Five days after Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Al-Quds Force, was killed in an American drone attack in Iraq, Israel bombed Iranian military locations in the city of Al-Bukamal in eastern Syria on the border with Iraq.
Rapid and intense air strikes targeted arms depots where Iran stores weapons transported from Iraq to Syria with the knowledge of local residents, including medium-range ballistic weapons. The depots are guarded by members of the pro-Iranian Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Force militias.
The Syrian official media did not report the air strikes, and Russia did not condemn the attacks, despite the fact that Israeli fighter jets had flown across Syrian airspace to bomb targets belonging to Iran, which was Moscow’s partner at the Sochi and Astana meetings that aimed to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis.
Iran’s threats against the US and its allies after Suleimani’s assassination thus had little impact, and they did not cause Israel to change its strategy of striking any Iranian move outside the boundaries of rules dictated by the US.
Israel seems ready to attack Iran if the latter crosses any red lines in Israel’s eyes. It seems that Israel had decided it would be easier to attack this area after Suleimani’s death, since he had engineered the opening of the border crossing between Syria and Iraq to ensure a supply of weapons from Iraq to Syria outside the direct reach of the US.
Washington seems be working to end, or at least limit, the Iranian influence in Syria. It is doing so indirectly by using allies in the region such as Israel, Turkey, or even Russia, and each of these has been given missions that automatically curbs Iran’s influence. Gradually, Iran will be completely undermined, with there being no need for a single direct confrontation.
After Suleimani was killed and Israel had bombed the Iranian locations in Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin went to Damascus for an unannounced visit on 7 January, days before he also visited Israel.
During his surprise stop in the Syrian capital, Putin visited heritage districts of Damascus and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, but he did not visit the presidential palace or the Hemeimim military base in Latakia, which he visited in 2017 and which the Russians use as a military base in western Syria.
Perhaps Putin’s visit to the capital was meant to send a message to Tehran that Russia dominates Syria and not only its military bases. During the visit, Putin met with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad at the Russian military operations headquarters in Damascus, a secret location that appears to be a heavily guarded military compound.
The visit also sent the message that Russia is stronger after Suleimani’s death and the Syrian capital is Russian military ground and not Iranian as Tehran insists and many Syrians believe.
Soon after Putin’s visit, Russian and US military top brass agreed to re-open the Al-Salehiya border crossing in the Deir Al-Zor Province of Syria. Opening this crossing will hurt the Iranian presence and draw attention to the presence of Iranian militias in the area.
It will act to paralyse their movements because they will not be able to move freely in an area where the US and Russia also have significant forces.
Putin’s visit also sent a message to Damascus to closely monitor its border with Israel and not to allow Iran to take advantage of it to retaliate as long as Israel is not targeting Syrian forces. Ali Shamkhani, secretary-general of Iran’s National Security Council, said on 6 January that there were 13 possible locations for avenging Suleimani’s death, including the Syrian Golan Heights which are occupied by Israel.
Iran was uneasy about Putin’s visit, with Iranian MP Ali Mutahri saying that “President Putin’s behaviour during his visit to Syria was insulting, just as Trump’s was during his trip to Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead of visiting Al-Assad at his residence, Putin sat in a Russian military base to meet him.”
The attacks on the Iranian locations came two days ahead of a meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Putin, during which the two men announced a truce in Idlib in northwest Syria. Neither Syria nor Iran were consulted in the truce, further implying that Russian-Iranian relations are unfriendly.
Iran wants to remain on the ground in Idlib alongside regime forces, and it has been sending its affiliated militias to help the regime regain control of northwest Syria. However, Russia and Turkey are reaching understandings that do not suit Iran, and it is clear that excluding Iran from the agreements on Idlib means that Iranian expansionism not only worries the US and Israel, but also Turkey and Russia.
Mounir Shahoud, a Syrian political analyst, said that “Iran has lost four rounds in the past week: Suelimani’s assassination; dozens killed during a stampede at his funeral in Iran; missiles missing their targets in Iraq and the shooting down of the Ukrainian plane over Tehran. Whether these are a coincidence or not, they undermine Iran’s credibility and competence.”
“There has been a dramatic shift against the interests of the Iranians in the region. In Syria, curbing the Iranian influence could expedite a solution to the crisis by removing the excuses of the other regional players that want a larger share of the country,” he said.
Russia has not entirely gone over to opposing the Iranian presence in Syria altogether, however. Putin, who also recently met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said that Russia, Turkey and Iran would continue to support the committee they have set up to draft a new constitution for Syria.
This would seem to indicate that he continues to view Iran as a necessary ally after Al-Assad chose to go to war against protesters against his regime in 2011. When the regime lost large parts of the country to the opposition in 2013, Iran stepped in to save the regime. Since then, Damascus has become heavily dependent on Tehran for protection and financial assistance.
After the announcement of the US military presence on the ground in 2014, the direct military intervention by Russia in 2015, the extensive Turkish operations in northern Syria, and the sanctions against Iran by the US, Tehran’s role in Syria seem to be waning, however.
Today, Tehran arguably needs Damascus more than Damascus needs Iran, especially since Syria is the main base for its strategic expansionist plans in the Arab region.
It is likely that the parties involved in Syria, especially Russia, the US and Turkey, have reached a consensus to gradually push Iran into a corner and cause it to leave Syria without a direct confrontation and accept political solutions that mostly exclude Tehran.
Iran’s reaction to such a possibility is unclear, because abandoning Syria would mean abandoning its plans to export its Shiite Islamic revolution across the region.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.