In the wake of American-Israeli bombardment

Iranian presence in Syria: A repositioning, not a withdrawal

Despite the repeated Israeli strikes on sites hosting Iranian officers and military personnel in Syria, Tehran shows determination to entrench its influence in Syria (Edited by Enab Baladi)

In the wake of American-Israeli bombardment

Iranian presence in Syria: A repositioning, not a withdrawal

Despite the repeated Israeli strikes on sites hosting Iranian officers and military personnel in Syria, Tehran shows determination to entrench its influence in Syria (Edited by Enab Baladi)

Despite the repeated Israeli strikes on sites hosting Iranian officers and military personnel in Syria, Tehran shows determination to entrench its influence in Syria (Edited by Enab Baladi)


Khaled al-Jeratli | Hussam al-Mahmoud | Yamen Moghrabi

The Iranian presence in Syria has always been a source of concern at a regional level, for Arab countries on the one hand, and for Israel on the other. If the partial Arab severance of relations with al-Assad has pushed the issue of Iranian presence off the negotiation table, this does not reflect a resignation to Tehran’s influence in Damascus, contrary to the vision presented by the Syrian regime president, Bashar al-Assad, in March 2023 (before returning to the Arab League).

Iran, which extended a helping hand to the Syrian regime as it lost vast geographical areas of Syria to opposition factions, did not send a regular army but relied on militias it imported, managed, and subsequently formed a part of over the years. These militias are today a major cause of concern for Arab neighbors and a justification for Israeli attacks on Syrian territory.

Since the escalation in Gaza on October 7, 2023, Israel has not stopped targeting Iranian leaders in Syria, which Iran sometimes acknowledged and later ignored, considering the presence of what it calls “military advisers” in Syria, a response to a request from the Syrian regime government aimed at “fighting terrorism.”

Enab Baladi discusses in this lengthy report the extent of the impact of the Israeli airstrikes and the targeting of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) leaders in Syria on the Iranian presence in the country, and the reasons for Iran’s insistence on maintaining its gains in Syria.

How Iran spreads in Syria

The mechanisms of the Iranian presence in Syria vary, either through officers whom Iran calls “advisers,” who are responsible for managing Iran’s interests in the country, mechanisms for training Iran’s proxy militias in the region, or through militias composed of individuals from various nationalities and countries united by religious loyalty.

These militias are distributed across the Syrian geography primarily controlled by the Syrian regime and have their own areas of influence in the eastern Syrian cities of al-Bukamal and al-Mayadin, east of Deir Ezzor, as well as other areas in several provinces including the Damascus countryside, Daraa, Quneitra, Aleppo, Homs, and Hama.

These militias operate under pre-planned military and security conditions, but the more recent American and Israeli strikes have forced different movements than usual to avoid as much loss as possible.

The presence of Iranian militias, as well as leaders in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, extends from the Syrian-Iraqi border in the far east, near the areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), to the southern Syrian border with the occupied Golan Heights.

Iranian militia elements in Syria (AFP)

Iranian militia elements in Syria (AFP)

Geographical redistribution dictated by circumstances

The Israeli airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria have intensified since the outbreak of the Israeli military operations against the Gaza Strip on October 7, 2023, followed by a military escalation from Iran and its allies in the region.

Since the beginning of 2024, Israel has launched six military strikes in several areas controlled by the Syrian regime, targeting military figures affiliated with the IRGC, one of Iran’s prominent military branches.

These strikes, which came alongside similar American ones in Syria and Iraq as a response to attacks by groups linked to Iran against Washington’s bases, according to the latter, impose a redeployment and a change in the geographical distribution of these forces, even if Tehran has not officially announced it.

The researcher in Iranian affairs, Mustafa Al-Nuaimi, told Enab Baladi that there is a redeployment and repositioning in several geographical locations controlled by the Iranian militias, especially in the southern and eastern regions since the beginning of Israel’s escalation of its strikes against these bases.

The south and east of Syria are the most subjected to Israeli and American strikes against Iranian militias, which suggests that they have imposed changes on the distribution of militias in them.

According to al-Nuaimi, the redistribution is done through a strategy that uses civilians as a means of camouflage and ease of movement without being detected by Israeli and American forces, despite the latter’s use of fifth-generation aircraft, which exchanges its information with joint operation rooms with Israel to pinpoint the movements of militia leaders.

For this reason, Israel and the US have succeeded in targeting specific figures during the past period, according to al-Nuaimi.

On February 1, Reuters quoted unnamed sources as saying that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps had withdrawn its officers from Syria following repeated Israeli strikes.

According to five informed sources, the IRGC reduced the deployment of its senior officers in Syria due to a wave of Israeli strikes and will rely more on allied Shiite factions to maintain its influence in Syria.

The sources stated that while hardliners in Tehran call for vengeance, Tehran’s decision to withdraw its senior officers is partly due to its aversion to being directly drawn into an escalating conflict in the Middle East.

They pointed out that the IRGC recruits Shiite fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan to deploy in Syria, repeating an earlier stage when similar factions played a role in turning the tide of battles in Syria, in addition to relying heavily on Syrian Shiite factions, according to the sources.

Although Tehran later denied what Reuters reported, this denial does not mean there is no redistribution of forces and militias, nor does it mean that it did not indeed withdraw “advisers.”

Tehran is seeking to redeploy and change the assignments at the level of senior leadership responsible for military and logistical operations in Syria.

On the other hand, Mahmoud al-Bazi, a researcher in Iranian affairs, believes that Iran has indeed withdrawn some important leaders for fear of assassination operations, but without any changes on the ground; instead, it sought to increase its presence in Deir Ezzor, which is a vital area for Iran.

Al-Bazi added in his talk to Enab Baladi that Tehran is trying to rely more on local categories than before.

The repeated Israeli targeting of Iranian individuals in Syria indicates military messages sent by the West to Iran, disrupting the use of air supply lines to deliver weapons to its allies, as well as security and intelligence messages that Iranian elements are under surveillance, according to a study prepared by the International Center for Iranian Studies, published in December 2023.

The size of Iranian forces in Syria

Since Iran’s military involvement in the Syrian arena in 2013, no accurate statistics have emerged regarding the number of Iranian-backed militias, as Iran itself denies the presence of any regular forces on Syrian territory, referring only to the presence of “military advisors.”

According to the Iranian researcher, Mohammad al-Bazi, one of the main reasons for the lack of accurate statistics is related to the diversity of the forces themselves, whether local, such as Liwa al-Baqir (al-Baqir Brigade) made up of local elements, or groups of Fatimiyoun and Zainabiyoun which include foreign fighters under the supervision of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, in addition to Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade and National Defense Forces.

The numbers of these militias fluctuate according to funding capabilities and repositioning in conflict areas.

Al-Bazi pointed out that what is clearer is that the Iranian presence includes few Iranian leaders and groups distributed over wide areas to organize and monitor the spread and expand it. Estimates put the number of these forces between 45,000 and 150,000 fighters.

On the other hand, Mustafa al-Nuaimi believes that estimates point to the presence of 60,000 fighters spread across the Syrian geography, including forces belonging to the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, and other components associated with it, such as the Islamic Resistance Operations Room that recently targeted American military bases.

According to a study prepared by the Jusoor Center for Studies in 2020, Iranian forces are distributed over 125 locations in Syria, most of them in the cities of Daraa and Deir Ezzor.

Does the targeting affect the deployment?

The repeated targeting of Iranian locations and figures, which in turn impose repositioning and perhaps change the nature of missions, affects Iranian presence in Syria from one side, and the form of this deployment from another, if proven.

The form of deployment may not include only the geographical points controlled by the Iranian militias but also the purposes of their presence.

According to al-Nuaimi, the militias have transitioned from a phase of controlling the land to controlling strategic points and thus will remain susceptible to targeting and expanding the range of engagement.

It is possible that Iran during the coming period will seek to increase the pressure on American and Israeli forces, through greater targeting to consolidate any military gains achieved during the past period, even if this led to receiving military strikes targeting its forces on the ground.

Al-Bazi believes that Iran is trying to benefit even from these targetings, through pressure on the Iraqi government to expel American forces, and to reopen discussions on the legitimacy of the Houthis presence in the Red Sea, particularly as Iran deals with Israel on the basis of rounds and points rather than a knockout blow, and for this reason, it wishes to end the conflict in the region, and not to extend it.

The Harmoon Centre for Contemporary Studies published, on February 16, an assessment that counted the Israeli strikes that targeted objectives in Syria since the beginning of Operation Al-Aqsa Flood on October 7, 2023, according to the center, there were more than a hundred attacks distributed as follows:

  • 48 attacks between October and December 2023.
  • 53 attacks since the beginning of 2024 until the current February.

The targeting varied between aerial and ground assaults, noting that 33 of them were carried out through air raids, and 20 through artillery and missile weapons, targeting all military sites that are home to militias loyal to Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

The attacks resulted in 104 deaths and 32 injuries, including eight Iranian leaders, according to the Harmoon Center.

In an extensive report prepared earlier by Enab Baladi, researchers concluded that the Iranian strategy itself is a form of “brinkmanship,” which could lead to incidental and unplanned conflicts, making it a high-stakes game for all participants.

The Iranian strategy is accompanied by formal denial of any responsibility for targeting American interests or military bases in the Middle East. Tehran’s ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations, Amir Saeid Iravani, had said that his country has never participated in any act or attack against US forces in Syria and Iraq.

Iravani’s statements came in response to a letter written by the United States to the Security Council, accusing Iran of acting against its forces in Syria and Iraq, according to what was reported by the Iranian Mehr News Agency at the time.

Iravani sent a message to the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, stating that the United States is trying to “legitimize its illegal military actions in Syria” and that the claims that Iran participates in attacks on American bases in Syria and Iraq are baseless and aim to “justify the continued violation of the US of international law and the UN Charter in Syria.”

Previously, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian denied Tehran being responsible for these attacks

Israeli strike targets Iranian advisor in Syria, Hajj Sadeq

The Iranian presence in Syria has been keenly observed by Israel, the closest ally of the United States in the region, over the years. Tel Aviv has repeatedly attacked Iranian interests in Syria, with the latest being targeted killings of “advisors” within Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the Syrian capital, Damascus.

The Israeli targeting of “Iranian advisors” became apparent on January 20, when Israel killed five members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Syria, as announced by Iran.

It later emerged that one of the deceased was known as “Hajj Sadeq,” who was mentioned in a report published by the American newspaper The Washington Post in June 2023. He was tasked with increasing attacks on American bases in Syria.

Documents referred to by the newspaper indicated that “Hajj Sadeq” specifically identified American vehicles of the types “Humvee” and “Cougar” as intended targets, sending individuals to reconnoiter and take photos of routes used by US forces in Syria.

The Washington Post report mentioned that the Iranian strategy run by “Hajj Sadeq” involved building and training forces to use armor-piercing bombs, planted specifically to target US military vehicles and kill American personnel.

Israeli strike on a building in Mezzeh, Damascus - January 20, 2024 (Athr Press)

Israeli strike on a building in Mezzeh, Damascus – January 20, 2024 (Athr Press)

Are the strikes impactful?

With the ambiguity that has always surrounded Israeli strikes in Syria, and their lack of official claim by any party, Israel seems to be concerned about the Iranian presence and has previously expressed this concern, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated at a graduation ceremony for new Israeli Air Force pilots in December 2018, “We will not tolerate Iran’s entrenchment in Syria.”

The Iranian influence in Syria does not seem to have been affected by the repetition of Israeli attacks. However, attacks executed by Iran’s proxies on American bases have stopped, with the latest occurring on February 12, and escalation has been limited to the Red Sea against the Houthi militia supported by Iran in Yemen.

Saba Abdul Latif, assistant researcher at the Omran for Strategic Studies center, told Enab Baladi that the Iranian presence in Syria heavily relies on foreign militias, rather than a military deployment of regular forces.

From this perspective, Iran has been able to target US military bases in Syria and Iraq in the past, without the United States being able to respond by directly targeting Iranian interests.

Abdul Latif believes that the military presence of Iran will not be affected as it is limited to the movement of military leaders acting on orders from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Israeli attacks on militias and leaders in Syria may compel them to change their mechanisms of movement and operation, but it has not resulted in compelling Iran to withdraw.

The researcher sees that Syria could potentially be an appropriate battlefield between Tehran and Tel Aviv, but these possibilities remain within scenarios of the implications of the Gaza war on Syria.

Persistent Iranian presence, A commitment to remain

In an interview with Russia Today (RT) channel, al-Assad described the relationship with Iran as “self-explanatory, rich in content, rich in experience, and rich in the vision it formed,” considering that the Syrian arena is no longer an Iranian-Saudi conflict zone as it once was.

“The talk of cutting off the Syrian-Iranian relationship is no longer an issue with Syria for many years. I believe there is understanding about the nature of this relationship,” said al-Assad, referring to a “loyalty” that spans four decades between Syria and Iran, in his words.

On June 25, 2023 (about a month after the regime’s return to the Arab League), the Jordanian Initiative, driven by Arab interest for a political solution in Syria, emerged. In its second phase, it clearly demanded that al-Assad expel Iranian forces from Syria, reduce Iranian military presence there in terms of weapons and geography, and withdraw Shiite militias and the Lebanese Hezbollah (Iran’s ally).

Al-Assad did not heed this request, nor did he pay attention to any of the initiative’s points. During the reception of Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi in Damascus in early May 2023, al-Assad said, “When an unjust war was waged against Iran in 1980 for eight years, Syria did not hesitate to stand by Iran despite the threats and temptations at the time,” pointing out that Iran did the same when the “war” was waged in Syria, adding that they provided blood, according to him.

Iran’s resolve to remain in Syria became evident after talks of Tehran withdrawing IRGC officers from Syria, under the pressure of Israeli strikes which had killed a group of officers Iran refers to as “experts and advisors.” However, Iranians will not abandon Syria, though they have minimized their presence and movements to the lowest extent, according to Reuters.

The Iranian presence in Syria became apparent with the beginning of the revolution in 2011, bolstering al-Assad’s regime at a time his rule was threatened. Amer al-Sabaileh, a strategic expert and nonresident scholar at the Stimson Center in Washington, explained to Enab Baladi that Iran finds this geographical presence critical, as its presence in Iraq, Lebanon, and Gaza would be lacking without a foothold in the West Bank and the Golan Heights.

This geography is part of the strategic expansion idea by which Tehran threatens Israeli interests first and those of the United States second. Iran also believes that its theory of trapping Israel in a threat triangle would eventually require transforming Jordan into a station and long-term battlefield, making this geography essential to Iranian theory, according to al-Sabaileh.

Al-Sabaileh noted the importance of securing the Tehran-Beirut route on one hand and strengthening influence in these areas on the other. Controlling areas in Syria and Iraq means the capability to impact Jordan, explaining why Iran targeted the “Tower 22” as it is located within the border triangle, implying Iran’s ambition to expand this geography under its influence.

Discussing Jordan’s escalation against Iran, accusing it of attempts to infiltrate and conduct a drug trafficking project, al-Sabaileh indicated that Jordan has considered from the start that drug smuggling across the borders is not merely trade but aims to weaken and create long-term societal and security breaches and build loyalties by exploiting economic conditions.

Jordan regards the presence of Iran-backed militias in Syria as a threat to national and regional security, an obstacle to stabilizing Syria and restoring political relations with the regime, and a destabilizing factor for the entire region, which motivated its inclusion in the Jordanian initiative, according to al-Sabaileh.

Iran will not stop at Syria

Dr. Ahmed Qorby, a researcher at the Syrian Dialogue center, believes that Iran makes no secret of its intentions and objectives for its presence in Syria. Its strategy since the rise of Khomeini to power (1979) has adopted the principle of exporting the revolution, which is enshrined in the Iranian constitution. After engulfing Iraq following the American invasion, Iran followed a regional truce before reactivating the issue of exporting the revolution post-Arab Spring.

Qorby explained that Tehran has been fueling militias in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen, which is a reason for the conflict between it and Saudi Arabia. Each country sees itself as an ideological leader in the region, and Iran aims to link Syria to its long-term project of “Velayat-e Faqih”.

In the short term, Iran seeks to legitimize its presence not only legally and politically but also socially. For this reason, it focuses on the economy, education, universities, and teaching the Persian language, while maintaining the framework of its presence.

The researcher sees that the Arab countries, before normalizing with the regime or its return to the Arab League, have not raised their expectations regarding the Iranian presence, knowing that the regime does not control this and is unable to limit Iranian influence given the current data.

Regarding the limits or level of Iran’s ambitions for its presence in Syria, the researcher clarified that all Arab countries know that this “cancerous project” will not stop in Syria. Projects like this take temporary halts and breaks to consolidate their influence and improve their image before moving on to the next peak.

The indicators have begun, and Jordan recognizes this fact and feels more than any other country a direct targeting from Iran. The preparation of the Popular Mobilization in Iraq and militias in neighboring countries is meant to use these forces as a stick to meddle with the region’s security, according to Dr. Ahmed Qorby.

In October 2020, during an interview with Rossiya Segodnya, Bashar al-Assad denied the presence of Iranian forces in Syria, considering that the Iranian presence was limited to military experts providing advisory services. This narrative was supported by successive Iranian statements. However, a report issued in November of the same year by the American Atlantic Council for International Studies pointed out Iran’s recruitment of fighters in Aleppo, Deir Ezzor, and Raqqa under the name “local defense forces”, alongside recruiting Syrian Shiites militias numbering from five to eight thousand fighters.

Iran uses mechanisms to recruit foreign fighters, including the “Husaini Scouts” for recruiting Shiite volunteers under the banner of “protecting Shiite shrines”, who are trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah in Lebanon, before being transferred to Syria.

The report noted Iran’s direction of Iraqi militias to support al-Assad since 2012, and the recruitment of Afghan militias that appeared the same year, followed by the recruitment of Pakistani Shiites which publicly emerged in 2013.

Alongside the military presence, Iran has strengthened its dominance over the Syrian economy through ongoing agreements, notably preceding and including the visit of the Iranian president to Damascus in May 2023, in addition to the political presence in more than one process as a “guardian” over the regime. It imposed itself on the normalization track between Turkey and the regime before Russia announced the collapse of the track, and Ankara criticized al-Assad’s participation in the negotiations with the presence of other parties, and his lack of decision-making power. Moreover, it is one of the “guaranteeing countries” in the Astana process (along with Turkey and Russia).

Iran’s strategic environment

In a study published in December 2020 titled “Iran’s Proxy Groups in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen: A Principal-Agent Comparative Analysis”, by the American Defense Technical Information Center, answers were sought to questions about Iran’s strategic environment and the proxy war it launched against the United States for years.

The study’s first chapter, spanning 154 pages, mentioned that nearly all Iranian offensive operations against US interests are carried out by Tehran in cooperation with a supported agent, assisted through the provision of equipment and training, to avoid engagement in conflict with its enemies.

Regarding Iran’s objectives, the study said that Tehran uses a “revolutionary approach” in its foreign policy that aims to enhance its position in the Middle East and the international system at large.

It added that the declared objectives of Tehran’s foreign policy are multifaceted but can be categorized into four broad categories: exporting the Iranian revolution, extending economic and political influence over the region, protecting followers of the Shiite regime, and enhancing its conventional power.

Like all governments, the regime in Iran seeks survival at any cost. This includes leveraging the power of groups, whether they are ideologically aligned or not. For example, following the Iraq-Iran war, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime turned a blind eye to Sunni group activities in Iraq’s Anbar province involved in smuggling activities that allowed goods to enter the country, which were otherwise banned by sanctions.

As soon as the US forces left Iraq in 2011, Iran used the same groups as proxies to contain Sunni tribal supply routes to ensure unrestricted access to Mediterranean ports through Iraq and Syria.


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