Since the beginning of the Russian military invasion of Ukraine, mounting military pressure coupled with tactical failures led Russia to start drawing from its forces in Syria in favor of operations in Ukraine. The major shuffles didn’t just include arms, troops and equipment but entire groups of commanding officers including—most notably—Alexander Dvornikov, who helped to turn the tides of the war in Syria and is now leading the operations in Ukraine.
If a significant reduction in dependable Russian presence takes place in Syria, the country will become an Iranian province.
During the last three months, Russia pulled a military reconfiguration of its troops in Syria redeploying its troops to different areas and allowing Iranian troops associated with the IRGC to take the newly vacant positions, especially around Aleppo and Eastern Homs.
Around the same time, Luna Chebl, a top advisor to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told the BBC that Iranian forces are welcome inside the country’s borders: “We are in a state of war and we have the right to receive assistance and expertise from whoever we see fit. Yes, there are Iranian military experts in Syria, and they provide expertise to the Syrian Arab army. They come and they go. The state of Syria is at war and has the right to ask for help from its ally,” she said.
During the Russia drawdown, Iranian troops started constructing new facilities including headquarters buildings, training camps and storage facilities. Saudi sources also reported that Iran is now building elite forces in Syria, modeled after IRGC elite forces, with UAV and ballistic missile capabilities.
Ali Mamluk, the head of the Syrian National Security Bureau, visited Iran shortly before President Assad landed in Tehran in early May for undisclosed consultations. But the most significant change in the composition of the Russian military presence was the redeployment of Alexander Dvornikov, the general who headed the operations in Syria, to take over Ukraine operations; Putin put several senior commanders under house arrest and fired many more due to their poor performance.
If Dvornikov is leaving Syria, he won’t be alone. Russian military command and control operations depend not only on generals but on their own operational apparatus. This means that Dvornikov is pulling with him from Syria a large team of commanding officers, staff and their operational units. Needless to say that this vacuum, both in troops and in tactical leadership, can not be filled by Damascus which translates into more Iranian presence. In turn, Iran seems to have developed a few strategies for a bigger role in Syria.
If Iran succeeds in controlling key strategic positions including airports and former Russian sites and Syrian intelligence services becomes more dependent on Iran, it could result in Syria effectively becoming an Iranian province. This will render Arab efforts to bring Assad back to the Arab fold virtually impossible and will leave all of the Levant in Iran’s grip.
The increased Iranian presence is raising alarms that these Iranian units may lead to more attacks on Israeli targets, or even the roughly 1,000 US forces stationed in Syria, as well as Iran launching ballistic missiles at Israel from Syria. This prompted Israel to more directly start striking IRGC forces in Syria, as it did last month.
As part of escalating the campaign against Iranian targets in Syria, Israel has begun using bunker-buster bombs to get at new facilities being built underground. The Israeli strike on May 13th that triggered the Russian S-300 response was believed to use GBU-28 bombs to heavily damage the Iranian-controlled facility in Masyaf.
There is no doubt that stepping up Iranian operations in Syria comes at a significant financial cost at a time when over 40 cities in Iran are witnessing major protests due to inflation, revealing to what extent the Iranian regime prioritizes its geopolitical ambitions over domestic conditions.
Tehran’s recent decisions to cut subsidies on fuel and foodstuff, as well as the shortage in supplies, have pushed Iranians to take the streets. Meanwhile, if the Vienna negotiations conclude successfully in a new agreement between Iran and the West, Iran will receive a critical sanctions relief, allowing it to infuse the economy with much-needed foreign currency and shore up its operations abroad. Despite what US diplomats and negotiators think, Iran needs a deal much more than the United States does, for only with the deal Iran will be able to have the cake and eat it too.
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