Getting Iran Out of Syria Is
No Easy Task
By: Jonathan Spyer
Outlet: Wall Street Journal
Date: July 9, 2019
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Appeared in the July
10, 2019, print edition as 'Getting Iran Out of Syria Is No Easy Task.'