Tehran Plans to Control Syria
By Jonathan Spyer
February 1, 2019
Recent statements by a number of Israeli officials have
claimed a degree of success in Israel's efforts to contain and roll back Iran's
entrenchment in Syria. But while Israel's tactical successes are certainly
notable and impressive, the big picture is that Iran's influence and strength in
Syria continues to deepen and expand.
Iran's efforts are taking place at three levels: below the
official Syrian state structures – in the arming and sponsoring of
Iran-controlled paramilitary formations on Syria soil, within the Syrian state
– in the control of institutions that are officially organs of the regime, and
above the state, in the pursuit of formal links between the Iranian and Syrian
regimes. As Tehran seeks to impose its influence on Assad's Syria in the
emergent post-rebellion period, meanwhile, there are indications that its
project is running up against the rival plans and ambitions of the Russians.
A report by the generally reliable Syrian Observatory for
Human Rights this week described in detail the nature of the Iranian
Revolutionary Guard Corps's efforts to entrench its presence in a single,
significant Syrian town: al-Mayadin, west of the strategically important
Albukamal border crossing between Iraq and Syria, and just west of the Euphrates
The Observatory described extensive recruitment of local
Syrians, including individuals who were formerly involved with the armed
opposition, into the ranks of Iran's various paramilitary "Syrian Hezbollah"
type structures that have been established in Syria. The report noted that the
incentives given to entice individuals into these structures included a monthly
salary of between $150-300, allowing individuals a variety of options as to
where they wish to serve, and immunity from arrest at the hands of regime
The report also noted that the IRGC and Lebanese Hezbollah
have positioned themselves in key areas of al-Mayadin, and are maintaining
exclusive control of these areas (i.e., without cooperation with, or permission
sought from, the forces of the Assad regime).
Among a number of specific examples quoted in this regard,
"Members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards took over the al-Nurain Mosque
and houses around it on Korniche Street in the city, where they prevented
civilians, members of regime forces, and NDF from entering or passing through
the area, without orders from the command forces located in al-Mayadin,"
while "members of the Lebanese Hezbollah took over the area extending from
al-Finsh junction to Al Shuaibi Villa at al-Arba'in Street in al-Mayadin city,
and prevented entry and exit except by orders of them."
Control of al-Mayadin and its environs matters because it
is located along Highway 4, which is the only road leading out of the Albukamal
border crossing, which is currently controlled by the IRGC and its allies. From
al-Mayadin, Route 4 reaches Deir al-Zor, where it connects to the M20 highway,
which heads west in the direction of Damascus, or, if a traveler prefers, toward
al-Qusayr and the Lebanese border.
That is, the specific example of al-Mayadin shows the means
by which Iran seeks to maintain exclusive control along vital nodes in Syria,
for the passage of personnel and matériel, in the direction of its allies in
Lebanon or its enemies in Israel, according to the needs of the moment.
The activities of the IRGC on the ground in such locations
as al-Mayadin go hand in hand with the more conventional, regime-to-regime
relations that Tehran maintains with Assad in Damascus.
This week, for example, Iranian Vice President Eshaq
Jahangiri was in Syria, where he signed a number of economic agreements and met
with Assad. The agreements, 11 in number, together offer a road map for
long-term strategic economic cooperation between Iran and Syria. They cover a
variety of areas, including "education, housing, public works, railroads
and investments," according to a report by the Syrian Arab News Agency, the
regime's official media outlet.
Jahangiri's visit was the latest indication of concerted
Iranian efforts to secure a major role in the massive project of reconstruction
within the 60% of Syria currently controlled by the regime. The UN estimates the
cost of reconstruction in war-torn Syria at around $400 billion. Earlier
landmarks in this process include a military cooperation agreement concluded in
August 2018, a 2017 memorandum of understanding for the extraction of phosphates
from the al-Sharqiya mine southwest of Palmyra (one of the largest such mines in
Syria), and an MOU for the restoration by Iran of over 2000 MW of electrical
power production capacity.
There is even a putative plan for an Iran-Syria rail link,
to run from the Shalamcheh border crossing between Iran and Iraq, via Basra in
southern Iraq and eventually to Latakia on Syria's Mediterranean coast. Such
projects are more in the line of visions at present. But they demonstrate the
depth and scope of Iran's plans for the area between its western borders and the
A THIRD element in the Iranian ambition lies within the
structures of the official Syrian state. Iran has invested heavily in the
creation of Basij-style paramilitary structures under its control within the
Syrian security forces – such as the National Defense Forces. Evidence is now
also emerging that conventional military units of the Syrian Arab Army are also
identified closely with the Iranian interest. The evidence in question suggests
that this is leading to fissures, as these units face off against other
formations more closely allied with the Russian interest in Syria.
A report in the opposition-linked Ana Press this week,
confirmed by additional Syrian sources and also reported in Der Spiegel and by
the Turkish Anadolu Agency, detailed clashes on January 19 in the Hama area
between Col. Soheil Hassan's 5th Corps, associated with the Russian interest,
and Maher Assad's 4th Division, generally seen as closely linked to the IRGC.
According to the report, a number of fighters from both
units were killed in the Sahel al-Ghab area in Hama, after a dispute about
control of the area. These incidents show the extent to which the Russian and
Iranian projects have the potential for collision, especially in the
all-important area of control and influence within the official security
structures of the Syrian state.
Taken together, all this evidence points to a deep,
long-term Iranian strategic plan by which Tehran means to dominate the Syrian
space in the period ahead. The blueprint being applied is clearly that which has
achieved such impressive results in Lebanon, and later in Iraq. According to
this approach, Iran is activating a variety of tools below, within and above the
structures of the Syrian state. The intention is to achieve a level of
penetration and influence that will make their ambitions invulnerable both to
superior Israeli air power and intelligence, and to the opposing project for
domination of Syria currently being undertaken by Russia. The results of all
this remain to be seen.