By Riad Kahwaji*
Recent developments in the Middle East revealed that Iran was determined to establish itself in Syria and have shown a more prominent regional role to Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah raising questions of whether he has become the de facto shadow commander of the Al Qods Force, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) power projection arm.
Ever since the killing of Al Qods Force commander General Qassem Soleimani in a US drone strike in Iraq in early January 2020 and experts and observers have been wondering who will take over the organization responsible for IRGC external operations that include the overseeing and the management of Iran’s proxy groups in the region, particularly in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Even though Iran appointed a successor to Soleimani, General Esmail Qaani, however many observers have questioned his ability to carry out the task due to his lack of field experience and poor knowledge of Arabic language.
Events over the past three months have revealed that Nasrallah was playing much bigger role outside Lebanon. It is not surprising to see Nasrallah gain more prominence after Soleimani’s death taking into consideration that the two were together ever since the inception of Al Qods Force operations in the early 1980s. Both played a leading role in growing Iran’s influence regionally and globally. Actually it was a trio comprising Soleimani, Nasrallah and Imad Mughniyeh that spearheaded Iran’s clandestine operations that enabled it with time to have a projection capability via proxy groups that answer today to Al Qods Force. Mughniyeh was assassinated by the Israeli Mossad in Damascus in 2008.
Nasrallah appears today to be carrying on from where Soleimani had left. Many Iraqi observers gave Nasrallah a big credit in securing the support of the Iranian-backed Shiite parties to the appointment of Mustafa Al-Kadhimi as the new Prime Minister. Iraq went into political turmoil after former Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi resigned last November. Security sources said that several leaders of the Iraqi Shiite parties went to Beirut few times in the weeks leading to Kadhimi appointment to meet with Nasrallah. Two candidates nominated by the Iraqi President for the job were rejected by the political parties. Several of the powerful Iranian-backed Shiite parties that are in rivalry with each other could not agree on a successor due to the absence of Soleimani who used to intervene directly or indirectly through his top guy in Iraq Mahdi Al Muhandis to bring about consensus. Al Muhandis was killed with Soleimani in the drone strike.
In a televised speech on May 13, Nasrallah reasserted Hezbollah and Iran’s commitment to defending and assisting the Syrian regime. He downplayed press reports about an Iranian-Russian rift over Syria’s future and reaffirmed the policy of supporting the Syrian regime to remain an integral part in the so-called “axis of resistance” that includes all countries and proxy groups allied with Iran. He said all Iranian-affiliated groups in Syria will continue to deploy in the country and operate as usual. Nasrallah’s statement came in light of increased attacks by Israeli warplanes against targets linked to Hezbollah and IRGC in Syria. Outgoing Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennet had said his country was determined to end Iranian presence in Syria and spoke on May 18 about IRGC evacuating some basis there but did not give evidence.
Despite all reports about redeployment of IRGC-backed groups away from borders with Israel and possible reduction of Iranian forces in Syria, however facts on the ground indicate otherwise. Iran does not seem to be deterred by the Israeli strikes. It appears to be determined to establish itself militarily in Syria. Actually just reviewing Israeli air strikes against IRGC-related targets in Syria in the past few weeks show how wide spread they are. On May 4 Israel struck multiple targets in northern and eastern parts of Syria. A week earlier Israeli jetfighters struck targets south of Damascus. Many of the targets hit by Israeli warplanes in Syria are the same, which means the IRGC continues to resupply its bases and make up for lost assets. Best example on this is the Imam Ali base near Al Bukamal in eastern Syria that was hit multiple times since March. Iranians were not only sending advanced hardware, but also reportedly building factories to produce missiles of various calibers locally. Recent satellite imagery has also shown underground facilities in IRGC-linked bases in Syria that could be used for storing weapons or as missile factories.
Nasrallah has downplayed the impact of the Israeli attacks in Syria describing the situation as an “imaginary Israeli battle to expel Iran from Syria.” He asserted that Iran only has military advisors and not troops based in Syria, which is largely correct since what IRGC has left in Syria now are mostly foreign Shiite militias numbering about 70,000 fighters. Nasrallah said the IRGC did send troops to help in the battle to liberate Aleppo in 2016, but all had gone back since. The IRGC has lost hundreds of fighters and officers and invested billions of dollars in recruiting Shiite militias to fight in Syria and to bankroll the Syrian regime, and therefore will not likely pick up and leave as a result of political or economic pressure or even occasional strikes by the Israeli jets.
The IRGC will likely continue to avoid confrontation with Israel and concentrate for now on building its capabilities and resources in Syria until it is in a good enough position to enforce a new equation with Israel in Syria. The IRGC seems to be focusing on securing the highway linking Iraq at Al Bukamal town in eastern Syria with Damascus and Lebanon. This will ensure a safe corridor for supply routes from Iran all the way to Latakia (on the Syrian coast) or Beirut on the Mediterranean. So Nasrallah appears to be making sure that all the gains made by the IRGC under Soleimani in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon will not be lost. Therefore, Iran’s proxies are too strong and wide spread to be removed via air strikes. Uprooting Iran and its proxies will require a full land offensive.
The next logical step for the Iranian-axis is to turn their military gains into political and economic benefits. Iran has already signed few important economic and trade agreements with the Syrian regime in the areas of transportation, telecommunication and energy. Iran won the rights to excavate for oil in eastern Syria. Nasrallah’s recent statements also alluded to the economic issues. He reiterated what Hezbollah-linked media outlets have been talking about for a while now about the need for Lebanon and other regional countries to turn away from the West towards the East, and particularly China. Nasrallah has been pressing the Lebanese government, which Hezbollah is part of, to change course and pivot to China.
Moreover, Hezbollah and its allies are calling for the creation of a common market grouping Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran to allow for the free movement of goods and products to help ease the tough economic conditions many of these countries are facing without having to resort to aid from oil-rich Arab Gulf States or the West. Such a move would make a lot of sense to Iran and help it assert itself and reap the gains from years of diligent work to establish itself in The Levant. Moreover, forming a common market will enable Hezbollah and Iran to avoid the tough sanctions imposed on them by the United States, and would also allow them to strengthen socio-economic controls on a vast geographic space.
Iran and ever since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, has managed to survive and become stronger through its ability to benefit from global power politics between East and West and through its ability to fill any power vacuum within its reach. Its success in quickly filling the vacuum left by the pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq through establishing Shiite militia is best example. Russia, the main power broker in Syria, still needs its allies, the Iranian proxy groups in combating Islamists and Syrian opposition fighters in northern Syria. Moscow appears to be working hard to balance its relationship with the multiple foreign actors on the Syrian theater that include Iran, Turkey and the U.S. No clear plan appears to be in sight. The United States, like other global powers, is very much busy battling COVID-19 pandemic and dealing with its economic repercussions. The Donald Trump Administration does not seem to have any appetite for any military adventures in the Middle East, at least not in an elections year. Its growing rivalry with China will only bring Beijing closer to Tehran.
Hence, Iran and once again has the time and the space to build its capabilities, this time in Syria. Israel does not appear to have a choice but to object and launch air raids trying to delay the inevitable: Iranian proxies will become a force to reckon with in Syria as they are in Lebanon (through Hezbollah). Iran’s quest to establish the so-called Shiite crescent extending from its western borders across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, appears closer than ever to be achieved. Israel and the West will soon find themselves dealing with a new reality in The Levant, unless new developments rearrange facts in the ever unstable and volatile Middle East region.
*Riad Kahwaji, is the founder and director of INEGMA with a 30 years of experience as a journalist and a Middle East security analyst.