Tehran is trying to take advantage of the Ukraine crisis and strengthen its own position in the Syrian arena.
Soon after Russia attacked Ukraine in late February, Iran and the Syrian regime increased their strategic engagement by increasing military diplomacy.
Bashar al Assad's point man Ali Mamlouk, who also heads the National Security Directorate, paid a rare visit to Tehran on February 27 and held talks with President Ebrahim Raisi and the head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani.
The two sides reportedly discussed the possible impact of the events in Ukraine on the region and the need for greater coordination.
The same issue was discussed on March 2 when Faleh al-Fayyad, the leader of the Iraqi-based military organisation Hashd al Shaabi, visited Damascus. Hashd al Shaabi is considered to be primarily an instrument of Iranian influence.
According to Türkiye-based think-tank Jusoor, the Syrian regime discussed the situation in northern Syria and the need to weaken the position of the People’s Protection Forces terror group (YPG), which is backed by the US. Another issue brought to the table was the functioning of a checkpoint between Syria and Iraq.
Experts at Jusoor believe that Tehran would like to increase the concentration of Shiite fighters in the areas occupied by the YPG. The move is likely to be aimed at making the US presence in the region vulnerable to Iranian attacks.
On the other hand, the Pentagon seems to be preparing a plan to overcome such a scenario after the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) hit areas close to the US bases in Erbil with missiles.
Several Arabic language news outlets have reported that Washington has increased its presence in northern Syria.
But Iran's whetted appetite is not limited to the military sphere. It is no coincidence that during the talks with Mamlouk, officials of the Islamic Republic called for the speedy implementation of bilateral economic Memorandums of Understanding in the energy, agricultural, and transport sectors.
Analysts speculate that Tehran, which is hoping for the end of international sanctions, might be trying to "reserve" a place in projects in the Syrian arena.
Throughout the past month, researchers have witnessed how Tehran has expanded its efforts to move weapons, reconnaissance systems, missile defence systems, and drones from Iraqi territory into Syria and Lebanon. It is hypothesised that an indirect cause for this is the weakening of Russian-Israeli coordination. Otherwise, how else could one explain the fact that the Shiite formations, which the Syrian regime relies on, have become more active in the southern provinces of the republic—Daraa and As-Suwayda. The evidence of that is the situation with drug trafficking into Jordan.
The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan forces reported that since the beginning of the year, they had managed to seize several thousand packages of hashish and more than 16 million tablets of captagon, an amphetamine, coming from Syria. Colonel Zaid al Dabbas noted that this beats all the figures in 2021 and 2020. According to official figures, Jordanian security forces managed to suppress 30 Syrian smugglers in the first months of this year.
At the same time, pro-Iranian fighters are working on relocating to different parts of Syria. As the Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat notes, a tendency to move from old outposts was seen in Northern Syria, Deir ez-Zor, and Raqqa.
"Unusual movements" were recorded in Palmyra and at some locations in the countryside of Homs. Similar actions were taken on the outskirts of Damascus and near the border with Lebanon.
A new era
As early as November, representatives of the Israeli intelligence community said that Iran was trying to revise routes for supplying advanced weapons to Lebanon and also to use those transit routes adjacent to Russian military facilities to deter Israeli bombing. Israel Defense Force (IDF) strikes near Khmeimim Air Base have shown that this tactic has not been effective.
In January, the Washington Post noted that Tehran still considers it a priority to consolidate its influence in north-eastern Syria, where it has intensified a multilateral campaign to win local support. The paper quoted Ammar al-Hamad, a Syrian analyst who specialises in tribal issues, saying, "the Iranians want to form a loyal popular base, in case they ever have to leave."
The fact that US military installations in Syria have been targeted by pro-Iranian militias in recent months only confirms the thesis that there has been a shift in Tehran's tactics. The bold attack on the al-Tanf base last October has been interpreted by American scholars as an unambiguous attempt by the Ebrahim Raisi administration to send the message that its rise to power means a new era in security.
A promise to Iranians
It is possible that the strengthening of pro-Iranian forces may be partly to Russia's advantage. This is especially true for the southern provinces of Syria. According to military analyst Asaad al-Zoubi, Moscow is using the presence of irregular formations near the Golan Heights to put pressure on Israel in connection with its attempt to maintain neutrality amid the Ukrainian crisis. Thus, he said, on March 12, Russia permitted the use of Iranian military equipment in patrolling the Golan from the Syrian side.
Al-Zoubi claims that Russian officials met with their Iranian counterparts at the beginning of the military campaign in Ukraine and promised them that air defence systems would protect all paramilitary elements in Syria. This partly explains why the IDF has been reluctant to use aircraft in its cross-border attacks over the past month. The Jusoor think-tank estimates that the Israeli side has switched to using ground systems.
Researchers believe that Russia's continued expansion in Ukraine could lead to a gradual decrease in the Kremlin's interest in the Syrian arena. Iran is unlikely to miss this opportunity to strengthen and expand its influence in various spheres, according to Jusur. And the expected reinstatement of the nuclear deal and withdrawal from international sanctions can only fuel the appetite of Tehran, now seemingly finally convinced that the label of the "bad guy" on the world stage has been removed.