Suleimani’s Absence Has Been No Problem for Iran in Syria
After the assassination of its high-ranking general, Iran has successfully doubled down on its regional military strategy.
At five past noon on Feb.17, Jad Mubarak received the text message he had long feared. (The name is a pseudonym to protect his identity in a contentious warzone.) Russia was raining bombs on the last two hospitals in Darat Izza in the west of Syria’s Aleppo province, a warning that the regime offensive had reached his town and that Iran-backed militias were attacking on the ground. Mubarak, a 29-year-old student of politics and a part-time humanitarian worker, ran back home to be at the side of his newlywed wife. Amid the deafening explosions, he held her close, looked her in the eyes, and told her everything would be all right. The truth was that he had no idea where to take her and how long he would be able to keep her safe.
The couple were among a million Syrians forced on the run with nowhere to go. They were trapped between Iranian militias, a sealed Turkish border, and jihadi rebels whom they did not trust. Most of those million had been displaced at least twice before. They huddled in olive groves and burned anything they found to keep warm in the bitter cold. If they managed to make it to Turkey, they could be shot at again by Greek soldiers as they tried to cross into Europe. By the time Turkey and Russia signed a cease-fire to provide some relief in early March, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad had reclaimed the M4 and M5 highways, the crucial supply lines running through the last rebel-held territory.
But the decisive role in the offensive against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the former al Qaeda affiliate in charge of the enclave, was not played by the Syrian army but by those Iran-backed Shiite militias. Their participation was not just about political or sectarian ideologies, nor just to enable Assad, Iran’s ally, to reclaim swaths of land. It was also designed to remind the United States and Russia of Iran’s relevance in the region.
Since the U.S. assassination of Qassem Suleimani, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps general who bolstered Assad and made Syria a strategic backyard for Tehran, there has been some doubt about Iran’s sway in Syria and its command and control over a fractious group of militias on the ground. The coronavirus pandemic has also hit Iran especially hard, fueling speculation in the United States that the government may be weakening. Iran has been determined, in the face of all this, to demonstrate to all onlookers its commitment to remaining in the region whatever the costs. While the United States hoped that Suleimani’s assassination in January would slow Iran’s activities in Syria, Iran has instead doubled down.
Yahya al-Aridi, the spokesperson of the Syrian opposition’s political negotiations committee, said that since Suleimani’s killing Iran has been even more desperate to show that it counted. “Iran is a pariah state now. Americans and Turks talk, Turks and Russians talk, Russians and Americans talk, but nobody pays attention to Iranians. They are being sidelined. They wanted to make up for that militarily in Idlib and Aleppo,” Aridi said. “They wanted to say that, ‘We are here. We have a say in what goes on in Syria.’”
Shortly before Russia and Turkey signed an agreement to cease fire in the rebel pocket, Brig. Gen. Esmail Qaani, Suleimani’s successor, visited Aleppo as a demonstration of Iran’s resolve to consolidate the gains it had long fought for. A Sunni stronghold and the financial powerhouse of the country, Aleppo is both historically and economically connected to Turkey. Iran now wishes to project its Shiite power there, both to strengthen Assad and to show off that the Levantine nations are now satellites in its orbit.
Iran’s arc of influence also traverses through another Sunni bastion, Deir Ezzor. Iran’s efforts there are focused on winning over Syrian hearts and minds. Feras Allawi, a local journalist, said that Iran had set up cultural centers in several cities in the province to soften locals toward them and spread Persian culture as well as impart the doctrine of wilayat al-faqih, a Shiite system of thought articulated by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and manifested in the political and social order of the current Iranian regime. “There are Iranian cultural centers in Deir Ezzor city, Bukamal, Mayadeen, and Sabikhan. These centers are dedicated to integrating the local young people in the Persian culture and the Shiite religion,” Allawi said. “Farsi is taught, and students who perform well are rewarded. In addition, trips are organized from Deir Ezzor to Iran, and Shiite doctrines are included in the cultural lectures given by Iranian Shiite clerics who visit.”
Once Idlib falls under Iranian control, it will connect an uninterrupted swath of territory from Tehran to the cities of Homs and Latakia, Syria’s main port city on the Mediterranean; the latter two are already under regime control. Capt. Naji Mostafa, the spokesperson of the Turkey-backed rebels of the National Liberation Front, said that Iran’s militias had dug their heels in over half a dozen newly occupied territories and will use them to their advantage in the impending clashes in Idlib as well as in the final political settlement to conclude the war. Between 20 and 50 Iran-backed militia members reportedly died in the fighting, nine of them from the Lebanon-based Hezbollah.
So far there are no signs that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah are planning to leave southern Syrian areas bordering Israel, despite coming under attack by the Israeli military. But one Western diplomat who regularly visits Syria told Foreign Policy that Iran had agreed to eventually hand the area to the Syrian Arab Army—though only under one condition. “Iranian militias will not exactly leave: They will become a part of Assad’s army holding key positions,” he said. “And then no one can object to their presence as outsiders.” a
The key to Iran’s failure or success in Syria, the diplomat continued, is Russia. The two are squabbling over spoils of war with completely different visions of Syria’s future. Russia wants to present itself as a statesman globally and advocates a political resolution. It has a tacit understanding with Israel that it won’t interfere if Israel attacks Iran’s arms depots in the country. Denis Mirgorod, a Russian analyst, said Moscow was silent because it was satisfied with the current military balance in the region, i.e., Israel in possession of nuclear arms. “Iran lags behind Israel in military superiority,” Mirgorod said. “It is trying to compensate for it by forming anti-Israel political and geographic projects, including the Shia crescent, as well as keeping open the chances of resuming its nuclear program.”
For now, Iran is buying itself time in Syria, so that it can find someone to fulfill the role once played by Suleimani, moving around the region to coordinate and use Iran’s growing regional power. Iran expects that in time another leader will emerge. And even as economic sanctions and the coronavirus take their toll in the meantime, Iran has shown Syrians and Americans alike that its plans to acquire power in the region remain unchanged.
Anchal Vohra is a Beirut-based columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East. Twitter: @anchalvohra