Syrian regime fails to meet Arab requirements to reduce Iranian influence

The president of the Syrian regime Bashar al-Assad (Edited by Enab Baladi)

The president of the Syrian regime Bashar al-Assad (Edited by Enab Baladi)


Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli

“Three stages ending with the exit of Iran and Hezbollah,” was the headline of the “Jordanian Initiative” published by Al-Majalla magazine from Saudi Arabia, according to which the Syrian regime approached the Arab region again after more than ten years of estrangement. During these years, the regime was asked to take actual steps in exchange for normalization with it, and to seek the lifting of US and European sanctions imposed on it.

While it seems that the changes made by the regime are linked to the “Jordanian Initiative,” aiming to expel Iran and Hezbollah out of Syria, the Iranian influence has not witnessed any decline. Observers believe that the regime is incapable of taking steps leading to the distancing of Iran due to its security and military dominance in the country.

The milestones in the “Jordanian Initiative” do not include a specific timetable for implementation but conclude that the expected steps from Damascus and its allies are to withdraw all Iranian military and security properties from Syria, and the withdrawal of Hezbollah and the Shiite militias. This would be in exchange for the withdrawal of all foreign forces and foreign fighters from all Syrian territories they entered after 2011, including the areas in northeastern Syria and the American base in al-Tanf, lifting sanctions, and financing donor countries for the reconstruction of Syria.

Despite the pressures Iran is facing on several levels, including Israeli bombardments targeting its security and military officials in Syria, and agreements between the regime and the Arabs to push it outward, Tehran continues its movements within Syrian territory. Researchers have viewed that these activities embarrass the regime during its endeavor to improve its relations with the Arab countries.

Experts’ opinions varied between the possibility of success of the Arab moves against Iran through the regime, and the solidity of the Iranian influence in Syria that could fail any movement intended to diminish this influence.

On the path to expelling Iran

Opposition media sources mentioned in the past few days the intention of the Syrian regime to merge the Military Intelligence and Air Force Intelligence branches into a single security apparatus, tentatively referred to as Military and Armed Forces Intelligence.

The local website Sawt al-Asima (Damascus Voice) reported that the head of the National Security Office, Kifah Melhem, issued a decision on March 20, by orders from the President of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, who is also the supreme commander of the military and armed forces.

Although two intersecting security sources in the southern Syrian Military Security branch, and another who leads an allied militia there, had previously told Enab Baladi that the branch’s command had not issued any circular in this regard, the talk of merging security branches is widespread in the lower ranks of Military Security, and considered by observers as an “expected” step to complement other changes.

Earlier this year, similar leaks surfaced about appointing Major General Kifah Melhem as the head of National Security, replacing Ali Mamlouk, who was appointed as an advisor to Bashar al-Assad for national security affairs.

At the time, no official announcement was made, and the changes were limited to handlings relayed by sources close to the regime, the most prominent being the Russian Sputnik agency .

On December 13, 2023, al-Assad issued a legislative decree establishing the General Secretariat of the Presidency of the Republic, which reports to the President of the Republic, replaces the Ministry of Presidential Affairs, and aims to provide services that assist the President in carrying out his duties and powers. The General Secretariat manages the administrative, financial, and legal affairs and supervision in the presidency, and is chaired by a Secretary-General overseeing its work.

Also, the Syrian regime issued a series of decisions related to the military establishment as part of a restructuring plan. The Director-General of the Ministry of Defense, General Ahmad Suleiman, had previously stated in a meeting with the Al-Ikhbaria Syria TV Channel that it targets the establishment of a “professional, modern, and advanced army.”

Additionally, the repeated removal of military and security barriers from various areas in Syria were linked to the initiative which contained a provision stipulating the withdrawal of military presence from Syrian streets.

Ineffective steps

Iranian intervention to support the Syrian regime in its attempts to suppress the Syrian revolution came early, with Iran being the first to send armed militias to Syria, most notably the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, which engaged in most battles against opposition factions in various governorates.

Intervention evolved after the conclusion of armed actions and stabilization of the battlefronts by international understandings, which seemed to be control over the corridors of decision-making in Syria, and dominance over security, political, social, and economic levels.

Researcher specialized in Iranian affairs, Mustafa al-Nuaimi, sees the Arab demands from the Syrian regime as ineffective steps since he views Tehran, which maneuvers in its confrontation with Washington in the region, as one where neither Jordanian pressures nor Arab will lead to changes in its policy in Syria.

He pointed out that any influence that needs to be imposed to leave an impact on the events in Syria should come from Tehran, not Damascus.

Al-Nuaimi downplayed the importance of the steps taken by the Syrian regime, which conformed to Arab demands, indicating that they would not lead to anything new and would not go beyond being an attempt to circumvent the demands.

From the side of Iran, al-Nuaimi considers the changes as part of Tehran’s capitalization on the factor of time, with Syria being highly placed on the ladder of Iranian priorities because it is a card on the table of the Iranian nuclear deal negotiations with the United States and a path toward warm waters (Mediterranean Sea).

The regime is embarrassed

In the past few months, the frequency of Israeli attacks on Syrian territory to pursue what Iran calls “military advisors” has escalated. Israel considers them responsible for arming and training militias run by Iran in Syria.

This increased frequency may seem like an escalation between Tehran and Tel Aviv, which has not officially claimed any of the attacks. However, their regular occurrence on Syrian territory makes them target Syria, not Iran.

Researcher Mustafa al-Nuaimi believes that the Iranian influence in Syria has reached a stage where it embarrasses the Syrian regime, given that Israeli strikes are escalating, but Iran continues its activity on Syrian soil.

He added that this activity has cost the Syrian regime 70% of its military capabilities, particularly anti-aircraft weapons, which Israeli fighter jets target occasionally.

Despite the mounting bombings, Iran continues to supply weapons to Syria, install ground defenses in various areas, train its militias to use drones, and even attack US bases in northeastern Syria.

The researcher views the options of the Syrian regime as “aspirations to gradually reduce the Iranian influence,” and it is evident that the regime in Damascus aims to reduce this influence politically, militarily, and then on the most complicated level, security.

Here we talk about aspirations, not capabilities, as per the researcher. He referred to the regime’s previous attempts to prevent Iran from infiltrating the Syrian southern region since 2018, a commitment alongside Russia to prevent this infiltration. However, today’s reality proves that the regime is entirely incapable.

Arab pressures

It is impossible to overlook that the Arab demands of the Syrian regime have been reflected on the ground, based on reports from security, military, political, and even party institutions of the Syrian regime. These developments were met with a gradual Arab convergence, embodied by al-Assad’s attendance at the Arab summit in May 2023 and the appointment of ambassadors from the UAE and Saudi Arabia to Damascus.

While the Iranian affairs expert Mustafa al-Nuaimi believes the regime is incapable of meeting Arab requirements, the strategic expert from Jordan and a non-resident researcher at the Stimson Center in Washington, Amer al-Sabaileh, sees these demands as having future repercussions, and not necessarily an immediate impact.

The Jordanian researcher considered that the changes on the side of the regime, as well as the corresponding movements by the Arabs, could be viewed as “steps” linked to two significant regional files. The first being “pressure on Iran and its militias,” hence placing all these files on the discussion table, and the second being pressure on Damascus to achieve the first goal.

He also added that the American stance on the Syrian regime prompts al-Assad to make an effort towards meeting the Arab demands, in showing a “real initiative of good faith and tangible steps on the ground that would strengthen his position in front of America’s allies, specifically the Gulf Arab states and Jordan.”

Based on the pressures exercised on the regime from multiple directions, al-Sabaileh believes that they might be productive, at least at this stage.

No positive official stance declared

In May 2023, the Arab League published the resolutions of the 32nd Summit held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, which, for the first time since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, was attended by the Syrian regime’s president, Bashar al-Assad.

The resolutions, extending over 109 pages, contained specific paragraphs on the Syrian file, including a “step-by-step” approach to reach a solution to the Syrian crisis, in line with Security Council Resolution “2254.”

The “step-by-step” approach revolves around a positive step from the regional countries towards the Syrian regime, followed by another positive step by the regime in the form of internal reforms, with the ultimate goal of reaching a comprehensive solution to what is happening in Syria.

The roots of the initiative proposed by the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, go back to 2022, but the regime did not express a positive official stance towards it.

The foreign minister of the regime, Faisal Mekdad, commented on the “step-by-step” in May 2023, during an interview with the Russia Today channel, saying: “We did not talk about step-by-step but rather discussed taking steps towards solutions for the situations that Syria has gone through as a result of its response to the terrorist attacks it faced, supported by some European countries and terrorist governments that still insist on boycotting the Syrian people until this moment.”

Mekdad considered that “since the adoption of the international resolution (2254), which friends contributed to creating, we said that we will implement what concerns Syria from it, and on this basis, we strive towards a political solution that necessitates the eradication of terrorism and the revitalization of economic conditions and the removal of the unethical and unjustified sanctions imposed by Western countries.”


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