What is happening on Syria’s frontline is more and more like a position warfare. Neither party manages to make a breakthrough on the battlefield full with various groups, especially in the north. There are two combat efficient terrorist organizations among “moderate” and Jihadist groups: Daesh (“Islamic State”, IS, ISIL) and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (renamed Jabhat al-Nusra). Both they seek to keep the seized regions and weigh no large-scale offensives at present. Daesh holds onto the bastions of the “caliphate” in the east of Syria – Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor defending its enclaves in other parts of the frontline in back-and-forth combats. Jabhat successfully controls the Idlib province but has no serious chances to expand its “borders” beyond it.
The situation in Syria can hardly be called static. The ongoing position warfare helps the internal and external forces regroup and maneuver. Many avoid from intensive fighting in anticipation of new developments in the relations of Russia and U.S. after Donald Trump’s election. Others, quite the contrary, have intensified their actions. Thus, Turkey is intensifying the Operation Euphrates’s Shield in the north of Aleppo. Inside the Syrian mega city and in the south of it, Iran has become more active.
Western media and experts have been focused on Tehran during the recent days. It is known to act in Syria indirectly through a range of pro-Iranian groups. Besides Lebanese Hezbollah, these are voluntary brigades from Iraq (Harakat al-Nujaba), from Afghanistan (Fastimion) and Palestine (Al-Quds). Until recently, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) that is a “profile department” of Iran for Syria built relations with the above brigades through Hezbollah forces. However, as the operative situation on Syria’s battlefield aggravates, IRGC gradually shifts to direct control of the Harakat al-Nujaba, Fatemiyoun and Al-Quds forces. Lebanese Shiites are suffering casualties, and their commanders fail to operate as IRGC’s “referral agent” entrusted to adopt operative decisions. The contingent of Iranian volunteers and “military advisors” has suffered quite painful casualties near Aleppo during the recent weeks. More than one thousand of volunteers from Iran have died fighting on the side of the government troops since the beginning of the civil war in Syria. Ali Shahidi Mahallati, Director of Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans Affairs, made such statement on November 22.
The Iranian command has generally realigned its forces in Syria. The area of the Syrian-Lebanese border is defended by Hezbollah that is also responsible for keeping the Damascus-Beirut highway functioning normally. An impressive contingent of Iranian “military advisors” in fact Iranian special troops, is concentrated in Damascus and in the south of Aleppo, in the area of Al-Hader, where the IRGC has gained foothold. Rebels from Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine represent a pro-Iranian infantry, combat squads that are being actively redeployed from one part of the frontline to other. Along with the limited number of Hezbollah troops in the south of the Aleppo front, Harakat al-Nujab, Fatemiyoun and al-Quds have localized in the north, west and south of the Syrian megacity. In general, in addition to the main striking force on the battle ground in Syria, IRGC has supplied an estimated 8,000-12,000 pro-Iranian fighters (1). Hezbollah accounts for the overwhelming majority of these troops, due to its geographical proximity and the task to ensure uninterrupted overland communication between Damascus and Beirut. Since 2013, the southern districts of the Lebanese capital have become the main staging point for IRGC when deploying Shia volunteers from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to help Bashar al-Assad’s troops.
The large-scale involvement of Iranian troops and security services into the military actions in Syria and Iraq arouses concern of Tehran’s rivals. While Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Persian Gulf were threatening to send their special forces, for instance, to liberate Raqqa from Daesh, Iran was operating on the battlefield. The groups in area of Iran’s influence are fighting in both Aleppo and near Mosul. From the southwest direction of Mosul’s storming, in the area of offensive on Tal-Afar, al-Hashd al-Shaabi militias (military groups of Badr Organization of Iraqi Shiites) is settling an issue comparable with Hezbollah’s tasks. This cuts Daesh militants in Mosul from supplies bases in the territory of Syria, which may result in establishment of a direct overland communication of al-Hashd al-Shaabi and the Syrian army units. Considering that Tel Afar airdrome has been under control of Badr fighters since mid-November, it may happen that IRGC will not have to bring fresh forces to Syria by passenger planes via Beirut. The Iraqi corridor for recruits from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq to the eastern regions of Syria may well serve for these purposes too.
The key Middle East actors Saudi Arabia and Israel are completely at a loss, as Iran may achieve its strategic goal and establish effective control over entire “Shiite line” stretching from Iran’s western border via Iraq and Syria up to the southern districts of the Lebanese capital. They are sure that it should be prevented not to let Iran increase its influence in the region even more.
Israel has resorted to some preventive measures. So far, these are mostly efforts to enlist the support of the world community. For instance, Israel diplomats at UN have introduced a number of letters wherein they draw attention, particularly, to the Iranian arms supply channel to Lebanon and Syria by means of commercial flights to Beirut. However, Israel go beyond mobilization of potential partners to exert diplomatic pressure on Tehran. Operations of the “invisible front” fighters from Mossad, Israel’s overseas intelligence, to prevent Iran’s expansion suggest themselves as never before…
As for Saudi Arabia, it is wrapped up in problems on its own borders with Yemen where the local Hussite rebels supported by Iran have turned into “an inevitable agent.” In Yemen, there are no pro-Iranian groups “operated” from outside the country. However, here too, geopolitical rivals of Iran make similar claims to it: interference with the internal affairs of Yemen and supply to weapons to the local rebels.
Iran’s growing activity in the flash points in the Middle East region, where it supports the government troops (the Yemen crisis has some nuances here) is connected with regional and external factors. The Islamic Republic has already been involved into the conflict with the terrorist “Islamic State.” Daesh’s attack on Iranian pilgrims in Iraq’s Hilla claimed dozens of lives of Iranian citizens making Iran to act. It is for a long time already that Iran has been practicing Russia’s argument concerning the need to liquidate the flash points of terrorist activity far away from its territory. The military actions of Iraqi Shiites against the “caliphate” near Tel Afar with the secret support of IRGC fit into that logic. However, Tehran has another reason to be initiative within the coming weeks.
Iranians are not happy with the new Administration in the White House, as it has already voiced the need to revise the approaches towards Iran, particularly, to revise the nuclear deal. Iran considers this as actual preparations to break the previous arrangements signed by six big powers (including U.S.) and Iran, which will have quite predictable negative geopolitical consequences.
At present Tehran weighs measures against the new U.S. Administration, but it has limited instruments and time to do it. Besides the growing military pressure by pro-Iranian groups on the rivals of Assad in Syria and on Daesh in Iraq, Tehran has nothing to offer, except perhaps to resume the postponed close cooperation with Moscow in the fight against common enemy in the Middle East. The recent statements by the Defense Ministry and General Staff of Iran’s Armed Forces saying Iran is ready to provide the Hamadan base for long-range aviation of Russia’s Aerospace Forces to target terrorists in Syria was an attempt to meet the upcoming challenges of U.S.
As for the limited time for Iran to act before “tough” contact with the new administration in U.S., it is January 20, when pro-Israeli and anti-Iranian functionaries will replace the previous Administration in the White House. By that time, Tehran needs to carry out a huge work in Syria and Iraq. It is obvious that Iranians can make no effective military and political steps alone. Without Russia’s support and possible assistance by China that should oppose the U.S. attempts to backtrack the nuclear deal with Iran, the Shiites of the Middle East may face formidable obstacles.
(1) Some authors share their exaggerated estimates of the Iranian forces in the Middle East, which reflects the anti-Iranian propaganda in the West and some Middle East countries. According to such “expert calculations,” Iran has 70,000 (!) troops in Syria. Volunteers not from Iran account for 55,000 of total (Shiites from Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine). The remaining 15,000 are allegedly IRGC militaries (10,000) and soldiers and officers of the regular Iranian army (5,000-6,000). (Majid Rafizadeh, Iran’s Forces Outnumber Assad’s in Syria // Gatestone Institute, November 24, 2016).
EADaily’s Middle East Bureau