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Iran is eager to build on its long-standing alliance with Syria, but Tehran’s success in expanding its influence in the Arab country threatens one of its main goals: staying out of its wars. ghosts in the Middle East.

As Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said earlier this month during a trip to Damascus to mark the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Tehran considers Syria to be on the front line of its “axis of resistance”, its loose network of proxies and Tehran. -militant groups supported against Israel and the United States.

After meeting with senior Syrian officials and President Bashar al-Assad on February 11, Amir-Abdollahian stressed the important role Damascus plays in fighting its enemies and establishing “stability and security” in a increasingly unstable region.

But while Iran’s top diplomat has cited the ongoing war in the Gaza Strip as a position of strength for the axis and a stimulus for increased cooperation with Damascus, observers and media reports suggest direct blowback against Iranian interests and personnel in Syria prompts Tehran to rethink. his approach.

Generational relationship

Iran has invested heavily in its relations with Syria for decades, part of the Shiite Islamic republic’s efforts to export its revolution across the Arab and Muslim world.

“The Iranians made big inroads with Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current Syrian leader, when they issued a religious ruling that Alawites – the religion of the ruling family – were considered an Orthodox sect or acceptable. of Shiism”, according to Thanassis Cambanis, director of the American think tank Century Foundation.

The move marks the first of many steps in “a really deep, generational state-to-state relationship between Iran and Syria,” Cambanis said.

Ties were further strengthened at the start of Bashar al-Assad’s rule, after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

“Assad was a relatively young leader, he feared a U.S. invasion, and he found that a growing, coordinated partnership with Iran kept him safer in his own domestic power base, and also kept him safer in the face of the threat from Iran. some sort of American regime change project, or orchestrated by the United States,” Cambanis said.

This gamble appears to have paid off for both Iran and the Syrian government.

Assad remains firmly in power despite the ongoing Syrian civil war, in which Iran intervened militarily in 2013, largely to prevent Assad’s ouster by the U.S.-backed opposition.

Tehran, meanwhile, has managed to significantly strengthen its influence in Syria without maintaining a significant military presence by deploying hundreds of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officers to recruit and train tens of thousands of Shiite fighters local and foreign.

“The actual number of IRGC forces is very limited,” said Hamidreza Azizi, a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, adding that the bulk of the fighting in Syria is being carried out by the Afghans of the Fatemiyun Brigade. and Pakistanis in the Zainabiyn Brigade, as well as by Iraqi militias.

Iran has also established a land corridor connecting it to the Levant, which Azizi described as “the logistical backbone of the resistance axis.”

Besides Iran, Syria is the only other state actor in the axis.

The corridor “is used by Iran to send weapons and equipment to (Lebanese) Hezbollah,” Azizi said, referring to the militant group created by the IRGC that has been raining missiles on Israel since the start of the war in Gaza.

It is also used “to facilitate the deployment of troops on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border,” which Azizi said has essentially become an arena of operations for pro-Iranian militias.

Success in Syria

Starting in 2018, victories in the Syrian civil war allowed Iran to reduce its presence in the IRGC, Azizi said, with foreign mercenaries and local fighters it trained increasingly integrated into the forces. Syrian armed forces. Unlike the start of the war that broke out in 2011, Azizi added, most of the recruitment and training of forces in Syria was handed over by the IRGC to Hezbollah.

Successes in Syria also allowed Tehran to strengthen its defenses against the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iranian soil.

“Once Iran achieved its strategic objectives of ensuring the survival of the Assad regime and the land corridor, the IRGC set the new goal of establishing a new dormant front against Israel along the Israeli-Israeli border. Syrian,” said Ali Alfoneh, senior fellow at the Arab Institute for the Gulf States in Washington. “The aim of this dormant front is to complicate Israeli calculations in case the Jewish state decides to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities.”

Meanwhile, Iran has pressured Israel and the United States while maintaining its key goal of avoiding direct war, with the proxy fighters it has trained and equipped absorbing most of the retaliation in Syria.

“As neither Syria nor Iran is interested in direct war against Israel, the three states, through their actions, have negotiated the rules of the game: the IRGC’s useless allies, such as the Afghans, dig deep trenches and tunnels along the Israeli border, “Israel bombs positions; Iran does not retaliate against Israel; and the Assad regime remains a spectator,” Alfoneh said in written comments.

“All three players still largely respect these rules, which remain in place despite the war in Gaza, and the United States neither wants nor wants to interfere in this game,” Azizi wrote.

Broken rules

This is not to say that these unwritten rules are not being broken following the outbreak of the war in Gaza triggered by the deadly October 7 attack on Israel carried out by the Palestinian extremist group Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by the United States. and the European Union. Union.

Israel’s large-scale retaliation in Gaza has fueled attacks by the resistance axis in solidarity with its partner Hamas and in the name of the Palestinian cause.

Hezbollah has led the fight against Israel, while Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have launched attacks on Israel and U.S. naval forces in the Red Sea. And Iranian-backed forces have attacked U.S. forces in the Middle East, including a drone attack launched by an Iraqi militia that killed three U.S. troops in Jordan in January.

In Syria, U.S. forces stationed there to counter the Islamic State extremist group have been regularly attacked since the start of the Gaza war, including a Feb. 5 drone attack that killed U.S.-allied Kurdish troops against the largest American base in Syria, located in Syria. the eastern province of Deir al-Zur.

Houthi fighters brandish their weapons during a demonstration following US and British strikes, in Sanaa, the Houthi-controlled Yemeni capital, on January 12.

Houthi fighters brandish their weapons during a demonstration following US and British strikes, in Sanaa, the Houthi-controlled Yemeni capital, on January 12.

Amid growing tensions, Tehran has been unable to avoid direct retaliation for its open support of its proxies and partners, and Iranian sites and personnel in Syria have been hit hard.

Since December, more than a dozen IRGC commanders and officers sent officially to Syria as advisers have been killed in strikes in and around Damascus blamed on Israel, including General Sayyed Razi Musavi, a senior adviser to the IRGC and one of the most influential Iranian military figures. in Syria.

And the United States, in retaliation for the attack on its base in Jordan, directly attacked IRGC sites and Iranian-backed militias on either side of the Syrian-Iraqi border in early February.

The United States and Iran have said they are not seeking war. And in Syria, Cambanis said, there are “certain rules of the road that are essentially designed to create useful fictions so that the United States and Iran don’t end up in direct conflict.”

But since Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7, Cambanis said, “there are so many forces attacking each other on Syrian territory that it is very easy to make a mistake or a miscalculation.” which no one wanted.

Recalculation time?

Following the killings of Musavi and other senior IRGC officials, a exclusive report by Reuters earlier this month, citing multiple sources saying Iran had reduced its deployment of senior officers and would rely more on allied Shiite militias to maintain Iranian influence in Syria.

Azizi said that previously, if Iranians were killed as a result of Israeli strikes in Syria, it was essentially considered collateral damage.

Relatives of Musavi mourn his flag-draped coffin inside the Supreme Leader's office in Tehran, December 28, 2023.

Relatives of Musavi mourn his flag-draped coffin inside the Supreme Leader’s office in Tehran, December 28, 2023.

“But now they are the targets,” Azizi said. “And this is what concerns Iran, especially since the assassination of Mousavi.”

But while the deaths indicate a shift in Israel’s strategy that “requires at least that the Iranian side change tactics,” Azizi suggested the redeployment was more about trying to determine possible leaks that could have allowed Israel to withdraw its officers and rethink how Iran would use its personnel in the future.

Cambanis expressed skepticism that Iran would ever withdraw its advisers in Syria and hand over responsibilities to the militias they trained.

“They have Arabic-speaking officers who have spent decades moving between different positions in Syria and other Arab countries. They have local knowledge and long-term relationships with local commanders,” Cambanis said. “They will continue this model.”

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