Getting Iran Out of Syria Is No Easy Task

By: Jonathan Spyer

Outlet: Wall Street Journal

Date: July 9, 2019

Israel has undertaken at least 200 air raids against Iranian targets in Syria since 2017. Mossad head Yossi Cohen said at a security conference in Herzliya recently that Israel’s objective is to make Iran “reach the conclusion that it is just not worth it” to continue its project in Syria.

Israel’s evident intelligence domination in Syria is impressive, as is the prowess of its pilots. But while air power is a mighty instrument, it’s applicable only to certain tasks. The Iranian project in Syria is broad, deep and multifaceted. Some of its elements are acutely vulnerable to air power—research facilities, missile sites, convoys. But others are not.

Iran is engaged in a broad effort designed to merge the structures under its command with the Syrian state itself. The objective, as in Lebanon and Iraq, is to remove any identifiable borderline between the Iran-controlled element and the local power structure. Iran intends to implant a kind of “deep state,” under its control, within the existing state machinery.

In Syria, this effort includes the following elements:

• The establishment of militias recruited from among the Syrian population. These include such formations as Quwat al-Ridha, Liwa al-Baqir and the 313 Battalion. These bodies are recruited and trained by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in cooperation with Tehran’s Lebanese Hezbollah franchise.

• The establishment of bodies modeled on Iran’s Basij—the regime’s omnipresent and feared domestic security force—within Syria’s official state security forces. The National Defense Force is the key body inside Syria: 90,000 to 100,000 strong, trailed and recruited by the IRGC, but forming part of the Syrian armed forces.

• Support, sponsorship and alliance building within the official Syrian armed forces. The IRGC has formed direct and close relationships with some of the most powerful elements within the Syrian Arab Army. Perhaps most notable is the Fourth Armored Division of Maher Assad, dictator Bashar Assad’s younger brother. The division is one of the praetorian units of the Assad regime.

• Efforts at settling its own citizens and other non-Syrian Shiite Muslims in areas formerly inhabited by Sunni Syrians.

All this adds up to an Iranian project intended to result in the long-term remote control of Syria from Tehran. The project can’t be stopped by aerial bombing alone.

Accordingly, Israel hopes to persuade Russia to help get the Iranians out. The meeting last week between national security advisers from the U.S., Israel and Russia focused on Syria.

Russia certainly has both power and influence in Syria. Russian air power saved the Assad regime from likely defeat in mid-2015. According to Syrian sources, Bashar Assad prefers Russian influence to Iran’s—aware that while Moscow wants a pliant and junior partner, Tehran wants a puppet.

The Russians have their own client forces in the Syrian military—the Tiger Forces of Col. Soheil Hassan, currently engaged in the attempt to reduce Idlib province to rubble, are chief among them.

There is evidence of Russian-Iranian competition inside Syria. In January the Tiger Forces and the Fourth Division clashed openly in Aleppo province. The Russians are seeking to place officers associated with their own interest inside formations aligned with the Iranians. A Russian “anticorruption” campaign is focusing on the circle around Maher Assad, according to Syrian sources.

But will Russia seriously undertake to secure Israel’s objective of a complete Iranian exit from Syria? Almost certainly not. Neither Jerusalem nor Washington appears to be offering Moscow anything that would constitute a sufficient incentive for Vladimir Putin to turn on his allies. And there are no indications that the Russian leader feels he owes either Israel or the U.S. a favor in this regard. It is also questionable whether the Russians (or Mr. Assad) even have the ability to uproot the entrenched Iranian presence in Syria.

Iran is likely to continue its project of hollowing out Syria, and Israel appears likely to continue its pinpoint strikes against the outlying hardware of that project, without touching its core.

Israel has in its air force and intelligence services perhaps the swiftest, most powerful and accurate hammer in the Middle East. But not everything Iran is doing in Syria resembles a nail.

####

Mr. Spyer is director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and at the Middle East Forum. He is author of “Days of the Fall: A Reporter’s Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars.”

Appeared in the July 10, 2019, print edition as 'Getting Iran Out of Syria Is No Easy Task.'