Since the 2011 Civil War in Syria began, the Iranians have seen a huge window of opportunity to not only increase their influence throughout the region, but to get their troops and, more importantly, their missiles on the border of their most hated enemy — Israel.
The combination of Iranian and Russian intervention has no doubt saved the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The Islamic republic has also thrown Hezbollah into the fray. Hezbollah is based in Lebanon but it is an Iranian proxy taking its orders from Tehran. It is trying to not only prop up the Damascus regime, but to counter the American-led coalition’s presence in both Syria and Iraq.
Yet the situation is changing and a combination of the Coronavirus, a collapsing economy, and punishing airstrikes from Israel have the Iranians rethinking the cost of their ambitious plans. There have been indications for the past few months that the Iranians are going from the offensive to the defensive. And the huge cost of personnel lost, which is no doubt woefully underrepresented, is taking a toll on their resolve.
It no longer is Iran that is on the move, but Israel. The Israeli government has long made it clear that it will not accept Iranian bases and large amounts of Iranian troops and proxies on its borders. Israel has conducted hundreds of airstrikes since the civil war began but has significantly increased its operational tempo recently.
Israel has pounded arms warehouses and troop concentrations continuously in recent months. Its intelligence service, Mossad, has been instrumental in finding out when the Iranians are sending shipments of missiles to Syria. And just a few days ago, an airstrike, reportedly attributed to Israel, blasted the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center in Aleppo. The Center is believed to be involved in an Iranian-backed precision missile project and also be a chemical weapons laboratory.
Back in February, there was a perceivable shift as the Israelis pressed home their offensive against Iran. Defense Minister Naftali Bennett said then that the Jewish state had an opportunity to go from the defensive to the offensive.
“I can tell you that we have identified initial signs indicating that Iran is re-evaluating its plans in Syria,” Bennett told visitors at a conference in Tel Aviv.
“[Iran is] sending forces to try to establish [presence] there and wear us down, but we can turn the disadvantage to an advantage. We have superior intelligence and operational capabilities, and we are telling Iran loud and clear: Get out of Syria! You have nothing to look for here.”
These deadly airstrikes have had the desired effect. The smuggling of weapons into Syria from Tehran has slowed almost to a trickle according to Israeli intelligence sources. One unnamed Israeli security source told Al-Monitor, “there is also a significant decline in the military presence of Iranian forces and allied Shiite militias.”
Also, the loss of Major General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), back in January has been a very significant blow to Iran.
Iranian militias, ostensibly in Iraq to fight ISIS, had for months been firing missiles and mortars at U.S. bases with impunity. On December 27, 2019, a missile attack on a U.S. base in Iraq, carried out by an Iranian proxy militia, killed a U.S. contractor.
The Americans responded with devastating airstrikes against those Iranian proxy militias. They killed four Ketaib Hezbollah commanders on the 29th of December. On the 31st, Soleimani pushed all his chips in with an audacious attack, by Iranian-proxies, on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. He overplayed his hand.
On January 3, as he landed in Baghdad accompanied by the Deputy Commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), his car was hit with a drone strike killing both. His loss, which has been downplayed in the Western press has been keenly felt in the Iranian military. Soleimani was irreplaceable for the Iranian efforts in the region.
His responsibilities have not been assumed by one general as Iran is trying to portray it. Rather, his duties have been spread to four different officials. According to a recent piece in the Al-Monitor, those four are:
“Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah himself, whose involvement on the Dahieh-Tehran axis (the partnership between Hezbollah’s headquarters in Beirut’s Dahieh neighborhood and Iran) has been upgraded significantly. The others, three top Iranian officials, are Brig. Gen. Mohammad Hejazi, the new Quds Force deputy commander who has been tasked with liaison with Hezbollah and with the precision missile project; Ali Shamkhani, head of Iran’s national security council; and Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the IRGC’s air force.”
Iran’s recent actions, despite its usual bellicose public announcements, show that it is rethinking its options. The coronavirus pandemic and crippling U.S. sanctions have nearly pushed Iran to the brink. The collapse of the oil market marks an even dimmer outlook for the Iranian government. Many intelligence analysts believe that Iranians are trying to hold out until November, when, they hope, a potential defeat of Trump will mean an easing of sanctions by the U.S.
But the Israelis are the wildcard in this situation. Their air attacks not only have been devastating to the Iranian troops and militias but also to the Syrian air defenses taxed with protecting Assad’s airspace. Assad is reportedly growing weary of the Iranians putting a further drain on his forces when he’s still in the midst of a civil war. The Russians and Putin have no love for Tehran, which they see as trying to usurp its considerable influence in Syria. If Israel keeps up the pressure, something is bound to break.
As the Iranian government mulls whether or not to up the ante once more, it is, for now, pulling in its chips. It has faced growing criticism at home, including widespread protests back in November. The Iranian power play in Syrian has proved much more expensive than they envisaged.
Now the hardliners in Tehran will have to decide how much they are willing to pay for their risky Syrian move.