On 18 May, Jordan’s King Abdullah II said the Russian presence in southern Syria was a “stabilising factor” and the void that would occur if it withdrew would be filled by Iran and its proxies.
In an interview with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in the US, the Jordanian monarch added that his country was facing possible escalation on its border with Syria now that Moscow was distracted by the Ukraine war.
King Abdullah’s statements came amid reports that Iran is taking advantage of Russia’s preoccupation with the war in Ukraine to expand into south and central Syria. Russian troops have partially withdrawn from the area, including the mercenary Wagner Group and 200 members of the Fifth Corps, an ally of Russia which includes Syrian opposition members that have made their peace with the Syrian regime.
Russia’s distraction owing to the war in Ukraine could divert its attention from Syria or at least cause it to suspend operations there. If this happens, it would be a gift to Iran, which would not hesitate to replace Russia and tighten its grip on areas once under Russian control.
Russia’s withdrawal from southern Syria is still not certain, but it seems probable, especially since Russia will not want to be involved in two wars at the same time. Moscow is primarily concerned with its naval and air bases on the Mediterranean Sea, not deep inside Syria in areas it oversees but where the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is in charge of military operations.
Russia is also concerned with Israel’s security and military coordination between the two countries, something it can guarantee using its air rather than ground forces.
Iyad Barakat, an officer who has defected from the Syrian army, told Al-Ahram Weekly that there had as yet been no real Russian military withdrawal, however.
“The Russians are present in southern Syria, but they do not have military bases or camps there. Their troops are essentially deployed at observation posts and in patrols, and there are no military bases or camps,” Barakat said.
“However, this does not mean that Iran is not slowly expanding and taking advantage of every possible opportunity to do so. Two years ago, its militias controlled 65 military posts. Today, it has 150, some of which are only hundreds of metres away from the border with Israel.”
“Iran is expanding in southern Syria not to confront Israel, but as part of an expansionist plan to control the area right up to Saudi Arabia’s doorstep,” he added.
There has been no official comment from either Moscow or Damascus about reports of a possible Russian withdrawal from Syria. However, the Israeli website Debka has confirmed the partial withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria to redeploy in Ukraine. It said that Russia had started to transfer control of some areas to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRG) and Lebanese Hizbullah group, though this has not been confirmed.
Since its military intervention in Syria in 2015, Russia has blocked Iran from gaining control of southern Syria, formed armed groups outside the influence of the IRG and Syrian regime, and blocked pro-Iranian generals from controlling the Syrian army.
Meanwhile, Iran has been trying to assert its control over Syria both militarily and politically since the uprising against the Al-Assad regime began in 2011. Tehran has sent in military experts and soldiers, recruited sectarian militias to help the Syrian regime, and supported the intervention of Hizbullah. It would not hesitate to fill any void left by a Russian withdrawal.
Iran’s presence in southern Syria represents three main threats, the first being a threat to the Syrian opposition since Iran would use excessive force to suppress any protests at its presence. The second threat is to Israel, which does not want Iran to neighbour it in Syria. The third threat is to Jordan, whose king warned in 2004 about the “Shiite Crescent” that Iran wants to achieve in the Middle East.
Jordan sees an Iranian presence in southern Syria as an imminent danger on its northern border, and the Jordanian army is mobilising along the border with Syria to combat drug and arms smuggling. At the end of January, Jordan reported the deaths of 27 drug smugglers that it said had attempted to cross the border into Jordan. It announced a change in its rules of engagement, meaning that it will pursue smugglers inside Syrian territory.
On the possible Russian withdrawal from Syria, Russian reserve officer Viktor Litovkin said in a statement that “it is not possible to talk about indications of any strategic move by Russian forces in Syria without official confirmations, statements, and clarifications
from the Russian Ministry of Defence.”
“Theoretically, a partial withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria could be possible, on the condition that Russia has accomplished its main tasks – eradicating the Islamic State (IS) group and helping government forces gain control of most of the country,” he said, adding that “there is no longer a need to maintain Russian military forces in large numbers in Syria, especially ground forces.”
Russian expert on Arab affairs Andrei Ontikov doubted that a withdrawal is likely. “There will be no withdrawal of Russian military forces under current circumstances,” Ontikov said in a statement, “especially of the forces deployed in southern Syria, given the nature of that area which could become explosive if Iranian forces and Hizbullah reach the outskirts of the Golan Heights and deploy on the frontlines close to Israel.”
Speculation about a Russian withdrawal from Syria in favour of Iran came after a visit by Al-Assad to Tehran on 8 May. As well as the economic aspects of the visit, some political and strategic analysts believe Al-Assad could have asked Iran to bolster its presence in his country if the Russians begin to scale back their presence in some areas due to their preoccupation with the war in Ukraine.
Saeed Moqbel, a Syrian opposition analyst, told the Weekly that “it is unlikely that the Russian army needs the few hundred Russian fighters that are present in Syria for the war in Ukraine. This is an exaggeration when we look at the immense number of active and reserve Russian military forces of about one million troops.”
“Neither Syrian regime forces nor the opposition forces have the ability to militarily control the south of the country, and Russia is aware of this. It is a safety valve there. If Russia withdraws, it will leave the area to chaos, and Iran will be the first to further entrench itself,” he said.
At the same time, Al-Assad needs Arab support in his efforts to engineer Syria’s return to the Arab League. Any further takeover by Iran in Syria would undoubtedly affect Syria’s attempts at rapprochement with the Arab countries and its receiving Arab Gulf money to save the country from economic collapse.
No matter how much coordination there is between Russia and Iran in Syria, Moscow’s role contradicts that of Tehran in the country. Israel will also never trust Iran to deploy its forces just metres away from its borders.
The Syrian opposition, Jordan, and others should be concerned about Russia’s possible withdrawal from southern Syria. Iranian groups are present in the area, and should the Russians leave, the area would spiral out of control with the increased smuggling and movement of arms.
This scenario is unlikely, however, especially with the presence of US bases in Jordan and Syrian opposition forces in the south who are ready to cooperate with the US. All the parties stand to benefit from stability in southern Syria, and Russia’s role should be to continue to maintain it, at least for the time being.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.