Russia’s Withdrawal and Iran’s Expansion in Syria

By: - June 27, 2022

“A Regional Entanglement that Could Drag the Middle East into a Protracted War”

        With the continued Russian involvement in Ukraine and the depletion of enormous financial and human resources, Moscow has resorted to withdrawing significant parts of its forces and affiliated militias from Syria. The Russian reaction came in response to the increasing need for additional military power on the battlefield raging on its borders, which has become Moscow’s top priority and a critical factor in determining Russia’s position among other countries, especially after this military campaign which was greatly affected by the confrontation of the Western camp in general and the American position in particular, which continues to contribute to a massive influx of support, financially, militarily and logistically, that upset the balance of Russian power, inflicting huge economic and heavy military losses on Moscow.

Iran’s Golden Opportunity

The intensity of the Ukrainian resistance that the Russian military faced during the past few weeks was a major turning point that prompted Moscow to change the map of its military distribution, resulting in the gradual withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria. Thousands of Russian military personnel serving in infantry units, air force, and engineering detachments were withdrawn from Syria to compensate for the heavy losses incurred by Moscow in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and to maintain current momentum on the battlefield where military operations, according to intelligence reports, have utilized approximately seventy percent of Russia’s combat human resources. Additionally, the Russian presence was a deterrent to Iranian expansion in Syria. Moscow is no longer interested in playing this role in light of the military operations in Ukraine.

Also, the stalemate in Vienna’s negotiations between Washington and Tehran over Iran’s nuclear program relieved Washington’s concerns that Israeli military strikes on targets inside and outside Iran may negatively affect the course of the negotiations. Additionally, the United States has repeatedly expressed its fears that the Israeli attacks on Iranian targets, whether inside or outside Iran, would lead to dragging the region into a long-term military conflict and into a security and political chaos in a region that is fundamentally unstable.

However, the negotiations have reached an almost dead-end. Both parties (U.S. – Iran) have concluded that the negotiations cannot be continued under the current context and circumstances, despite the efforts of the Biden administration and the U.S. State Department, which appears to be very enthusiastic about pulling Iran into the international arena again, lifting the economic sanctions on Tehran’s regime, its military institutions, and proxies that operate from the Middle East and North Africa to Central and South America.

Consequently, Tel Aviv’s operations in Syria have escalated and turned from semi-covert operations to openly overt operations. The Israeli Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, described the philosophy of these operations, which focus on targets in both Iran and Syria, as a centralized strike, or in other words, being based on the octopus doctrine, which means targeting the head instead of cutting the arms.

The Israeli strikes were central and focused, as Tel Aviv targeted Damascus International Airport on June 10, placing the airport temporarily out of service. Also, intelligence efforts recently intercepted Iranian activities carried out by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and in coordination with its proxies in the region (such as Hezbollah) to smuggle weapons and equipment related to the ballistic missile program, which would threaten the security and stability of the region.

In response, Tehran is trying to mitigate the reaction to these attacks, as they are taking place outside its borders. Therefore they do not represent a violation of its sovereignty. Tehran’s regime seems to prefer to bear these painful blows to evade unnecessary confrontation, at least for the time being. Instead, Tehran resorts to cyber-attacks or striking Israeli targets in other countries, as the two sides seek not to raise the ceiling of attacks above certain limits and thus reduce the cost of confrontation.

Moscow, on the other hand, chose to exploit the tension between Tel Aviv and Tehran to prevent Tel Aviv from joining the Western camp, which stands firmly against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, by deploying the Russian air defense systems in Syria against Israeli jets during the Israeli operation last May. A precedent that Israel has never expected.

Turkey: Ankara seeks to exploit the Russian preoccupation with Ukraine and launch a military operation to expand its control areas in northern Syria. Tehran stood by and sought to establish contacts between the Assad regime and the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to coordinate rapid action against the Turks, especially in light of the increasing enthusiasm of the opposition factions in the areas of Turkish influence in the north to regain the territories seized by the Assad forces and the Iranian militias. In response, the Iranian militias recently sent military reinforcements to western Aleppo and deployed them in locations overlooking the opposition territories in northwestern Syria, where Turkish military bases are located.

As for Jordan, Syria’s southern neighbor, the Kingdom is expected to face an escalation on its northern borders with Iran and its proxies trying to fill the vacuum left by the Russian forces. For Jordan, Moscow’s presence in southern Syria was a calming element. Over the past months, until recently, Jordan has suffered from continued attempts to storm its borders by groups of drugs and weapons smugglers linked to the Syrian regime and members of Iranian militias based in Syria. Violent confrontations took place between the Jordanian security forces and the groups. These attacks’ intensity will likely increase in the next few weeks.

It is also highly likely to witness a noticeable shift in the operational procedures and pattern followed by these violent militias with attempts to strike targets inside Jordan (in the form of individual operations) aiming to destabilize the security and stability of the Kingdom, which is considered a safety valve in the region and a pivotal sponsor of peace in the Middle East.

The Iranian Expansion

Until recently, the Russian military presence in Syria represented a control mechanism over the Iranian military activities. Moscow has constantly been exerting field pressure on the Iranian forces to obtain a territorial advantage and expand their military bases, camps, and forward positions under the pretext of providing political and strategic cover. Moscow has also exploited the Israeli air strikes on Iranian targets in order to impose a broader scope of field control; on the grounds that the Russian presence in any location makes it far from being targeted. The Russian forces extended their territorial control right after the Israeli targeted Iranian weapons containers in the port of Latakia, the principal port city in Syria, in December 2021. The Russian forces have also pressured the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC-QF) to hand over the (T4) military airport after being repeatedly attacked by the Israeli Air Force.

However, Moscow has voluntarily handed over many sensitive sites to the Iranians and Shiite militias, including airbases, military facilities, and logistics bases such as Kwairis Airport – Military Aviation Institute in eastern Aleppo, the military base in Al-Bukamal, Hama Military Airport, Al-Nayrab Airport in Aleppo, Mahin Military Depots, and many others. Moscow also evacuated many of its forces at the Hmeimim Air Base, southeast of Latakia, in addition to several sites that have been handed over to the 25th Division of the Syrian Forces, such as Abu Dahour Airport on the eastern side of Idlib, Al-Mazzeh Airport in Damascus, and many military points in rural Damascus and southern Aleppo.

Consequently, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) started a comprehensive displacement campaign and demographic change (based on Shiite sectarianism) in the dominantly Sunni territories of Deir ez-Zor region, adjacent to the Iraqi side of the borders.

The Iranian presence in Syria has already expanded to fill the vacuum left by the Russian forces. As a result, militarily and logistically sensitive centers have come under comprehensive Iranian control, including significant posts that have always been considered critically sensitive due to their proximity to the Israeli territory, which Tehran can exploit to launch initial strikes targeting Israeli security internally as a tactic to perpetuate the state of instability while infiltrating and expanding further to achieve strategic and intelligence objectives beyond the expectations.

In light of these events, the United States will remain relatively isolated, especially in light of the growing Iranian presence, which had previously expanded in Iraq to find a new foothold in Syria after it managed to change both equations in Lebanon and more recently in Yemen.