’s military strategy and tactics. Soleimani, for example, visited “liberated” Aleppo last year before any senior Syrian government officials did; President Assad has yet to go there. Likewise, the Qods Force chief allegedly stopped Assad from attacking a rebel town with sarin nerve gas to stave off an aggressive American military response.
An authoritative study by the centrist Center for a New American Security concludes that Iran is turning Syria into a client state. Accordingly, “the civil war [there] has allowed Iran to influence and shape the functioning of the deep state that supports Bashar al-Assad’s rule, which includes the elite security and intelligence services that are primarily led by Assad’s extended family, his tribe, and members of the Alawi community. Iran also significantly influences Assad’s regime to work to Iran’s benefit and to support the regional activities of the IRGC-QF and its adjutant proxy network.”
The Iranian regime, strengthened by its emerging “land bridge” from Tehran to the Mediterranean and its many military installations and proxies in Syria, has already insinuated publicly that as soon as the Syrian conflict abates it will turn its attention to Israel. In September, IRGC Major General Abdolrahim Mousavi said that “Israel should remain silent and count down the days to its death,” indicating the impending shift of focus of Iranian strategy from Syria to Israel. More specifically, in March 2017, a prominent Iraqi Shia militia in Syria announced the establishment of the “Golan Liberation Brigade” to “[liberate]…holy places in occupied Palestine [i.e., Israel].” The group’s deputy military chief added that “annihilating the Zionist regime…will completely resolve regional problems.” Echoing this trend, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah recently warned Jews to flee Israel.
Israel is increasingly focused on the threats that Iran's activities in Syria pose to its national security. Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen recently warned that Iran is operating “closer than ever” to Israel’s border. Israeli security experts are concerned that Iranian land bases in Syria could be used to coordinate military assaults by Hezbollah and other groups on Israeli population centers, and that an augmented Iranian naval presence off the Syrian coast could compound Israel’s security problems in the Mediterranean. In addition, Iranian control of the “land bridge” to Tehran and its many military assets in Syria will make it easier for the Islamic regime to funnel advanced weapons and technologies to Hezbollah.
Iran appears so confident about its long-term presence in Syria that, according to IDF sources, it is building underground missile factories there and in neighboring Lebanon to facilitate support to Hezbollah. Washington will have to coordinate ever more closely with our allies in the Levant—most notably Israel and Jordan—to protect the entire region from the many subversive and destabilizing activities that Iran and its proxies are contemplating as the Syrian civil war winds down.
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